2020 Theatre Reflection (Sort of)

 I resolutely wasn’t doing a round up for 2020. I mean what on earth were we going to round up? 

This year has, with no exaggeration, broken our hearts in theatre. There’s no other way to put it. We watched our industry disappear overnight. We watched it be left behind for support, be forgotten. We watched it fight back time and time again- online and in person- only to be knocked back again. Writing a 2020 round up seemed pointless. 

But yesterday I looked at my spreadsheet (of course there’s a spreadsheet) and I managed to go to the theatre 19 times before they closed. 17 separate shows. And you know what, I don’t want to forget the shows that happened in 2020 before all this happened. So here’s a little round up, no rankings, no ‘best’ just a few of the ones that stayed with me after all this. 

Shout out to the not mentioned in full; 10 Minute Musicals and SEEN: Utopias, two brilliant work in progress nights I got to be part of before all this. Shout out too, for Amelie and Soho Cinders, two beautiful and charming musicals that started off the year. And shout out to the RSC who I had the fun of seeing for the first time in a few years with As You Like It (and seeing my friend dragged up on stage). 

Oh and because we need to acknowledge it wasn’t a utopia before…a resounding screw you to the ‘Queer’ comedy night I also saw that did its best to reinforce that only a certain type of Queer Girl is welcome. May your undercuts have grown out horribly in lockdown. 




Prince of Egypt

Ok lets start with a less emotionally fraught one. I saw this one the last weekend at the theatre. And in any normal year my friends and I would be giggling over what was, let’s be honest, a bit of a hot mess at times. 

Look I’m still not sure what to do with the Interpretive Dance version of the Parting of the Red Sea to be honest. But you know what, I\’m kind of glad I experienced it. 

Prince of Egypt isn’t a bad musical- we knew the music was excellent going in. And my God (erm pardon the pun) what a set of performers. It was at times beautiful, rousing, moving. It was also…you know what a lot of fun. I’m not sure it was what will go down in history as a GREAT musical, but I did have a fun time. And really, we need more of that. 

Less interpretative dance though lads eh? 



Waitress

This wasn’t my first time at the Diner, but I can’t let 2020 go without acknowledging that I got to see Sara Bareilles and Gavin Creel in Waitress. I am such a long-term fan of both of them (I mean what self respecting 30-something Broadway nerd hasn’t fangirled Creel for years, and what self-respecting 30 something Queer girl isn’t in love with Bareilles right?). So this was special. 

It’s fair to say Waitress in London had a bumpy ride too. And seeing these two sing the score felt like the magic of the show brought to life again. 

I cried the minute Sara started singing. And for most of the second act and I’m not ashamed. 

Then I went to dinner with someone who, parson the expression, shit all over my love of the show. 

And if 2020 taught me one thing, it’s I’m never, ever putting up with people around me who take joy in making me, and what I love feel less than. 

And they’ll never read this, but let me say this; people who feel Waitress, really feel it beyond it being the cute pie show, we feel it for intensely personal reasons. The film (and the musical) touch on a whole bunch of things that are incredibly personal, and moving for a lot of people. And if you know you know. And you feel some of it on a deep level. And the show is cathartic, and a, pardon the pun, safe place to land. 

Countless shows are like that. Maybe for 2021 and beyond we can stop telling people that the thing they love isn’t worthy, or silly or not good enough. 

And Waitress? You mattered to me. And I’m glad I got to say goodbye with Sara and Gavin. 



                                      

The Visit

Oh Tony. Oh Tony. Did it really have to be four hours?

Actually you know what, it’s not a theatre year if I’m not having my arse numbed by a Tony Kushner play and I kind of love that I at least go that in. Lesley Manville wafting on, delivering a cutting remark, and wafting off again for four hours was also worth the ticket price alone. 

The Visit was an excellent piece of theatre, of the kind only the National can do. And again in a year filled with nostalgia, I’m so happy I got that. It is beautifully poetically written as only Tony can. And as only Tony can it was a fusion of the historic and the current political moment. As with so much this year it’s a shame we didn’t get to reflect on that political moment through theatre longer with Tony, especially given all that has happened since. Perhaps a revival of this in the near future, where we might be able to optimistically look at it and say ‘well we managed better.’ 

With anything Kushner this one felt personal. I was destined to make a return to working for the NT delivering some education work on the play, which of course got cancelled. But also given I spent the middle part of the year up to my eyes in Kushner and the NT, writing my Angels book, it was at least fitting I got to see this one this year. 





