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2021 Year in Review: Gary Naylor's Best of 2021


Gary Naylor looks back on his highlights of 2021

2021 Year in Review: Gary Naylor's Best of 2021

How we craved theatrical entertainment in the long days of lockdowns, so it was a delight to see two shows that delivered that underrated brief to perfection. Back To The Future - The Musical (Adelphi Theatre) and Bedknobs and Broomsticks (UK Tour) broke no new ground, but sometimes a bloody good night out is both the intention and the outcome - and why not - and no shows in 2021 did it better.

Two musicals gave themselves higher expectations, delving into psychology, hope and regret. A Little Night Music (Leeds Playhouse with Opera North) was technically magnificent, a fine tribute to the late Stephen Sondheim - though we didn't know at the time of course. It's a show that repays repeated viewings every five years or so, the nuances of the book and quiet trauma of the characters finding new parallels as one ages and learns. South Pacific (Chichester Festival Theatre) may sound like a safe choice after 2020's summer washout, but the production found an unforced contemporary relevance that gave it an exciting freshness, with "Happy Talk" and a spine-tingling "Bali Hai" the standout numbers.

Two contrasting plays spoke to contemporary issues in very different styles. Tom Wells's Big Big Sky (Hampstead Theatre) took us to a seaside café on an isthmus beyond even Hull and a group of ordinary people with ordinary expectations. Such was the quality of the writing and acting that one became instantly invested in their lives and (no greater mark of a successful production than this) terribly keen to find out what happened next when the curtain came down.

David Ireland's Yes So I Said Yes (Finborough Theatre) was a searing, brutal trip to some very dark places, as a Belfast Unionist's personality became as fractured as the Peace Process's roadmap. It was also just about the funniest play of the year too.

Politics was front and centre in Best Of Enemies (Young Vic) recreating Gore Vidal's debates with William F. Buckley Jr at the 1968 Republican and Democratic Conventions in a rollercoaster of sixties fashions and biting satire. Colin Murphy's The Treaty (Embassy of Ireland and streaming) took us back 100 years to the failed attempt to avoid war in Ireland in a thrilling recreation of the negotiations between Irishman looking to create a republic Brits looking to hold on to an empire. Both plays resonated strongly with contemporary concerns and both were beautifully acted, evoking historical figures without the "I'm going to be nominated for an Oscar" affectation that so blights biopics.

Two utterly contrasting productions round-off my highlights of the year. The Nutcracker (Royal Opera House) may be a hardy annual, but what a show it is, a total delight for ears and eyes, one that you want to rush out and tell people to see, even at those prices.

You also want to tell people to see Value Engineering: Scenes From The Grenfell Inquiry (The Tabernacle) for very different reasons. The first is to gain a visceral understanding of the contempt in which the residents of the ill-fated tower were held (and continue to be held) by those responsible for providing the most basic elements of a safe living environment. The second - and I would suggest more important reason - is to bear witness to the appalling loss of life, the names projected on to a screen as we shuffle out of the auditorium, heads down, shame clinging to us as we return to our protected, comfortable, safe homes.

A grim conclusion to a round-up of a grim year, but one that does underline why theatre will return. No other medium - not cinema, not streaming, not television - could provoke the collective silence and shock we felt in that night. Theatre alone can call upon this unique power, stronger than any raging virus, stronger than any ravaged balance sheet. It will be back - and so will we.

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