PART 1: THE ONSET
I set out, in this eerie Twixtmas gap, to chronicle and celebrate the return of live theatre since May 2021. And this will follow. But when I totted up the 2021 score – sixty theatre nights, 30 being completely new plays and 19 brand-new productions – it seemed to me only decent to pause, look back at the year before, and remember first how sad, how scrimpingly poor was live theatre after I returned to it in March 2020 after six months’ sequestration on chemotherapy. The last treatment coincided with Day 1 of lockdown. The frustration was proportionally greater…
Theatrecat, for reasons of private principle, did not review ‘streamed’ shows, bar one particularly valiant local effort, because it felt wrong to approach them in the same way one does after a journey to a theatre, sharing the same air as the players. So there are gaps in this site: t was September before things flared into brief brave life.
Alan Bennett’s TALKING HEADS at the Bridge, recreated the TV versions under Hytner and it turned out true that one found new things and fresh nuances in seeing them live.
“..Amid the Bennettian wry pathos the playlets were often enormously funny. Not that they weren’t on TV, in a head-nodding sort of way, but one didn’t often laugh aloud. Here was evidence that even a scattered audience has the old communal magic: pleasure was redoubled by shared giggles and some real barks of laughter…performers definitely made the most of that, understood their pauses, did it for us who were there”.
There too in the weirdly social-distanced clumps of chairs I saw Ralph Fiennes do David Hare’s grumpy monologue BEAT THE DEVIL, all about how Hare got Covid and it was basically all Boris Johnson’s fault. And then – just before the iron fist of restriction closed it – there was A CHRISTMAS CAROL with the peerless Simon Russell Beale and sparky Patsy Ferran. The joy of that – with a cast of three and careful budget – was that it took advantage to be text-heavy, DIckensian. By doing that it brought back
‘“ some of the often forgotten moments: the miners and lighthousemen singing, the shrugging businessmen in the street”.
I notice that I also wrote about SRB as Scrooge that:
“…when under the final Spirit he sees himself dead and despised, his horror is as breathtaking as any Faustus or Lear”
OK, but spare my blushes. It was a bit emotional, getting back to theatre after even longer than everyone else. A bit much, though.
Meanwhile other brave theatres struggled through, determined. Even with new work: HOWERD’S END at the Golden Goose in Camberwell paid tribute to Frankie Howerd in Mark Farrelly’s new two- hander.
“…[Howerd] fascinated me in my late 50’s childhood – his was a fifty year career – because his looks, which he described as “face like a camel on remand” were worryingly like those of my Granny in old age. Especially when going “oooh!” In a knowingly filthy way. It was also of interest because I know two people who worked with him and didn’t like him one bit: tricky, moody, sexually predatory, they said.
But he had an excuse.. It was no picnic to be gay in the in the unforgivingly homophobic 1950s and early 60’s, when audiences adored the liberation of camp but abhorred the reality of same-sex love. And, as in Howerd’s case, drove that abhorrence deep into the private identity of some victims. He hated it, despised himself, and never over their forty-year partnership acknowledged Dennis Heymer as his partner”.
That was moving, interesting, good pub-theatre. More purely entertaining was LONE FLYER at the Watermill, a tribute to Amy Johnson by Ade Morris. And a fresh new musical, THE LAST FIVE YEARS, surfaced at the gallant Southwark Playhouse . I liked it a lot and am glad it has returned in 2021 up West.
But the shades of night were creeping on us, the curtains falling. Another Christmas Carol at Bury St Edmunds was outdoors, freezing cold, with a cast of six plus a stilt-walking ghost Hi-vis jacketed ushers, distancing by traffic cones, all in headphones, in front of the Angel hotel in the square. Back in London, . POTTED PANTO opened in the daytime West End and I noted that Daniel Clarkson and Jeff Turner had
“ actually polished it up better in this season of compulsorily half-empty houses and scrupulous virus-bashing. Nor is there any truth in the rumour that panto whooping, shouting and jumping in the seats would be banned in favour of silent hi-fives and the like. There’s a fair bit of audience racket, though it never felt worrying – given the distanced seats and the fact that the noisiest were plainly family bubbles some distance away”.
The final outing was to the Palladium and PANTOLAND, much the same core of Wilmont, Zerdin, Havers and Clary as returned this year, with some of the same jokes. Not complaining. Cheered us up no end in that dangerous December, when lockdown loomed again. I called it “a proper, silly, defiant showbiz shot in the arm. “ And did wonder whether the royal children a few days earlier had been spared some of the broader trouser-related Clary jokes.
Probably not. Anyway, it closed the day after we saw it, and the desert loomed again, for many months….
Tomorrow I shall post up Part 2: a celebration of theatre’s return to life in
2021. Meanwhile, as ever, all reviews are scrollable-searchable on this site for the record.