Susannah Clapp’s best theatre of 2021

It was a year of promises and postponements, of dodgy mask-wearing in the stalls – and of sudden soarings. It was no surprise that Rebecca Frecknall’s spectacular production of Cabaret, with Jessie Buckley and Eddie Redmayne, should prove one of the big excitements of the year – and one of the most expensive. But who in the Pre-Puppet Era (before The Sultan’s Elephant and War Horse) would have thought that a three-and-a-half-metre-tall creature made of wicker and fabric would prove such a powerful reminder of how the theatre can stir hearts and stretch eyes?

Little Amal, the child-refugee puppet who walked from the Syrian-Turkish border to Manchester, was pelted with stones in Greece, danced in Trafalgar Square, became an ambassador for political change – and for the imagination. She was a reminder of how theatrical truth does not depend on naturalism: as were the small white daemon puppets that lit up the stage like Chinese lanterns in Bryony Lavery’s adaptation of Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage, and the marvellous driftwood creations that scuttled and sashayed through Lolita Chakrabarti’s version of Life of Pi.

Ingenious adaptations of prose and verse provided some of the best theatrical nights. Often with a feminist twist. Zadie Smith brilliantly reworked Chaucer in The Wife of Willesden – showing there is no new lewdness under the sun and allowing Clare Perkins to display her tremendous acting gifts. Emma Rice brought swagger and musicality to her version of Wuthering Heights, with Nandi Bhebhe gusting and gutsy as the spirit of the moor. And in Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of), Isobel McArthur reworked Jane Austen from the viewpoint of her unnamed servants, rocking the plots karaoke-style, with Lizzie Bennet crooning You’re So Vain to Darcy.

After a surfeit of lockdown Zoom drama, I met no one who was much looking forward to a big Covid play

In further female claiming of the stage, Cush Jumbo triumphed when she became Hamlet in Greg Hersov’s jumbled production: thrillingly intertwining derangement and pretended madness, she was a perfect prince.

After a surfeit of lockdown Zoom drama, I met no one who was much looking forward to a big Covid play. We were spared that – and treated to much longed-for buoyancy – but directors did not flinch from examining harsh times. Nicolas Kent and Richard Norton-Taylor’s staging of the Grenfell Tower inquiry was a revelation: verbatim, detailed testimony; functional design; acting so transparent that the word performance seemed out of place; an evening that made you long for similar treatments of some of our current disgraces.

The cast of Twelfth Night at the Globe theatre greet Little Amal.
The cast of Twelfth Night at the Globe theatre greet Little Amal. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

The Lyric Hammersmith staked a claim to be at the forefront of new writing. Under the overarching title Out West, three short plays by Tanika Gupta, Simon Stephens and Roy Williams, directed by Rachel O’Riordan and Diane Page on a bare wood set, had a long reach, speaking strongly of past and present prejudice. Modern dilemmas also glinted in surprising places. In Blanche McIntyre’s production of Measure for Measure, a ruler was shown holding himself and his citizens to entirely different standards. Carousel at Regent’s Park Open Air theatre and, at Chichester, South Pacific were rethought musically and visually; the lushness of their scores was shown to fly against the bitter depiction of violent men and racism.

At the end of the year, James Graham again proved why he has become so vital for the theatre. In Best of Enemies he produced a marvel of a play – which looked back to the 60s and forward to the future, examining the point at which debate turns to poisonous rant. It was a buoyant example of what he has been advocating during the pandemic: work that bowls over boundaries – financial, geographical, racial, psychological. Will we ever have an arts minister who minds so much and speaks so cogently?

The top 10 theatre shows of 2021

1. The Walk
Throughout Europe, London, Manchester
Magnificent Little Amal, the child refugee puppet who evoked wonder and sorrow on her 5,000-mile walk.

2. Best of Enemies
Young Vic, London (until 22 January)
Charles Edwards and David Harewood shone in James Graham’s dynamic culture-clash drama.

3. Cabaret
The Kit Kat Club at the Playhouse theatre, London (until 1 October)
Rebecca Frecknall’s explosive production starring Jessie Buckley, Eddie Redmayne and Tom Scutt’s immersive design.

4. Wuthering Heights
Bristol Old Vic
/York Theatre Royal
Emma Rice’s fiery remaking of Brontë.

5. Value Engineering
, London
Revelatory reconstruction of the Grenfell Tower hearing.

6. Hymn
, London
Adrian Lester and Danny Sapani both magnetic in Lolita Chakrabarti’s play.

7. Wife of Willesden
, London (until 15 January)
Zadie Smith’s centuries-leaping translation of Chaucer, with blazing Clare Perkins.

8. South Pacific
Chichester Festival theatre

Daniel Evans directed an enchanted, threatening evening.

9. Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of)
, London (until 17 April)
Deliciously frisky karaoke Austen.

10. The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage
Bridge, London
Witty and whirling staging with new star Samuel Creasey.


Lyttelton, London
It creaked.