2022 Year in Review: Franco Milazzo's Best of 2022

A year to remember.

By: Dec. 28, 2022
2022 Year in Review: Franco Milazzo's Best of 2022

If 2020 was the year theatre ground to a halt and 2021 was when it nervously found its legs again (only to fall over occasionally), then 2022 was when it blasted back to some kind of normal with many pandemic-delayed shows finally seeing the inside of a venue.

I deliberately saw a wide range of London stage productions this year in an attempt to answer one question: why should we leave our safe, comfy homes and spend our diminishing disposal income on live experiences? For the answer, I searched both high and low: West End musicals, fringe theatre, opera and immersive productions.

2022 Year in Review: Franco Milazzo's Best of 2022
My Neighbour Totoro
Photo Credit: Manuel Harlan

West End Theatre: My Neighbour Totoro, The Barbican

The London theatre scene had much to rave about. Jodie Comer was a tour de force in Prima Facie and is deservedly heading to Broadway. The RSC's Afro-futuristic take on Much Ado About Nothing was spellbinding both to the ears and the eyes, two Palestinians go dogging was filled to the brim with dark humour and keen observations. Not One Of These People used hundreds of computer-generated deep fakes to ingeniously challenge the very concept of theatre while the razor-sharp Closer still hit hard a quarter-century after its debut. New venue @sohoplace's opener Marvellous lived up to its title for me with its story co-written by and about the legendary Neil Baldwin.

One production (literally) towers over these. Phelim McDermott's My Neighbour Totoro at the Barbican was a masterclass which alternates between opening your eyes good and wide and filling them with tears (mostly of joy and laughter). The two massive puppets have to be seen to be believed and McDermott (behind this year's Cosi Fan Tutte at the ENO - more on that below) once again shows his ability to immerse us into a kaleidoscopic world far from London.

A close second is Toneelgroep Amsterdam's Age of Rage. The idea of Dutch-language theatre is a hard enough sell on its own without adding that this theatre group's plays are renowned for their length (2009's Roman Tragedies lasts six hours while 2016's Kings of War is over four hours long). Their latest opus proved to be a head-spinning combination of bombastic rock-opera, tender moments and stage-spanning drama which drags us into both sides of the battles and gives us plenty to chew on long after the curtain falls.

2022 Year in Review: Franco Milazzo's Best of 2022
Yippee Ki Yay
Photo Credit: Rob Penn

Favourite Off-West End Theatre: Yippee Ki Yay, King's Head Theatre

I didn't catch as much off-West End theatre this year as I wanted to but, what I did see, I was very impressed by. String v SPITTA peeked into the dark world of children's party entertainers with more than a few laughs and songs along the way and A-Typical Rainbow was an intimate portrayal of autism in the modern world from the inside-out.

One-man show Yippee Ki Yay stole my heart, not least because it was a beautiful parody of my favourite Christmas movie (Die Hard) intertwined with a more personal story. For anyone who has ever quoted John McClane or admired Alan Rickman's hokiest performance, this one's for you. A close second was the rambunctious La Maupin, a folk-punk musical staged by an all-woman quintet and which is as entertaining as its subject. Julie d'Aubigny, a 17th-century woman abandoned her dull marriage to rescue her girlfriend from a convent, duel her way across France, earn a couple of death sentences and become a celebrated opera singer in Marseille and Paris all before she turned 21. Yowsers.

Favourite Opera: Così Fan Tutte, English National Opera

By 2024, London could be down to a single major opera house. When the English National Opera lost all its funding from Arts Council England, it first mooted a move out of London to Manchester before its chair said unequivocally that "there is no relocation" and that the ACE decision meant that the ENO would have to close down. Whether the ENO will stay at the London Coliseum under some arrangement, move to another venue likes its old haunt Sadler's Wells or shut up shop entirely is unknown. The 2022 programme itself was a mixed bag going from the very average like The Handmaid's Tale ("If you didn't suffer from anxiety before you came in, you probably will do by the interval") to uplifting drama in It's A Wonderful Life.