The King and I 

Again a more light hearted look, because even in a short year…not everything is perfect. 

Every few years, in a fit of optimism, I book a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. And then I remember that they are long as balls, and there’s exactly two that I enjoy (Oklahoma and The Sound of Music, if you’re curious).

My God The King and I goes on. 

And on. 

Just….die already? Is that a spoiler? 

Ok in hindsight a colonialist musical about childcare wasn’t exactly on brand for me. But the score is pretty (if endless). And the performances were uniformly brilliant, yes even the kids (kids on stage is my pet hate, you can see how this was a mistake). 

Did I mention it was long? 


This is of course a classic example of how a musical can just not be \’for you\’ I fully respect the artistry involved in the show, while also knowing its not for me.



Ian McKellan

That first weekend of 2020, I got to see Ian McKellan’s one man show. Having missed it in 2019 on tour (despite securing tickets, I ended up unable to go). This delightful few hours love-letter to theatre and film was quite simply a delight. 

I have little to say that hasn’t been said a million times about Sir Ian. But a few hours in his engaging company, while he talked of theatre and film that has been the backdrop to many of our lives (being a theatre nerd, and a well, nerd nerd, Sir Ian and I crossed paths a lot. Not to mention his LGBTQ/AIDS advocacy). Sometimes you feel like you got to be part of a truly special event, and the closing night of Ian’s show was just that- a theatrical event you feel privileged to be part of. 





City of Angels 

This was a last minute addition and I’m so glad I got there. I bumped a return to The Visit (to a week later, which never happened) to catch this with Mum and a friend. It was the Saturday Matinee on the last theatre day. Outside the world felt like it was already on fire, so escaping to Hollywood Noir for a few hours was sublime. 

My heart breaks for this beautiful piece of work that only got I think a week open. The cast were the creme de la creme of the West End (and while we’re at it beautiful). It’s a musical that’s hard to explain- it’s dark and twisty with an equally dark sense of humour. It’s quirky and weird and also beautiful? It was one I was already sad not to be seeing again even before I left. So I really hope it gets the London run it deserves one day. 




Tylwyth


Original Review here. 

This is a play I raved about in March. And rightly so. I stand by my praise for Daf James’ witty writing, Arwell Gryffudd’s excellent direction, and the cast’s uniformly brilliant performances. I stand by how much it moved me, how much it felt like a coming home. 

But I think it’s good to acknowledge how 2020 has changed us and our relationship with art, and ourselves. And I think if I saw it again (And I really hope I see it again after the tour was cut short) I’d have a different relationship with it. Maybe one that challenges it more, but without taking away from the skill in the writing or performances. 

I’m not entirely sure what I’m trying to say. But for me, along with the wider political issues that 2020 has brought to light, I have spent a lot of time (and I mean a lot) reflecting on Queer identity, both my own, and the wider representations we see, and so I think my reaction to it might be slightly different now. I might challenge (though I understand where it comes from) the solely male representations of sexulity. I might challenge ideas that might seem maybe dated now, because actually 2020 has been a long year in how we see ourselves. And I might just challenge my own love for this play and ask myself what more I should be looking and asking for in terms of representation on stage. That doesn’t mean this play isn’t still brilliant, because it is. It doesn’t mean I wont, or shouldn’t enjoy it. I just feel like post 2020 if I saw it again I would ask ‘but what else?’ rather than just be happy with the fact we had a play about gay men on stage. 

Daf James and co are brilliant, make no mistake. And I hope the rest of the world gets to see this play, because it’s important. 

And I hope with everything else, we continue to ask ‘what next’ in terms of our Queer voices on stage, and fight for that too. This play really, when I think about it, kick-started my year reflecting on that. For which I am also grateful. 



Romantics Anonymous

Original review here

I saw this one twice. In a week. That’s how much I loved it. Honestly, it had been a long, long time since I saw something and fell, and fell hard like I did for this show. It was the kind of show I just wanted to dissolve into, and live inside for a bit. It’s a beautiful show in every respect- the simple set, beautiful costumes and sublime performances. All of it is a credit to the genius of Emma Rice’s work. 

But more than that, it was the kind of show, the kind of story where I felt SEEN. It’s a cliche perhaps, such a Millennial phrase. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. I rarely see myself in love stories on stage, for so many reasons. Romantics gave me that. And laughs and tears along the way. 

