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Welcome to today’s special Christmas edition of ShentonSTAGE Daily, coming out of its temporary hibernation to (try to) celebrate good things! (Please feel free to forward this e-mail to friends, and invite them to be added to this list!)

The news may, by and large, not be very encouraging, especially for the theatre once again, this Christmas — as its shuts down all over Wales, with the reimposition of social distancing and audience caps of a maximum of 30 spectators: as Cardiff’s Wales Millennium Centre announced,

But there are good news stories in amidst the gloom.

On Broadway, for example, the three-hander import from the National, The Lehman Trilogy is (so far) managing to play out the last scheduled performances of its run, as someone posted last night:

There’s a welcome sense of solidarity emerging in parts of the industry. As Kieran Brown, a cast member of HEATHERS at the Other Palace, tweeted as part of a thread yesterday:

And actors are rushing to the rescue of shows they’ve previously been a part of, like John Owen Jones, who stepped back in to the lead role of Jean Valjean in LES MISERABLES after more than a year away from the role last night:

(Unfortunately, new positive cases in the LES MIS company meant that performances yesterday and today have since been suspended).

It’s not just actors who are coming to the rescue: on Broadway, playwright Keenan Scott II stepped into his own play, THOUGHTS OF A COLORED MAN, last night:

There’s also a necessary sense of acceptance required to get through it. As actor Samuel Thomas tweeted, and I replied:

Yesterday I got my voting form for this year’s Critics Circle Theatre Awards, and I started thinking about the best shows I’d seen in (a heavily curtailed) 2021, which only really started in May.

One tweet I chanced upon gave me pause as to whether to share my list:

But even if it is right and proper to celebrate the achievements of everyone in getting a show on — and the superhuman effort of keeping them on right now — it’s nevertheless also right to give credit where it is due for the many pleasures I’ve had in the theatre this year, many of them in unexpected places.

For instance, one of the best shows I saw all year was Rob Madge’s wonderfully affirmative autobiographical solo show MY SON’S A QUEER (BUT WHAT CAN YOU DO?), that played a season at the Turbine Theatre in June.

It deserves a return run when theatre returns properly again; I can’t wait to see it again.

Then there are the shows I couldn’t stop myself from revisiting as it is: chief amongst these for me was an utterly wonderful. miniaturized revival of Stephen Schwartz’s PIPPIN at Charing Cross Theatre, employing a cast of just eight actors, that I saw six times in all in the summer, including a performance after which I interviewed its composer onstage.

I also saw a delightful revival of the 70s Maltby and Shire musical revue of coupledom STARTING HERE, STARTING NOW at Waterloo East Theatre twice in July, and Andrew Lippa’s captivating two-hander of sibling affiliations JOHN AND JEN at Southwark Playhouse twice in August, with a truly wonderful Rachel Tucker (pictured below, now on Broadway reprising her West End role in COME FROM AWAY) and Lewis Cornay.

Four more two-handers also made repeated marks: THE LAST 5 YEARS, which had its original Southwark Playhouse run prematurely end when the first lockdown arrived in March 2020 and suffered the same fate when it returned there in October 2020, finally made it to a West End run at the Garrick in September; while Nick Payne’s CONSTELLATIONS came to the Vaudeville, in a revival of director Michael Longhurst’s staging originally done for the Royal Court but now presented under the auspices of his current home the Donmar. with four separate and diverse casts taking it in turns. I saw all four casts — and each brought different shades to make the play seem fresh each time.

A revival of David Mamet’s OLEANNA, that was originally presented under social distanced conditions at Bath’s Ustinov Studio in December 2020, made a welcome transfer to the Arts, where Jonathan Slinger and Rosie Sheehy gave bruising performances that made this play suddenly feel as shocking and newly relevant in the age of cancellation culture nearly thirty years on from its original American premiere.

And another American play, ‘NIGHT MOTHER — a Pulitzer prize winner in 1983, which had received its original London production at Hampstead Theatre in 1985, was revived at the latter as part of its 60th anniversary season, with a quietly stunning performance by Stockhard Channing as the mother in one of the performances of the year.

But the most notable performances of the year were surely the double hitter of HAMLETs — one, in Windsor, with octogenarian Ian McKellen in the title role, and the other at the Young Vic, starring a transformative Cush Jumbo.

On the musicals front, we saw the eventual welcome reopenings of all the shows that had been suspended during the lockdown; I was at the first performance back for COME FROM AWAY at the Phoenix in  July and it was simply thrilling to be part of the return of this most affirmative of all shows about finding humanity and kindness in the most desperate of situations. 

Elsewhere, revivals of classic shows proved to be the best musical events of the year, with my absolute favourite and most revelatory being Rodgers and Hammerstein’s CAROUSEL at the Open Air Theatre, which brilliantly relocated its action to England in the North (pictured above).

I was also thrilled by A CHORUS LINE at Leicester’s Curve, which wrestled this great musical about the struggle of making theatre from the immense shadow of its original Broadway production.

More conventional pleasures were offered by revivals of Cole Porter’s ANYTHING GOES at the Barbican (starring an incandescent Sutton Foster, pictured below), which will return there next summer, and another Rodgers and Hammerstein, SOUTH PACIFIC at Chichester Festival Theatre (again set to return next summer for a UK tour and including a London run at Sadler’s Wells), both of which I saw twice each.

And one of the last shows I saw this year was the stunning new production of CABARET at a completely reconfigured Playhouse into an immersive nightclub that proved to be another highlight, albeit one that has the dubious distinction of
setting new records for prices being charged for tickets.

In the spirit of the season, I won’t name some of the shows that most disappointed, but suffice to say that one of them dominated the headlines throughout the third lockdown as its producer and composer threatened to defy the law against playing to socially distanced audiences and opening anyway, then threatened to cancel the show entirely. It has now suspended performances to February, as Covid cases have swept the company.


Finally, I would like to wish everyone a great Christmas (or as good a one as is possible in the circumstances). This newsletter will next appear as circumstances and news dictate, but in the meanwhile, you can find me on Twitter @ShentonStage