After two years of Covid, London theatre returned this year with a vengeance, kicking off with some of the best new and returning plays of the decade. Here are a few of our favourites.
1. CRUISE (APOLLO)
Jack Holden’s incredible one-man show explores the fallout of the AIDS crisis in a spectacularly contemporary way. Having opened in May 2021, it earned a well-deserved transfer to the Apollo this summer, and its combination of heartstring-tugging drama and live house music more than fill the cathedral to London theatre. It’s an ode to queerness, Old Compton Street, joy, resilience and escapism.
2. JERUSALEM (APOLLO)
Mark Rylance returns after a decade to the role that landed him the best actor gongs at the Olivier and Tony Awards in 2010 and 2011. And ten years later it continues to justify its reputation as a modern-day classic. Jez Butterworth’s meandering, hypnotic play has rightly been labelled one of the best works of the 21st century, and Rylance once again shows he’s one of the top leading actors of his generation.
3. PRIMA FACIE (HAROLD PINTER THEATRE)
Perhaps the single most arresting performance of the year came from Jodie Comer in Prima Facie. She plays a young barrister who defends men in sexual assault cases, until she is dragged into one of her own. Comer’s performance is exhaustingly energetic, full of charisma and heartbreakingly raw. Prima Facie cements her as one of the most versatile young actors out there.
4. PATRIOTS (ALMEIDA)
With Putin dominating headlines across the world, it was an apt time for Frost/Nixon writer Peter Morgan to drop his new play Patriots, which tells the story of Russia’s lurch from communism to gangster capitalism in the wake of Perestroika. Tom Hollander is magnetic in a stylish play that unfolds like a fascinating and brutal soap opera.
5. ORLANDO (GARRICK THEATRE)
Virginia Woolf’s satirical novel Orlando was, in 1928, asking the same questions around gender identity that society is still grappling with today. Non-binary actor Emma Corrin plays the many iterations of the lead character with humour and conviction, evoking real star power.
6. TAMMY FAYE (ALMEIDA)
James Graham, Rupert Goold, Jake Shears and Elton John were the dream team behind this new glitterball of a musical, which stands shoulder to shoulder with the very best. Full of great songs, great performances and more camp flourishes than a magician at a caravan park, this is a toe-tapping whirlwind of hairspray and sequins, all delivered with an evangelical zeal.
7. WUTHERING HEIGHTS (NT)
Emma Rice’s take on Wuthering Heights is more of a riff on Emily Brontë’s novel than a direct adaptation. A deeply strange production, Rice introduces musical numbers, meta jokes and contemporary expletives to create a singularly punk version of this timeless classic. Unlike anything else out there.
8. I, JOAN (SHAKESPEARE’S GLOBE)
I, Joan, a new adaptation of the story of Joan of Arc, is a history-making piece of theatre for transgender and non-binary people, being the first major London theatre production where a trans person took centre stage in a main role. From the script to the performances to the staging, there’s a triumphant energy to I, Joan that will be remembered for years to come.
9. OTHELLO (NT)
Clint Dyer, recently appointed deputy artistic director of the National Theatre, becomes the first black man to direct Othello at the institution, having already been the first black man to direct any play there. He responds with a super-stylish production that tackles the play’s themes of racism, domestic abuse and toxic masculinity head-on.
10. GOOD (HAROLD PINTER THEATRE)
David Tennant plays a reluctant Nazi in this restaging of CP Taylor’s 1981 play. His Prof Halder is a bumbling academic who’s descent into evil is incremental, and Tennant’s natural charisma keeps the audience on-side for long enough to question themselves when his actions eventually become utterly indefensible. A timely reminder of how extremism can creep up on a nation, especially during times of economic strife.
The Forest (Hampstead Theatre): Part Freudian psycho-sexual puzzlebox, part made-for-TV melodrama, this twisty new play from Florian Zeller confounds and surprises at every turn.
Age of Rage (Barbican): Dutch master Ivo van Hove’s mad Greek epic, retelling seven plays in one four-hour orgy of mud, fire and sexual deviency.
The Burnt City (Woolwich Docks): Punchdrunk return with another absurdly textured immersive theatre production, retelling the sacking of Troy through the medium of sexy dance.
Straight Line Crazy (Bridge Theatre): Ralph Fiennes shines in this tale of a monstrous city planner whose vision for a car-filled America still ripples across the world today.
The Collaboration (Young Vic): Paul Bettany and Jeremy Pope play Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat in this slick, zippy production at a rejuvanated Young Vic.