The Royal Opera House, meanwhile, has gone from strength to strength in the last twelve months. Old faithfuls like La Traviata, Peter Grimes and The Magic Flute were all magnificent while Lohengrin's brilliance served as a counterpoint to the ENO's underwhelming The Valkyrie a few months before. Salome, famously about a girl who knows how to get a head, didn't exactly bring my house all the way down but Don Giovanni was an utter romp.

Outside central London, the Arcola's Grimeborn festival unearthed some intimate gems, not least Ensemble OrQuesta's take on Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea. Controversial and sensual, this gender-twisted version takes its time to come to a delicious conclusion. In contrast, the Classical Everywhere's very expensive-looking debut outing Handel's Messiah: The Live Experience was all-guns-blazing musical extravaganza that was definitely not for the purists.

Uppermost for me was the ENO's Cosi fan tutte, Phelim McDermott's gleeful take on the Mozart comedy. Creatively set in a funfair populated with plenty of London's top cabaret talent, the vivid staging brought real flavour to the witty book and charming acting. McDermott returns to the ENO next March with his spectacular Akhnaten; see you in there.

Best Immersive Theatre: Phantom Peak

This was a standout year for immersive theatre, large and small. Spread out over 100,000 square feet, no other theatre production in London this year beat the epic scale of Punchdrunk's The Burnt City; ultimately, I spent more time wandering around than engaging with characters but nothing beat it for sheer spectacle. On a more personal scale, Redemption was a gut-punching journey through the eyes of two people trying to make it into the music industry.

After five years The Great Gatsby is ending its stellar run in London and upping sticks to New York. On the plus side, its producers have opened a bigger humdinger in Camden: Peaky Blinders: The Rise allows fans of the BBC show to dive into the world of the Shelbys and their nefarious shenanigans.

My prize of the year for the most impressive immersive experience goes to Phantom Peak, a Western-themed outdoor show which uses mobile phone technology and a large cast in a very engaging way. Its still in the early stages but with more areas being opened up and more storylines being added, this could be something very special for 2023.

2022 Year in Review: Franco Milazzo's Best of 2022
any attempt will end in crushed bodies
and shattered bones

Photo Credit: Phile Deprez2

Favourite Dance: any attempt will end in crushed bodies and shattered bones, Sadler's Wells

No matter how you like to shake it, there was something for everyone this year. German Cornejo gave us another slab of exuberant tango, Philip Glass fans would have revelled in the multi-layered Dance and, for sheer sexiness, little will have beaten the new staging of Matthew Bourne's The Car Man at the Royal Albert Hall.

His other revival this year - Sleeping Beauty - was a more nuanced affair which didn't show its age. Gecko's The Wedding threw all sorts of questions (and a few answers) around modern relationships in its inventive Barbican show. The Goldberg Variations had some flashy piano playing but, ironically enough, not enough variety.

any attempt will end in crushed bodies and shattered bones rises above the pretentions of its title with a frankly astounding display of political theatre. Interspersing and enhancing the physical movements through spoken word and projections, this provocative work comes from Flemish choreographer Jan Martens who has form when it comes to eye-grabbing show names (one was called I Can Ride A Horse Whilst Juggling So Marry Me) and here he fills all ninety minutes with visual trickery and dramatic twists aplenty. Bravo.

Favourite Musical: Anything Goes, The Barbican

If sing-a-long-a-Hollywood is your thing, this year had options coming out of its ears. The Dominion was home to Elf The Musical ("overrated, oversweet and over here"), Dirty Dancing and the original version of Grease but Saturday Night Fever at the Peacock Theatre bested them all with its grit, wit and great tunes.

Even though A Christmas Carol has had more twists than a Chubby Checker convention, Dolly Parton's interpretation was a blast while upbeat gig-theatre The Choir Of Man returned for another session of manly tubthumping and Sister Act was truly uproarious..

My favourite of the year was Anything Goes, an all-singing, all-dancing treat which only gets better with each passing year.

Kudos to Cages which managed to turn their poor reviews (including my one-star) into something a lot more thought-provoking than the show itself.

London theatre doesn't happen by itself and the last couple of years have shown how dedicated, professional and hard-working this industry is. I thank all cast, crew and PRs for their efforts since March 20, 2020 for making this year what it was.

Photo Credit: Tristram Kenton.