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Top reviewed shows of 2020 to date

These are our top shows of the first quarter of the year, with seven five-star reviews

The cast of The Last Five Years
© Pamela Raith

With 2020 theatre currently on pause, we look back over these last few months to remind ourselves of some of the top talent that has so far graced the stage.

The Wicker Husband

Laura Johnson and the cast of The Wicker Husband
© Johan Persson

The Watermill Theatre's new musical by New Zealand-born composer and lyricist Darren Clark is based on Ursula Wills-Jones' short story, of an Ugly Girl who asks the magical Old Basket Maker to weave her a husband made from wood. As the last show we caught before the theatre shutdown, our WhatsOnStage reviewer loved "this beautiful and bewitching, fresh and entirely original musical" that comes to an end "as devastating as it is unexpected". Played at the Watermill Theatre, Newbury

The Seven Streams of the River Ota

Richard Fréchette in The Seven Streams of the River Ota
© Elias Djemil-Matassov

Robert Lepage's show returned to London to mark 75 years since the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima, and what a tribute it paid! Over the course of seven unforgettable hours, the play charts a group of loosely related people from the 1945 bombing to their return in 1999. WhatsOnStage's chief critic Sarah Crompton "can't imagine loving anything better this year" than this "testament to the way art can increase compassion and understanding". Played at the National Theatre

Oliver Twist

The company of Oliver Twist
© Anthony Robling

Ramps on the Moon – a consortium of theatres that put D/deaf and disabled artists and audience members at the heart of major productions – presented an accessible adaptation on the Charles Dickens tale earlier this month. But could they breathe new life into the classic story? Our WhatsOnStage reviewer thought so, calling it "a perfect canvas, on which director Amy Leach orchestrates a sharp and inclusive vision". Played at Leeds Playhouse before a UK tour

The Last Five Years

Oli Higginson and Molly Lynch in The Last Five Years
© Pamela Raith

This Jason Robert Brown musical is a two-hander that moves backwards in time for one character and forwards for the other. Confused yet? Don't be – this version of a five-year relationship was "the definitive production" according to our WhatsOnStage reviewer. "This staging adds so much more to the musical than ordinarily, and [director] O'Boyle's choices enable him to mine Brown's lyrics and come up with gold". As for the two performers, Molly Lynch and Oli Higginson (Lydia White stepped in to cover Lynch's illness at short notice) were a complete triumph, so let's hope for another run in the very near future. Played at Southwark Playhouse

Uncle Vanya

Richard Armitage and Aimee Lou Wood in Uncle Vanya
© Johan Persson

The Chekhov play was back on the West End stage again and though you might assume this to be just another version of the classic, our WhatsOnStage chief critic Crompton was caught offguard. "When a play written in 1898 can make you feel so deeply, then you know you are witnessing something very special", and lead Toby Jones "makes Vanya both infinitely loveable and consistently irritating". The show was so transformative to another of our WhatsOnStage staff that he wrote a blog highlighting the relevance of this playwright to a modern audience. Played in the West End at the Harold Pinter Theatre


Emma Lucia and Daniel Healy in the Once UK tour
© Mark Senior

" 'Lonely is a big part of the world nowadays', muses one of the characters in Once", and truer words have never been spoken by our WhatsOnStage reviewer in light of the current situation. Once in the West End at the Phoenix Theatre, this touring version first opened at Croydon and is "a beautiful love story full of buckets of charm and heart-fluttering moments". And in these perfect, final words courtesy of our reviewer, "despite us all feeling loneliness, feeling it together can make it somewhat better". Played at Fairfield Halls before a UK tour

The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel

The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel
© Manuel Harlan

This anarchic story was brought to life by theatre company Told By An Idiot, who imagined a situation where Chaplin and Laurel created a professional partnership together. The company narrated the resulting relationship through physical theatre and mime, with the occasional song thrown in. And we loved it! Our WhatsOnStage reviewer described it as, "inventive, highly physical, carefully crafted chaos". Played at Wilton's Music Hall

You Stupid Darkness!

The cast of You Stupid Darkness!
© Ali Wright

This Sam Steiner play marked a transition period in Paines Plough's artistic directorship, as the two previous leaders – James Grieve and George Perrin – left and Katie Posner and Charlotte Bennett took over. The show is also dangerously poignant, in that it imagines a world slowly falling apart and a quartet of call centre workers determined to bring some light into people's lives. Our WhatsOnStage reviewer commented that the show "projects a message of community spirit despite its dystopian setting" and singled out Lydia Larson as one to watch, "Larson's pace, delivery and characterisation are effortlessly funny". Played at Southwark Playhouse

The Welkin

Maxine Peake and Ria Zmitrowicz in The Welkin
© Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

Maxine Peake, Ria Zmitrowicz and Cecilia Noble were a force to be reckoned with in this world premiere, with Lucy Kirkwood "a playwright of dazzling ambition" with concepts that "range high and wide" according to our WhatsOnStage chief critic Crompton. And with a back catalogue that includes Chimerica and Mosquitoes, it's an accurate statement. This work is a fictional historical courtroom drama that brings a 12-strong jury of matrons to judge if the accused is pregnant so the court can decide whether to hang her or not, "A brilliant, brave, bold and intelligent three hours in the theatre. It is, for all the seriousness of its subject, often very funny yet at the close, profoundly moving." Played at the National Theatre

Pass Over

Paapa Essiedu and Alexander Eliot in Pass Over
© Marc Brenner

Antoinette Nwandu's play fused the book of Exodus with Waiting for Godot and modern-day stories taken from the headlines of the last decade. With Paapa Essiedu as the lead, Indhu Rubasingham's production revolved around black male friendships and dangerous interactions with the police. Our WhatsOnStage reviewer found it "a witty, humorous gem of theatre, exploring issues of race in a refreshingly satirical way". Played at Kiln Theatre