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Honouring the few… the shows that soldiered on

Niall Buggy and David Ganly in 'On Blueberry Hill' at Trafalgar Studios, London. Picture: Marc Brenner - Credit: Archant

This is the time when I traditionally look back on the shows I’ve reviewed over the previous 12 months and select the ones I’ve most enjoyed. I have, however, a practical problem that will no doubt soon be confronting the judges of the big theatrical awards: there isn’t an awful lot to choose from.

I hope that the shows I consider to be the best of 2020 won’t be looked down upon for that reason. The small handful of productions that I have reviewed in recent months – in addition to those I saw before the imposition of the first lockdown – have taken more courage and fortitude to put on than any since the war. Imagine, for a moment, what it took to go out on stage, uncomplainingly, in those final days in March when theatre was still lawful, but the hospital admissions were rising sharply, and so little was known about the killer virus among us?

Courage comes in many shapes and forms and I have seen it in abundance not simply in actors, but also in investors, who were willing to put up money for shows knowing full well that their chances of recouping a single penny were at best remote. This I found immensely moving because it shows a love for theatre that goes way beyond balance sheets. I’ve heard, too, of some of the big West End managements doing everything in their power to ensure their people don’t go hungry during the lockdowns, not least because, with so many of them freelancing, they’ve shamefully been ineligible for handouts from Rishi Sunak.

In terms of my favourite productions of this year, first of all a rider. I’m not including any online productions, because it doesn’t come under any conventional definition of what theatre actually means. It’s also quite frankly not my bag and I haven’t enough experience of it to talk knowledgeably about it. It is hopefully a here-today, gone-tomorrow phenomenon, and, when we are eventually all back in our seats in theatres, we’ll remember these strange little shows we saw on our laptops with bemusement. 

So to my favourite theatrical production of the year and that is On Blueberry Hill by Sebastian Barry that l saw at the Trafalgar Studios in Whitehall a few days before the first lockdown in March. It was a powerful piece about the redemptive power of the human spirit that was beautifully acted by David Ganly and Niall Buggy under the assured direction of Jim Culleton. 

Special commendations, too, for Frances Barber in Musik, the Pet Shop Boys musical, which was bold and brassy and quite unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Jenny Seagrove and Martin Shaw achieved the best chemistry in the all-too-brief run of Love Letters at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. The most fun production of the year – the first big show out of the stocks after the original lockdown – was Sleepless: A Musical Romance, which was a glorious and much-needed blast of colour and exuberance.

Best actor: Laurence Ubong Williams in The Welkin, a production at the National that I didn’t especially enjoy, but his quirky, imaginative performance nevertheless remains ingrained on my memory. Best actress: Jennifer Saunders’ joyous turn as Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirit.

Commiserations to all the shows that didn’t get to go on and I sincerely hope all involved will yet get their chances to shine. I don’t see theatre back up and running properly again until the autumn, but, until then, I’ll review what I can and talk about the great personalities of the noblest profession that I’ve got to meet over the years in Star Turns. Break a leg!  

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