The best theatre of 2021, from Cabaret to little scratch

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Our pick of the best shows of 2021, featuring Hamlet, Anything Goes and Get Up Stand Up  ( )
Our pick of the best shows of 2021, featuring Hamlet, Anything Goes and Get Up Stand Up ( )

After a desperately difficult period of closure, theatre came back to the capital with a bang. From all-singing, all-dancing musicals to clever adaptations, we chose our top shows of 2021...

Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club, Playhouse

Cabaret... just wow (Marc Brenner)
Cabaret... just wow (Marc Brenner)

Wow. Rebecca Frecknall’s astonishing revival of Kander and Ebb’s musical portrait of interwar Berlin is a breathlessly exciting theatrical happening. The Playhouse theatre is transformed by designer Tom Scutt into a fever dream of a Weimar-era nightclub, where Jessie Buckley sings her heart out as doomed Sally Bowles, and Eddie Redmayne is a tortured, twisted Emcee. The gender-fluid dance troupe and female-led orchestra are impeccable and the show somehow feels true to its 1929 setting and its 1968 conception as well as thrillingly modern. Keeping a fine balance of spectacle and grit, decadence and despair, Frecknall proves herself one of our finest directors. Just wow. Nick Curtis

Best of Enemies, Young Vic

David Harewood and Charles Edwards in Best of Enemies (Handout)
David Harewood and Charles Edwards in Best of Enemies (Handout)

Here, the peerless James Graham traces the origin of our current culture wars back to the live TV debates between patrician, liberal Gore Vidal and arch-Conservative William F Buckley Jr during the 1968 Republican and Democratic conferences. In Jeremy Herrin’s dynamic, wildly ambitious production, the charismatic black actor David Harewood plays the very white Buckley as if wrestling with a python, while Charles Edwards is all silky complacency as Vidal. The show explores notions of empathy, artifice and identity with the fluency we expect of Graham. If the parallels between then and now sometimes seem on-the-nose, it’s probably contemporary reality that’s at fault. NC

Anything Goes, Barbican

Sutton Foster shone in Anything Goes (PA)
Sutton Foster shone in Anything Goes (PA)

As buoyant as helium, this stylish Cole Porter musical set on a 1930s ocean liner was the first large-scale London production to open without social distancing – and brought 1,100-odd people cheering to their feet on opening night. Despite rock-solid turns from Robert Lindsay, Felicity Kendal, Gary Wilmot and a trio of young leads, the show was comprehensively stolen by Sutton Foster as the morally flexible nightclub singer Reno Sweeney. Having won a Tony in the role ten years ago, Foster stepped up in London to replace an injured Megan Mullally and treated us to a powerhouse display of showtune-belting, tap-dancing Broadway oomph. Delightful. NC

2.22 A Ghost Story, Noel Coward (now at the Gielgud with a new cast)

Lily Allen’s stage debut was a triumph (Helen Murray)
Lily Allen’s stage debut was a triumph (Helen Murray)

Would she be terrible? Casting Lily Allen in her stage debut created media buzz and audience interest in this spine-chiller, not to mention the prospect of a glorious disaster. In the end the Smile singer revealed herself to be a skittish, magnetic, theatrical presence, and Danny Robins’s script proved equally surprising. Set in a thoroughly modern London of mobile phones, Amazon Echos and incessant gentrification, it breathed new life into the near-dead genre of the theatrical ghost story. Sharp gags and genuine scares studded a play with astute points to make about society and belief. The final twist was superlatively well done. NC

Constellations, Vaudeville

Sheila Atim was a star in Constellations (Marc Brenner)
Sheila Atim was a star in Constellations (Marc Brenner)

Clever chap, Michael Longhurst. With the Donmar closed for refurbishment and London audiences potentially nervous about long plays and loo queues, he mounted a West End run of Nick Payne’s 70-minute drama about multiple futures with four different star casts appealing to different demographics. Various permutations (young/old, straight/gay, black/white, funny/serious) brought out different nuances in the script. Comparing performances would be odious: I’ll just say that Sheila Atim proved herself once again an utter star. Where you can see other actors acting, she just always, brilliantly ‘is’. NC

The Tragedy of Macbeth, Almeida

James McArdle and Saoirse Ronan as the Macbeths (Marc Brenner)
James McArdle and Saoirse Ronan as the Macbeths (Marc Brenner)

Only Yaël Farber, whose productions brim with Sturm and Drang, could make Shakespeare’s briskest play run three-plus hours. Still the minutes flew by, thanks to a cogent, urgent sense of fate and to Saoirse Ronan’s luminous performance as Lady Macbeth. In her London debut and her second ever stage role, the four-times Oscar nominee stood out as a woman with strong, subtle agency in a gruff, masculine world. Deft script edits made this a tragedy that happened to a couple, not just to James McArdle’s muscular Macbeth. Lighting and stage design were perfectly tuned to Farber’s vision. NC

Get Up, Stand Up, Lyric Shaftesbury Avenue

Utterly dazzling: Arinzé Kene as Bob Marley (Craig Sugden)
Utterly dazzling: Arinzé Kene as Bob Marley (Craig Sugden)

