FEATURE: The shows of 2021 – the highs and some lows

Brian Butler December 31, 2021

In my 198th article this year I look back at the highs and some lows of the shows I’ve been fortunate to see.

There were many strong solo performances. This was wrought initially from necessity due to the first half of the year having only streamed shows. I think streaming will stay with us even if we get back to full capacity in theatres. New techniques have been developed in both special effects and the use of social media but of course, nothing gives you the kick of a live audience – it’s the best feeling for both audience and performer and long may it stay so.

So no top 5 or 10, but I’ll do a worst 2 ! The year began with the wonderful AIDS-era series It’s A Sin and little other TV hits that high spot – dark, funny, heart-warming and important. The streaming season got underway with an outstanding performance by Ria Jones in the Curve, Leicester’s Sunset Boulevard. Fionn Whitehead was engaging to watch in the Barn Cirencester’s Picture Of Dorian Gray and the song-and-dance series The Theatre Channel introduced us to new and old shows that wowed us.

The Curve gave us a full-on The Color Purple – The Musical, and I was lucky enough to do an online interview with the real Jill from It’s A Sin, and with choreographer Bill Deamer, who created not only a memorable Follies onstage but also some of the best professional routines on Strictly.

Others included Brighton choir directors Sam Barton, Samuel Cousins and Joe Paxton, all of whose groups lifted our hearts this year. The Rialto Theatre looked like it would fall victim to Covid lockdowns, receiving none of the Government’s Culture Recovery funding. But as Sondheim would say – it’s still here.

The amazingly wide talents of writer/actor Michael Conley showed up several times as he delighted in his shows The Sorrows Of Satan, The Fabulist Fox Sister and The Cancellation of Crispin Cox. He also had two shows on stage – the futuristic musical Vanara and a re-boot of Indecent Proposal.

The dynamo that is actor/singer/dancer Layton Williams appeared at Brighton Theatre Royal as Jamie in one of the best musical stagings I’ve seen this year, and he was joy to interview. Good luck with Jamie in LA in January.

Back to streaming, there was an intriguing verbatim show put together by Alexis Gregory, which looked at the issues surrounding LGBTQ + teenagers being rejected by their families. He also sat down for an interview about his other shows including the mesmerising Stonewall Riots show- Riot Act. You can catch it on tour in 2022.

Chichester re-opened, and its Summer musical South Pacific was clever, engaging and very fresh. It’s on tour in 2022, with a short London season too. Gina Beck and Julian Ovenden were outstanding.

Brighton Festival and Fringe both roared back with a mixture of online and physical performances and there were some great solos – Topsie Redfern in their autobiographical Crystal Balls, Mark Inscoe in his musical journey with Cole Porter and Noel Coward, and Rosemary Ashe in her reincarnation of Brighton favourite Dora Bryan. Ashe was equally delightful in a small but perfectly formed staging of Call Me Madam at Upstairs At The Gatehouse in Highgate.

Three RuPaul stars agreed to do interviews – Alyssa Edwards, who excelled in a kind of burlesque extravaganza at the Vaudeville. And Ben DeLa Crème and Jinx Monsoon were a joy to talk to ahead of their Christmas show at the Theatre Royal.

Mark Farrelly gave us his take on Queer icons Quentin Crisp and Derek Jarman, and in an interview was searingly honest about mental health issues. There were great Queer seasons at London’s Kings Head, a pop-up Garden Theatre in Pimlico from the enterprising Lambco Productions and the ever-brilliant Above The Stag in Vauxhall had 100 mph farce, Tommy On Top with a serious message about closeted Oscar hopefuls. The Garden season had two knockout shows – a modern dance version of Coppelia in a Soho sex shop, and a wonderful short piece set in a supermarket. It also staged Dan Ireland-Reeves’ Bleach – of which more later.

Above The Stag gave us a visual delight in its recreation of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens and in its crazy panto with more dick jokes than you’ll hear anywhere else. Brighton Dome opened with the best precautions I’ve seen this year and its Passagers by acrobatic dance/music group 7 Fingers just amazed. Drag Royalty Sally Vate, Tanya Hyde, Rose Garden, Pixie Polite and Stephanie Von Clitz recreated the Golden Girls in a great little piece at the Curzon Bar in Kemptown.

A new venue hit the scene, thanks to Government funding – Pride at the Ironworks – and it’s one that will delight in 2022. Dan Ireland-Reeves reprised his Garden Theatre show Bleach, a towering solo examination of the life and staggering fate of a Soho sex-worker. The most gripping dramatic performance of my year.

Miss Hope Springs gave us her brilliantly comic damaged star-that-never-was, and Tim McArthur took us on a tour of Sondheim’s Divas, reminding us later in the year of what we’ve lost and what we still have of Sondheim’s genius.

On film, there were marvellous offerings from Peccadillo Pictures, including Sequin In A Blue Room, the heartbreaking Two Of Us, and Sweetheart. The Iris Prize, offering the best in Queer films, especially short ones, produced some stunning international work, including Saint Narcisse, a hauntingly beautiful depiction of identical twin incest. NQV continues to produce highly interesting short film compilations from around the world.

So what was not to like? Well two turkeys are not bad for an outstanding year, but musical versions of Diana, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover are best to return to obscurity.  2 out of 198 ain’t a bad record. Happy 2022 with more stuff from me in Scene magazine.