Top 10 London shows of 2020
Okay, so 2020 is probably going to go down in theatre history as the year that never was. Postponements and cancellations happened left, right, and centre, with cities going in and out of lockdown like the hokey pokey. That didn't stop creatives though, with London theatres being home to world premieres, anticipated revivals and West End transfer.
As we (gladly) wave goodbye to 2020, we take a look back at the top 10 London shows of 2020, as reviewed by us.
Two theatrical stalwarts shared the stage in the West End transfer of Kunene and the King, which opened at the Ambassadors Theatre back in January 2020. Set in South Africa, Antony Sher played a veteran actor who'd just received a life-changing diagnosis, overshadowing his upcoming stage appearances. Looked after by a resident nurse (played by John Kani), the pair stumbled upon a mutual adoration for William Shakespeare, quickly realising that anyone can get along, regardless of different upbringings. Sadly, the run was cut short due to coronavirus, but it's still found its place in our top ten list. In a five-star review for LondonTheatre.co.uk, Mark Shenton said: "this is an international theatre collaboration that's a miniature gem. A play about human dignity and outreach, it dignifies the West End, too."
Beating off stiff competition to win Best New Play at this year's Olivier Awards, it's no surprise that Leopoldstadt at the Wyndham's Theatre features on our list. A testament to Jewish resilience, Tom Stoppard's latest play followed a Jewish family throughout the 20th century. In the early years, they lived in Leopoldstadt itself, a crowded Judaic area of Vienna. But, as Nazi influence grew, they fled the Eastern pogroms and tried to survive, rediscovering their faith. A sweeping tale of endurance and family, audiences were reduced to tears, with a five-star review from Mark Shenton saying "This is a powerful, important new play from one of our greatest living playwrights that, should it prove to be his swansong, means he has gone out on a significant high, even as he dramatises a low point on world history."
At the start of 2020, audiences were treated to a revival of Jason Robert Brown's two-hander. Jamie and Cathy's developing relationships were going swimmingly, then lockdown hit. The Last Five Years was put on hiatus for seven months. After a monumental effort to get the show back on its feet, The Last Five Years has earned its place on our top 10 for sheer determination, as well as a critically acclaimed performance. In a five-star review, Matt Wolf said: "The Last Five Years is more than fine: for the first time in my experience of a much-produced show, the characters' giddiness and desolation, their rapture and heartache, propelled me tearily into the night."
When London's theatres were a ghost town, creatives were busy formulating brand new seasons that could be staged to a socially-distanced audience. Leading the way for theatres nationwide, the Bridge Theatre presented eight Talking Heads monologues, previously seen on television in the summer. A whole heap of West End stars performed at the Bridge, including Monica Dolan in The Shrine, Imelda Staunton in Lady of Letters and Maxine Peake in Miss Fozzard Finds her Feet. Marrying tour-de-force performances with Bennett's famed verbiage definitely got London talking, and is thoroughly deserving of its place on our top ten.
Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol surely takes the title as the most-performed play across London this year. From The Old Vic's livestream offering to the Dominion's musical production, Scrooge fans are spoilt for choice. However, Nicholas Hytner's three-person adaptation of A Christmas Carol warmed its way into our hearts. Simon Russell Beale takes the reins as Ebenezer in this new play, with Beale, Patsy Ferran and Eben Figueiredo multi-roling like machines. In a five-star review, Matt Wolf said the show "land[s] a familiar parable a newfound knockout punch... the production's real success has not to do with clothes but with an ability to remint this appeal to the heart so that it honestly and urgently pierces ours."
On 14 January, Toby Jones and Richard Armitage made light work of Uncle Vanya at the Harold Pinter Theatre. The Chekhov classic was even filmed, later screened in cinemas and will be available to watch on BBC this Christmas. Although Uncle Vanya will always go down as a theatre great, this adaptation was an impressive example of keeping things original. In a review for LondonTheatre.co.uk, Mark Shenton said: "This is both a play and a production that speaks to the yearning chasms of existential despair in life, love, aspiration, inheritance and unfulfilled ambitions... it is both refreshing and even radical to go back to Chekhovian basics and produce a more faithful version like this... that demonstrates what a masterpiece the play is without the need for reinvention."
Not all theatre needs to be groundbreaking. Sometimes, theatre just needs to make you smile. That's what Pretty Woman did. One of 2020's highly-anticipated musicals, Pretty Woman: The Musical walked down the street and into the Piccadilly Theatre in March 2020. Its glossy veneer was matched by breathtaking performances from Aimie Atkinson and Danny Mac, polished off with Roy Orbison's infamous track to "send you out on a high."
Off West-End theatres are some of London's gems, with shows often transferring to the West End, Broadway and beyond. At the start of the year, the Park Theatre was home to the London revival of RAGS, a poignant musical about immigrants arriving at Ellis Island. With music by Stephen Schwartz, this new version was sure to capture our attention. In a four-star review, Mark Shenton wrote that RAGS "has an undeniable sentimentality that some may find a little hard to swallow, it has a heartfelt sincerity... that swept me away... lovingly staged... to bring out the full power of this gorgeous, life-affirming show."
We're combining two National Theatre shows in one here, as both parts of Death of England deserve a joint celebration. In February 2020, Rafe Spall starred in Death of England at the Dorfman, following a man who explores racism, heritage and Britishness in his community. Post-lockdown, a sequel of sorts titled Death of England: Delroy reopened a reconfigured Olivier, featuring Michael Balogun as a Black British man who questions his identity. In a review for LondonTheatre.co.uk, Sam Marlowe said: "This is vital, urgent theatre, unflinchingly confronting our present, and setting its sights on the future." Although theatre communities may have been in mourning at the 2020 plans that never came to fruition, Death of England proved the impact of theatre will never die.
Old Vic In Camera: Three Kings
There's an easy sum to remember whenever you hear Andrew Scott is going to be on stage. Andrew Scott + new play written for him = theatre hit. Even though the world premiere of Stephen Beresford's Three Kings was virtual, Scott delivered a masterclass performance in a one-man family drama. In a five star review for LondonTheatre.co.uk, Suzy Evans said: "performed by the acting master Andrew Scott, all of the characters come alive separately through a facial tick or a simple gesture or a sneaking glance, that it hardly seems like a play performed by one man. Scott seems to be peering into the viewer's soul as he delivers this relatable tale of patriarchal estrangement and familial missed connections."
Photo credit: Aimee Lou Wood in Uncle Vanya, Danny Mac and Aimie Atkinson in Pretty Woman and Aaron Neil and Rhys Bailey in Leopoldstadt (Photos by Johan Persson and Marc Brenner respectively)
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