Rough, ready and an imperfect blend of jukebox and biographical musical, this celebration of Bob Marley’s life and music shouldn’t work: but it triumphantly, coruscatingly does. Partly this is down to the peerless, earworm songs, that give romantic and political shape to Marley’s short life. And partly it’s down to Arinzé Kene, utterly dazzling as Marley (as well as a great advert for whatever wig glue he’s using) and Gabrielle Brooks, his vocal and emotional equal as long-suffering wife Rita. Clint Dyer’s production is simply staged, letting the music and the extraordinary story speak: quite right. NC

Hamlet, Theatre Royal Windsor

Ian McKellen played Hamlet in an age-blind production (Getty Images)
Ian McKellen played Hamlet in an age-blind production (Getty Images)

You don’t expect a revolution in Windsor; but this age-, gender- and colour-blind production starring 82-year-old Ian McKellen in a role he last played 50 years before was revolutionary. A sensation in every sense, it was a conscious exercise in star power to jump-start live theatre again, as well as a fascinating exploration of age, artifice and the theatrical suspension of disbelief. Above all, it afforded audiences the chance to see and hear our finest classical actor on vigorous, sonorous, witty form. Unforgettable. NC

little scratch, Hampstead Theatre

Rebecca Watson’s novel became a hypnotising performance piece (Robert Day)
Rebecca Watson’s novel became a hypnotising performance piece (Robert Day)

This stage adaptation of Rebecca Watson’s debut novel was the most hypnotising thing I saw all year. Taking us through 24 hours in the mind of a young woman working a banal office job, who is also trying to cope with the aftermath of a sexual assault, it was performed by a perfectly in-sync cast of four. Adapted by Miriam Battye and directed by Katie Mitchell, the production made the flurry of her thoughts feel almost like a symphony. Everyone who I spoke to that saw it was left similarly spellbound. Jessie Thompson

Oleanna, Arts Theatre

Lucy Bailey’s production of Oleanna was outstanding (Photograph by Nobby Clark)
Lucy Bailey’s production of Oleanna was outstanding (Photograph by Nobby Clark)

Handle with care, I thought: David Mamet’s notoriously controversial 1992 play about a student who accuses a teacher of sexual assault had the potential to feel a bit troll-y in a post-MeToo landscape. But Lucy Bailey’s intelligent and deliciously knotty revival leaned confidently into every complicated crevice of the script, offering an exhilarating evening of theatre that I could have debated and dissected for hours. As professor John and student Carol, Jonathan Slinger and Rosie Sheehy gave masterclass performances, lobbing the balance of power between each other like it was a hand grenade. JT

The Shark is Broken, Ambassadors Theatre

You didn’t have to be a Jaws superfan to love The Shark is Broken (Getty Images)
You didn’t have to be a Jaws superfan to love The Shark is Broken (Getty Images)

I didn’t expect to fall for Ian Shaw and Joseph Nixon’s play about the making of classic blockbuster Jaws, a film I’ve never even seen the whole way through, but I fell hard. This three-hander, in which Shaw plays his own father Robert (Quint in the film), is an immaculately constructed 90-minutes that takes us behind the film’s troubled shoot. Full of brilliant lines, it’s incredibly funny but also deceptively powerful. It’s catnip for film fans, but at its heart is a moving tribute to fathers and sons. Shaw’s performance is both uncanny and unmissable - and the show has been extended until February, so there’s still a chance to catch it (no pun intended). JT

The Normal Heart, National Theatre

The Normal Heart was a reminder of the power of theatre (Helen Maybanks)
The Normal Heart was a reminder of the power of theatre (Helen Maybanks)

There’s nothing like a vast auditorium full of people sobbing to remind you of the power of theatre. This beautifully acted and sensitively staged revival of Larry Kramer’s 1985 play about how the LGBTQ community faced the HIV/Aids epidemic in 1980s New York felt right in every way. Dominic Cooke’s production, performed under a flame that flickered above the actors throughout the show, had a stunning lead performance from Ben Daniels as activist Ned Weeks (a stand-in for the unapologetically combative Kramer himself). But it was the company as a whole who made it special, imparting a sense of how much it mattered to tell this story - and making us all feel part of that too. JT

Old Bridge, Bush Theatre

Old Bridge announced Igor Memic as a talent to watch (Marc Brenner)
Old Bridge announced Igor Memic as a talent to watch (Marc Brenner)

Epic in scale, romantic in sensibility and packed with emotional heft, Igor Memic’s debut play marked him out as a serious talent to watch. Staged at the Bush Theatre after it won him the Papatango Prize, it follows a group of young and beautiful friends whose futures are torn apart by the Bosnian War of the 1990s. Directed with a subtle naturalism by Selma Dimitrijevic, it offered a vivid reminder of a forgotten European conflict, told in a way that felt heartfelt and human. JT

J’Ouvert, Harold Pinter Theatre

Yasmin Joseph’s J’Ouvert was a transcendant night of theatre (Helen Murray)
Yasmin Joseph’s J’Ouvert was a transcendant night of theatre (Helen Murray)

Back in June, I didn’t think it would feel very fun to be in a socially distanced, masked up West End theatre. Boy, did J’Ouvert prove me wrong. Yasmin Joseph’s play about a group of female friends at Notting Hill Carnival reminded me how thrillingly immediate live theatre can be, and totally lifted the clouds. Her script was smart, fresh and funny, and Rebekah Murrell’s high energy production impossible not to love. The brilliant cast were having such a great time that they took us all along with them. It was the first time I’d been in a theatre full of people connected by joy rather than nervy-ness - a transcendent evening that’s really stayed with me. JT

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