The best UK theatre shows of 2022

With One Woman Show at the Ambassadors Theatre being the last booked press night this side of the Christmas and New Year period, I can now safely conclude that I’ve seen my last show of 2022. I’ve watched 86 shows this year (including some repeat viewings I didn’t review), just surpassed my 2019 record of 84 shows, and made my first visit up to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

I also stepped inside theatres I hadn’t seen shows in before, such as the Turbine Theatre (for JJ Green’s A-Typical Rainbow), the brand-new Soho Place theatre (for Marvellous and the aforementioned As You Like It), the Criterion Theatre (for 2:22) and the Park Theatre (for Tony! [The Tony Blair Rock Opera] – yes, really).

A musical about Tony Blair wasn’t the only production to raise an eyebrow this year – I mean, we also had a play dedicated to the ‘Wagatha Christie’ libel trial, for goodness’ sake.

If you were asking me for my worst show of 2022, that would have to be – without question – the National Theatre’s Hex, which received so much praise from other critics when it stank of immature incoherence. Head Girl at the Edinburgh Fringe would have to be the runner-up.

Fortunately, this piece is an opportunity for some end-of-year optimism, as I give my Top 10 productions of 2022 – some of which are still available to watch in some capacity.

If you’re someone who cares for eligibility criteria, I’ve gone for shows which had their first proper premiere in 2022, so while 2:22 was absolutely phenomenal, seeing the ghost story when Lily Allen wasn’t on stage means – in the interests of fairness – I have to exclude that from the list. The same goes for the phenomenal Cruise, which had its West End transfer this year after a prior run at the Duchess. Some more established names like Dear Evan Hansen and SIX are also eliminated.

With all that being said…

10. Dogs of Europe

Three people in all black clothing restrain a naked man on top of a giant ball of books. The man’s mouth is open in fear, and another man on top of him, on the ball, has a white pillow in his right hand, ready to kill him. On a giant screen behind them is an image of several scrunches up balls of paper.
Photo: Linda Nylind.

In February, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the illegal invasion of Ukraine, an unconscionable, reprehensible act which sparked an ongoing war between the two states. No less than a month later, the Belarus Free Theatre staged an epic, three-hour long production warning of the dangers of an authoritarian Russia. The commitment and passion displayed by the company is astonishing, its message powerful and essential.

The real tragedy is that it only had two performances before packing up, which is most unfortunate given the urgency of its message.

‘Dogs of Europe’ had its last performance at the Barbican in March. Read the full review.

9. Animal Farm

Several people in all-black clothing man several animal puppets. At the front is a chicken, a pig and a horse, with a dog visible in the background.
Photo: Manuel Harlan.

This adaptation of George Orwell’s classic by Robert Icke never did have an official national press night during its UK tour, sadly, and I can’t help but feel like it would have gotten the attention it so rightly deserves if it did.

Despite this production being aimed at children with the involvement of the Children’s Theatre Partnership, it’s actually pretty bleak and brutal, although the use of puppetry does helpfully dampen the blow, somewhat. Even though its staging is small, on the whole, it sure is mighty.

‘Animal Farm’ had its final performance at the Birmingham Rep in February, before embarking on a UK tour. Read the full review.

8. A Number

Two Black men sit down in a bright red room. One wears glasses and a blue jumper, and turns to face another bearded Black man who is staring straight ahead. He wears a green coat and beige trousers. Both look concerned.
Photo: Manuel Harlan.

It’s a real shame that this production at the start of 2022 seems to be all but forgotten in reviews of the year in theatre. Lennie James and Paapa Essiedu starred as the respective father-son duo forced to confront the controversial and ethically troublesome topic of cloning in Caryl Churchill’s play.

With a strikingly short running time, it’s down to director Lyndsay Turner to pack it all in within 65 minutes, and not a minute is wasted. Her attention to detail is remarkable, and the performances from James and Essiedu are sharp, raw and powerful.

‘A Number’ had its final performance at The Old Vic Theatre in March. Read the full review.

7. A Doll’s House, Part 2

Noma Dumezwini, a Black woman, is on stage in a Victorian-style green dress. Her hands are in front of her as she speaks. The photo is taken through a gap in a wooden chair, which is blurred in the foreground.
Photo: Marc Brenner.

Henrik Ibsen’s timeless classic ends with quite the cliffhanger, which arguably should be left as is, yet Lucas Hnath explores the aftermath of Nora’s decision to leave the house in his ‘part two’. In an impressive understanding of the source material, it is forensic in exploring the outdated patriarchal and conservative ideals possessed by Torvald, while opening up the play to some new modern interpretations too. A brilliant and intelligent play given the authority and oomph it needs courtesy of a powerful lead performance from Noma Dumezwini.

‘A Doll’s House, Part 2’ had its final performance at the Donmar Warehouse in August. Read the full review.

