Top online theatre of 2020

2020 certainly wasn’t the year we were expecting, but despite many theatres sadly having to remain closed due to the pandemic we’ve still been able to get our theatre fix thanks to online productions. I’ve rounded up just a few of my favourites from the past nine months.

What A Carve Up! Barn Theatre, Lawrence Batley Theatre, New Wolsey Theatre
The Barn Theatre really has been one of the saviours of 2020 with their many digital productions keeping us entertained throughout lockdown. Earlier this year they teamed up with the Lawrence Batley Theatre and New Wolsey Theatre for a digital production of What A Carve Up! Written by Henry Filloux-Bennett, the production was based on Jonathan Coe’s 1994 satirical novel and focused on the murder of one of the most powerful and corrupt (fictional) families in the country. With an all-star cast featuring Alfred Enoch, Tamzin Outhwaite, Sir Derek Jacobi, Stephen Fry, Celia Imrie and Jonathan Bailey, the production used a number of styles to tell a gripping story, from photographs and voiceovers to archive footage. What A Carve Up! was a bold and imaginative production, part whodunnit, part Netflix documentary, and was an incredibly powerful thriller. 

Rose, Hope Mill Theatre 
Written by Martin Sherman, this one-woman play returned for a limited online run earlier this year in association with the Hope Mill Theatre. Maureen Lipman starred as Rose, an eighty year old woman who was sitting shiva to mourn the dead. The play took the audience on a journey through history as Rose reminisced over her early years growing up in the Ukraine, living through the horrors of the holocaust, her journey to a new life as a refugee, and finally achieving the American Dream. What’s more it was a chilling relevant play and a reminder that not that much has changed in society in regards to racism and antisemitism. Maureen Lipman put in a spellbinding performance as she brought to life Sherman’s fine script, and was able to blend comedy and tragedy to great effect. This was a powerful and important play which mesmerised right from the very start.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bridge Theatre 
NT Live came to our rescue during the first lockdown with its ‘At Home’ Thursdays, where some of their best-loved productions were streamed on YouTube. There were some great productions streamed – from A Streetcar Named Desire and Small Island to This House and Frankenstein – but my favourite had to be A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The show originally ran at London’s Bridge Theatre in 2019 and lost none of its magic in this digital viewing. Starring Gwendoline Christie, Oliver Chris and Hammed Animashaun, this immersive production saw the roles of Oberon and Titania swapped with hilarious results. The show was incredibly imaginative, full of joy and wit and made Shakespeare accessible to all – and fun. Plus it had a great soundtrack – I’ll never listen to Beyonce’s Love On Top in the same way ever again. 

The Snow Queen, New Wolsey Theatre
Sadly many pantomimes were unable to go ahead this Christmas due to the public health restrictions, but thankfully some theatres were able to stream their shows online. There have been some brilliant online pantos on offer, but one of my favourites was the New Wolsey Theatre’s Rock n’ Roll panto, The Snow Queen. The show, which was broadcast online with a socially distanced audience inside the auditorium, was a riot from start to finish. It combined action and music throughout, with a soundtrack of great pop and rock songs performed by the actor/musicians. What’s more, it was full of joy and laughter with thanks to writer and director Peter Rowe and Steve Simmonds’ hilarious and mischievous Dame Smorgashbord. A great show which provided fun for all the family. 

A Monster Calls, London and Bristol Old Vic
A Monster Calls had embarked on a nationwide tour earlier this year before the pandemic struck. Luckily the London and Bristol Old Vic came to the rescue for those who missed out on seeing it by streaming the production back in June. Based on the book by Patrick Ness, this was a poignant tale about a young boy who is trying to deal with his mother’s cancer diagnosis when he starts receiving midnight visits from a yew tree with stories to share. With incredibly imaginative direction from Sally Cookson, this was a devastating story about love and loss. When I saw the production in London I left the theatre in floods of tears and likewise I was inconsolable after watching the digital version. This was a show which really captured the imagination and proved just how magical theatre could be. 

Faith Healer, Old Vic 
Earlier this year the Old Vic launched its In Camera series with socially distanced performances streamed live. Shows included Lungs starring Claire Foy and Matt Smith, Three Kings with Andrew Scott, and Faith Healer. Written by Brian Friel this production starred Michael Sheen, Indira Varma and David Threlfall, who each delivered enchanting monologues as people remembering the same events from different perspectives. With three incredible performances and a spellbinding script, this production certainly didn’t disappoint. 

Songs for a New World, Lambert Jackson Productions and The Other Palace
Lambert Jackson Productions has also been one of the heroes of 2020, with its Leave A Light On series right at the start of lockdown, and then teaming up with The Other Palace for virtual productions of Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years and Songs for a New World. Starring Ramin Karimloo, Rachel Tucker, Rachel John and Cedric Neal, Songs for a New World was filmed in isolation and featured a collection of songs which explored life, love and the choices we make. What I loved most about the show was the sheer level of talent on offer, with all four performers wowing with their stunning vocals. All of the songs were incredible, but Rachel Tucker’s performance of The Flagmaker was heartbreaking, while Cedric Neal’s Flying Home was just unreal. The musical was performed at the London Palladium for a brief run, and hopefully this won’t be the last we see of it.

A Christmas Carol, Old Vic
A year ago I was sat in the Old Vic Theatre watching A Christmas Carol again in what’s now become an annual tradition, unaware of the year we were about to endure. This year, for obvious reasons, the trip to London was cancelled but the Old Vic ensured the tradition was able to continue by live streaming the production during the run up to Christmas. Andrew Lincoln took the helm as Scrooge and did a fine job indeed, embracing the meanness and bitterness that made his redemption all the more moving. Director Jack Thorne ensured that this was a magical production which was perfectly adapted for online viewing. The beautiful music, stunning lighting and brilliant cast resulted in a powerful production which was the perfect pick-me-up this Christmas. 

Romantics Anonymous, Bristol Old Vic
Back in January before the world went crazy I went on a road trip to Bristol to see Romantics Anonymous at the Old Vic, having heard rave reviews from the show’s run at London’s Sam Wanamaker Theatre in 2017. The show was about to start a US tour when the pandemic struck, but luckily Wise Children decided to bring the show back for one week only in September and stream live from the Bristol Old Vic every night. Directed by Emma Rice, this beautiful musical was based on the 2010 film Les Emotifs Anonymes and was a beautiful story about two socially awkward people. Angelique is a talented chocolatier crippled by social anxiety and Jean-Rene is the manager of a failing chocolate factory who relies on self-help tapes to get himself through the day. When Angelique gets a job in Jean-Rene’s factory, a beautiful if somewhat uncertain love affair begins. This charming musical was warm and touching, celebrating introverts AND chocolate. With a wonderful set, a talented cast and a beautiful soundtrack, Romantics Anonymous was a magical show which melted the heart. Je Suis Emotif indeed. 

Photo credit: Steve Tanner

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