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Sarah Crompton on theatre in 2021: 'You could sense the warmth of the bond between viewers and viewed'

Sarah Crompton reflects on a year's worth of live performance

David Harewood and Charles Edwards
© Wasi Daniju

I am sitting writing about my theatre top 12 for 2021 with the heaviest of hearts, as theatres all around me, featuring shows I have really enjoyed (Cinderella, Best of Enemies, The Book of Dust among many more) close their doors because they simply cannot carry on, faced with the havoc caused by the spread of the Omicron variant of Covid.

There is no escaping the severe financial damage these dark houses will cause: there is no theatre, however successful, that does not rely on the Christmas season to swell its coffers. But that is not the only reason it breaks my heart.

I missed quite a lot of shows this year thanks to my own non-Covid related health issues; when I returned, I was technically classed as vulnerable for a time, so it felt like a big step to go out. It meant I failed to see some of the year's agreed highlights, including the Donmar's ground-breaking production of Constellations with four different casts and Ralph Fiennes' one-man Four Quartets.

But night after night, as I sat in darkened auditoria, I felt uplifted by the great swell of communal concentration that theatregoing gives off. Whether it is designed mainly to entertain, or to provoke, or a bit of both, there is nothing like being in a theatre. And I was struck by how many of the returning audience clearly shared my enthusiasm. You could almost sense the warmth of the bond between viewers and viewed, the gratitude of one to the other that they had struggled back to their feet against the odds and had made an effort.

There was a sense, of course, that shows had to be good to justify going out. Directors and administrators have a sense that it is the committed audience that has taken up its seats once more, rather than those who view the theatre as an occasional treat. I understand that attitude and I had a new star rating in my head – is this worth being ill for? A surprising amount of shows were, even if I didn't enjoy every one. But what struck me, over and over again, was the sheer gallantry of the performers and the production teams.

It's an old-fashioned word, but it summed up a traditional and noble attitude: when the world is going to pot all around you, art gives you a chance either to escape it, or to confront its problems in constructive and stimulating ways. It is a good thing. It makes you feel better.

That sheer perseverance, the belief against the odds, cheered me up more than anything else in this difficult time and I am grateful to every single one of the writers, directors, designers, actors, dancers and behind the scenes teams who put their talent and skills to work to bring theatre back to life. Here's hoping that 2022 brings a better reward for their efforts.

Read Sarah's top 12 shows of the year