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After Life, National Theatre, 2021
Photo by Johan PerssonMillicent Wong

Time Out’s ten best London theatre shows of 2021

As chosen by our theatre editor

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski

Grim as our current situation may be, London theatre has undoubtedly had a far better 2021 than 2020, so let’s celebrate that eh? Here are my top shows of a good year for theatre, against the odds. It sadly goes without saying that shows listed as still on come with the heavy caveat that they might currently be suspended.

Cabaret at Playhouse Theatre
Photograph: Marc Brenner

10. Cabaret

Okay, for my money it doesn’t quite live up to the hype, largely because Eddie Redmayne’s turn as the Emcee is so overcooked as to be borderline inedible. But Jessie Buckley is absolutely magnificent as tragic Berlin nightclub singer Sally Bowles in Rebecca Frecknall’s production. She’s a world away from the sexy archness of the character in recent revivals of the Kander & Ebb classic: instead she was deadly earnest and lethally intense, her voice off-key but her rock-star charisma enough to light up the whole Kit Kat Club.
Kit Kat Club at the Playhouse Theatre. Booking until Oct 1 2022.

The Tragedy of Macbeth, Almeida, 2021
Photo by Marc BrennerJames McArdle and Saoirse Ronan

9. Macbeth

Move over Eddie: Saoirse Ronan’s UK stage debut was the big celebrity theatre news of ’21, even attracting an unmasked Boris Johnson into the audience one night last month. She gave a fine performance as a largely decent – well, apart from the regicide-y stuff – Lady M to James McArdle’s increasingly batshit antihero. Really the star was director Yaël Farber, whose typically apocalyptic style really suited The Scottish Play, in an inventive, revisionist, and truly nerve-jarring production. 
Almeida Theatre. Now closed.

and breathe…, Almeida, 2021
Photo by AlmeidaDavid Jonsson (Junior)

8. And Breathe…

The Almeida pulled some pretty special stuff out of the hat this year, and in many respects none more so than its socially distanced season opener. ‘And Breathe…’ was a gorgeous stage adaptation of Yomi Sode’s poetry collection ‘Manorism’ that combined cutting-edge video projection, a phenomenal live score and a beautifully measured performance from David Jonsson as a young Black father dealing with terrible grief.
Almeida Theatre. Now closed.

little scratch, Hampstead Theatre, 2021
Photo by Robert Day

7. Little Scratch

Legendary director Katie Mitchell quietly returned to the UK stage and Katie Mitchell-ed the hell out of Rebecca Watson’s notionally unstageable stream-of-consciousness novel about a woman going about her day while unable to avoid dwelling upon her recent rape. Harrowing and hilarious, it was arranged for the voices of four actors and sang with its own peculiar music.
Hampstead Theatre. Now closed.

Anything Goes, Barbican, 2021
Photo by Tristram Kenton

6. Anything Goes

‘Anything Goes’ is a frothy load of old nonsense blessed with a smattering of classic songs, but this supersized revival at the Barbican was notable for Broadway star Sutton Foster’s truly jaw-dropping trip-threat performance as nightclub singer Reno Sweeney. At a time when Covid restrictions were just ending (sigh) her sublime performance and the show’s extreme good vibes gave the recovering theatre sector the feelgood hit our summer needed.
Barbican Centre. Returns Jul 15-Sep 3 2022.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Duke of York’s Theatre, 2021
Photograph: Manuel Harlan

5. The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The National Theatre’s Neil Gaiman adaptation played a Christmas season at the Dorfman in 2019, but its long-delayed West End transfer is something else: bigger, deeper, wilder and more beautiful. This haunting tale of a man who seemingly forgot a childhood in which he and his strange friend Lettie battled unimaginable forces of evil is a real stunner, and quite unlike anything else in the West End.
Duke of York’s Theatre. Until May 14 2022.

Spring Awakening, Almeida Theatre, 2021
Photo by Marc Brenner

4. Spring Awakening

For whatever reason, British audiences were left largely nonplussed by by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s brilliant musical when it made its UK debut in 2009: it shut in the West End after a couple of months, paltry next to its three years on Broadway. Well, now here’s a second chance (or the opportunity to fuck it up again): Rupert Goold’s revival is exquisitely atmospheric, tender and witty, with a superb young ensemble. More than anything else, it stresses what a spectacularly good musical ‘Spring Awakening’ is.
Almeida Theatre. Until Jan 22 2022.

Carousel, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, 2021
Photo by Johan PerssonDeclan Bennett (Billy)

3. Carousel

This new take on Rodgers & Hammerstein’s old warhorse was utterly thrilling and conceptually brilliant, blasting away the layers of chintz that ‘Carousel’ had acquired over the decades. It completely ditched all the cutesy Americana, totally rewrote the score, and very much refused to shy away from addressing the domestic violence at the story’s heart. In doing so it preserved everything that was brilliant about ‘Carousel’ while really understanding – and indeed, elevating – its sense of danger. 
Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. Now closed.

Best of Enemies, Young Vic, 2021
Photo by Wasi DanijuDavid Harewood and Charles Edwards

2. Best of Enemies

Playwright James Graham demonstrated his total mastery of political theatre as a form with this wild, gripping, unexpected dramatisation of the 1968 TV debates between US intellectual William F Buckley Jr and Gore Vidal that went way beyond the dry premise that might suggest. ‘Best of Enemies’ is an impassioned tribute to the screaming chaos of America’s wild ’60s, with titanic performances from David Harewood and Charles Edwards.
Young Vic. Until Jan 22 2022.

After Life, National Theatre, 2021
Photo by Johan PerssonAnoushka Lucas

1. After Life

The National Theatre’s first show back in 2021 was also my show of the year. Jack Thorne’s adaption of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s cult 1998 film was an achingly beautiful work of magical realism set in a ramshackle way station between life and death, where a series of damaged oddballs tried to decide what one memory they each wanted to take with them into eternity. Despite being shut until the new year by the Omicron surge, the NT has had an impressive year, staging some dozen shows during the eight months of 2021 it opened. Let’s hope there’s plenty more next year.
National Theatre, Dorfman. Now closed.

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