This has been a truly devastating year for the theatre industry. On 16th March, as a global pandemic raged through the population, London’s West End was ordered to close, with Fringe and regional venues following closely behind. Very few of us imagined that the shut down would still be continuing now, but as a resilient and innovative industry, theatre has found new ways to survive. Companies who adapted to online productions, and producers who were brave enough to stage shows to socially distanced audiences have made it possible for audiences to see new work, and for us to compile our annual list of the best shows of the year.
Theatre Weekly’s Best Shows of 2020 would perhaps have been filled with West End world premieres, stonking Fringe revivals, or the very best of the Edinburgh Festival, so much was in the works but never got to move forward, and anyone who managed to make any kind of theatre in 2020 should know what an achievement that is. For this annual round up, we look at the best shows that made the biggest impact in 2020, and given theatre lovers an opportunity to still experience their passion.
Theatre Weekly’s Best Shows of 2020
- – The Space Between (Online)
Perhaps the defining factor of 2020 will be our reliance on video calling and messaging apps to stay in touch, so it’s apt that the first show on our list was written and performed entirely over these platforms. Writers and performers David Hunter and Caroline Kay had never met in real life, or even had so much as a phone conversation, but still managed to create a fantastic musical short that truly captured how we all communicated this year.
- – You Stupid Darkness at Southwark Playhouse
Sam Steiner’s You Stupid Darkness!, a co-production between Paines Plough and Theatre Royal Plymouth, ran at Southwark Playhouse in January. Set in a small office, the characters man a helpline while outside some apocalyptic event has changed the world as we know it. Audiences watching this “meticulously written play” could never have known we were just two months away from our own apocalypse.
- – Birdsong (Online)
In July, The Original Theatre Company released an online version of their celebrated production of Birdsong, to mark the anniversary of the first day of The Battle of the Somme. This wasn’t the first piece of online theatre in 2020, but it was the first to really demonstrate what could be achieved with this new technology, and to create something as close to real theatre as possible.
- – Fanny & Stella
Following the first lockdown, theatre’s first hope of return was in outdoor performance. Lambco Productions rose to the challenge as The Eagle Pub converted its beer garden to ‘The Garden Theatre’. For many, Fanny and Stella was the first in-person performance they had seen in months, and it did not disappoint.
- – The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk (Online)
While productions like Birdsong were adapted and pre-recorded for the digital world, others developed ways to stream what was happening live on stage in to people’s homes. Wise Children, Bristol Old Vic and Kneehigh’s revival of The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk was the first to set the gold standard for live-streamed theatre, bringing all of the elements together to demonstrate exactly what this new kind of theatre looked like.
- – The Poltergeist at Southwark Playhouse (Online)
In the same week that The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk streamed, Tramp Theatre Company’s in person run of The Poltergeist was cancelled as a second lockdown was introduced. The company had already planned to stream the production alongside the live run. Philip Ridley’s writing made this another theatrical jewel in the crown, but it was Joseph Potter’s outstanding performance that made it one of the most remarkable shows in 2020.
The Poltergeist will be made available to stream again 25th January to 28th February 2021 here.
- – Sleepless a Musical Romance at Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre
When the first lockdown was lifted, there was a brief glimmer of hope that theatres could reopen, albeit with socially distanced audiences. Sleepless was the first fully staged musical to reopen in London, and the steps taken by producers to keep cast, crew and audience members safe were extraordinary, there is no doubt that Sleepless paved the way for other in-person performances to resume right across the country.
- – Be More Chill at The Other Palace
Be More Chill may have had its run at The Other Palace cut short by the first lockdown, but it was on track to be the venues longest running musical. The Broadway import had already gathered a mass following before the first curtain rose, leading to a sell-out run. Be More Chill introduced musical theatre to a whole new audience and we can only hope we haven’t seen the last of this quirky musical.
- – Dumbledore Is So Gay at VAULT Festival
Another tragedy of 2020 is that London’s beloved VAULT festival was cut short, and with Edinburgh Fringe completely cancelled, up and coming productions were left in the cold. So, we were extremely lucky to have been given a glimpse of Robert Holtom and Tom Wright’s Dumbledore Is So Gay which managed a week long run at VAULT before the festival was cut short. This wonderfully astute play about a youngster discovering his sexuality was accentuated by a stand out performance from Alex Britt in the lead role.
- – The Old Red Lion Triptych at The Old Red Lion
The very last production to appear on stage in London to a full audience, The Old Red Lion’s Triptych saw an established work paired with two pieces from up and coming writers. It was innovative stuff as three completely separate works were brought together to form a cohesive whole. Zoe Grain and Freya Sharp will be remembered in particular, not just because they spoke the last words on a London stage, but because their performances in Nuclear War were breathtakingly stunning.
- – Songs For a New World (Online) and at The London Palladium
Lambert Jackson Productions established themselves as trailblazers during the first lockdown, creating work for artists in their Leave a Light On Series, as well as creating several streamed musical adaptations. Songs For a New World received such critical acclaim when it was first streamed that an in-person version was scheduled for The London Palladium. For those of us in the audience that day, the first to enter a West End theatre in over six months, it is an experience none of us will ever forget. The production is scheduled to return in 2021 for a run at The Vaudeville Theatre.
What were your best shows of 2020? Let us know in the comments below.