I can’t put it better than I did at the time (full review here) so…

“It feels like things you have always kept hidden spoken out loud…and made beautiful. It feels like you’re seen, you matter… that you’re not alone.”



A Number


This was the last show I saw. On what was its last night anyway. The play itself is Caryl Churchill doing what Caryl Churchill does best. Though it’s actually one of the more ‘accessible’ ones in terms of the naturalism, and narrative. Sublimely written as expected. Perhaps a bit dated in some ways, but nevertheless fascinating. 

The two-hander performance from Roger Allam and Colin Morgan (or ‘Wee Colin’ as he’s known in our house) was beautifully, sometimes hilariously executed. It was to be frank a flawless execution of a brilliant play. I never reviewed it at the time, because it seemed a little pointless. But that’s really it in a nutshell. 

Roger Allam was in the first play I ever saw. And I’ve seen pretty much every stage appearance of his in the last (gulp) almost 20 years. I saw that first play with my Mum, I saw ‘A Number’ with my Mum, and one of my oldest friends from theatre-going. As I stood in the auditorium of The Bridge as we emptied out, I thought ‘Well if in whatever way we don’t get through this, at least that was a fitting bookend.’ 

Maybe it sounds dramatic now. But I’m sure also we all remember the fear that weekend we were all feeling. Both fear for health, for the future of all the things we were doing for the ‘last time’. And for us in the theatre, we could see the tidal wave approaching at that moment, and we knew it was hitting, and there was nothing we could do. So forgive me a little drama. I meant it in my heart at the time. I felt it. 




And so that was 2020. I haven’t included live streams. In all honesty, I didn’t watch as many as I could or should. I spent a good deal of 2020 with my heart too heavy for it. And maybe it’s dramatic, or maybe not. Maybe everyone reading this knows what I mean. 

I veer between heartfelt optimism and heartbreak still. And I’m not sure anyone outside our world understands what that feels like. Normal people I guess, know they’ll eventually get back to the pub or football. Even people who ‘quite enjoy’ theatre assume they’ll get back. 

But for those of us for whom it’s a job. But also our love. We believe- because we have to but we’re still scared right. And really, we just want our lives back. So much of our lives are tied up in theatre, and whether that’s healthy or not is not the debate right now. We lost a huge part of our lives. 

Romantics Anonymous was the last time I hugged one of my best friends. We cried on each other and hugged, and I think we would have held on a bit longer if we’d known. Another of my oldest friends walked to the station after that last performance and we said ‘I don’t know when I’ll see you again.’ and as much as we’ve talked every day, zoom quizzed and everything else, it’s another thing on top of that other thing. And we’re all tired. And sad. We’re normally spending this time of year judging each other’s Top 10 lists for the year. Counting up who has the most shows (we all know in my group who that is). Seeing how many Christmas shows we can squeeze in. Waiting excitedly for all the shows announced for the next year. Instead, we’re just trying to get through to the end of the year and hoping it’ll bring better things. 

Theatre is so much more to us all than the show on stage. It\’s our friends. It\’s our family. 

I don’t know if I’ll ever be going back to a career in theatre. And that’s ok. For me personally, that’s ok. There are other things in life. I will bounce back from that. 

But what I cannot face another year without, is my friends. My friends who I see through theatre, who I share those experiences with. I still ‘see’ them obviously, they are the people who got me through all this. But all I- we- want really is to meet on the steps of a theatre and hug again. And watch a show and cry on each other again. To eat a hurried dinner at Gourmet Burger Kitchen near the Old Vic. Or freezing my arse off at the Southbank food market. Or have a coffee at the National so strong that it makes us hyper all afternoon. We want to say hurried goodbyes before running for the tube again. Or to loiter in the bar after. Mostly, we just want to sit in the dark and experience that thing, that feeling again, with the people who get it. 

I wanted to write this blog to remember, that I did see shows in 2020. That theatre was real this year. And it will be real again. More dark times ahead. But I will even be happy to stand overheated in a toilet queue this time next year. 


The show will go on. It has to. I still believe that.


I\’ve been listening to this a lot lately.




By Emily Garside

Academic, journalist and playwright. My PhD was on theatrical responses to the AIDS epidemic, and I continue to write on Queer theatrical history. Professional nerd of all things theatre.

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