6. Sap

Two woman embrace on stage, both are giving the other a hard stare
Photo: David Monteith-Hodge.

This was, without doubt, the standout show of my first Edinburgh Fringe. A bisexual woman subject to an abusive and manipulative relationship, with some plant metaphors thrown in, made for an astonishingly lyrical debut from Rafaella Marcus. It crackles with an electric energy, and that’s helped considerably by Jessica Clark’s excellent and award-winning acting in the lead role. I was thrilled to learn a few months ago that it has a new life next year in the form of a UK tour. Do whatever you can to see it.

‘Sap’ had its final performance at Summerhall, as part of the Edinburgh Fringe, in August. It will embark on a UK tour in 2023. Read the full review.

5. I, Joan

A group of actors in different coloured outfits stand on a wooden stage with a halfpipe at the back. They lean forward slightly, as if ready to charge. In the middle is a white Persson with short brown hair, a silver armour chest and blue overalls.
Photo: Helen Murray.

A non-binary Joan of Arc at the Globe got a lot of people talking earlier this year – whether that was because of bigots failing to comprehend the concept of artistic license or, more positively, because LGBTQ+ folk were seeing themselves represented on stage with gorgeous authenticity. Isobel Thom gave a tour-de-force performance here, in a play which truly felt monumental and rebellious in nature. Playwright Charlie Josephine’s script was vivid, heavily quotable and utterly transcendental. These shows don’t come around often.

‘I, Joan’ had its final performance at Shakespeare’s Globe in October. Read the full review.

4. The P Word

Two brown men, sitting on a circular theatre set with their backs to each other, look out into the audience with concern.
Photo: Craig Fuller.

The Bush Theatre has had a formidable year of shows at its Shepherd’s Bush venue. The season opener House of Ife was explosive, while the more recent Elephant was a visionary debut from Anoushka Lucas. Arguably, though, it was this romantic story of an LGBTQ+ asylum seeker which garnered a pretty significant response from critics – myself included.

Its rounded staging gave an intimate feel, the character dynamics were unique and intriguing, and its subject matter was increasingly relevant amid the pursuit of hostile immigration policies by a Conservative government. It offered a rich humanity which is so desperately needed when exploring a subject matter such as this.

‘The P Word’ had its final performance at the Bush Theatre in October. Read the full review.

3. The Chairs

A white woman with curly ginger hair in an old-fashioned black dress speaks with an open-mouth on stage. Blurred, in the foreground in front of her, are several blue chairs.
Photo: Helen Murray.

It was the most wonderful parting gift from the late, great Marcello Magni before his sad passing in September. On-stage alongside wife Kathryn Hunter, the pair perform a wonderfully whimsical version of Eugène Ionesco’s tragic farce. Given the playwright’s tendency to drag out his plots (though understandably so here), the duo breeze through the slapstick while still allowing some space for its punchier, underlying messages.

‘The Chairs’ played its final performance at the Almeida Theatre in March. Read the full review.

2. My Neighbour Totoro

A Japanese man pokes his head out of a small car holding a map. Loads of luggage is in the back, with two young girls poking their heads out underneath it all.
Photo by Manuel Harlan (c) RSC, with Nippon TV.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been left properly awestruck after seeing a play, but the RSC’s adaptation of the hit Studio Ghibli animation My Neighbour Totoro prompts the pure ecstatic wonder which comes only with the most magical of theatre productions. This version does that in perfectly translating the fantastical onto the stage by way of puppetry and the sweeping orchestral score from the original. In keeping itself incredibly faithful to the source material, it captures the beauty of two children’s mystical friends in a whole new medium.

‘My Neighbour Totoro’ is now playing at the Barbican until 21 January. Read the full review.

1. Prima Facie

Jodie Comer, a white woman with long blonde hair and a suit, sits in an office on stage with stacks of folders behind her and a wooden desk, which she rests a hand on. She sits in a green armchair and places her right hand on her chest, her mouth slightly open in shock.
Photo: Helen Murray.

This may not be surprising to many, given the sheer talent of Jodie Comer which led to her receiving awards and nominations for her West End debut. When the story of a working class defence barrister being forced to confront the system she upholds through her career entered cinemas, through NT Live, it became the highest-grossing event cinema release of all-time – and for good reason.

Comer is predictably brilliant, her emotional range as an actress is phenomenally good, and here, it is unrelenting. Combined with Suzie Miller’s aching and arresting script, it’s an utterly compelling piece of theatre with a razor-sharp call-to-action to finish.

‘Prima Facie’ has its final performance at the Harold Pinter Theatre in June. It is now available to stream online via National Theatre at Home. Read the full review.

If you missed any of my reviews from 2022, you can find them in the ‘Reviews’ drop-down underOpinion’, or you can check out the ‘Theatre’ post tag.

Featured Image: Craig Fuller.

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