The best theatre of 2022, ranked


This was the first time, in two years, that theatre emerged blinking from a seemingly endless cycle of closures, delays and cancellations. Perhaps that’s why 2022 felt quite muted, with lots of very good shows but not quite so many knockout ones. But in a year when we needed to hear fresh ideas and have lots of fun, it was new writing and musical theatre that often won the day. Our pick of the year’s 15 best theatre shows, ranging from audacious plays to ebullient musicals, reminded us that being in an audience, watching something brilliant with lots of other people, is always a great place to be.

15. Hedwig and the Angry Inch – Leeds Playhouse and Home, Manchester

The first full-scale revival of this rock musical about a genderqueer performer was a joy, and gave drag queen Divina de Campo the starring role that they deserved. Holly Williams, reviewing for The Independent, described it as “a delicious treat,” adding that “it still feels remarkably fresh and original – far from the predictable formulas of many musicals – and the soundtrack rocks, with a fierce, punky energy.”

14. That Is Not Who I Am – Royal Court

I was thrilled by the sheer daring and audacity of this Russian doll of a Royal Court play. First announced as the work of an unknown debut writer called Dave Davidson, it later became apparent that it was really the deliciously mischievous work of Chimerica playwright Lucy Kirkwood (who also penned the viscerally powerful Maryland in response to the murders of several women, shown on BBC earlier in the year). Paced like a true crime podcast, it was a slippery mystery about online conspiracy theories, uncaring governments, and the gaps in between. Jessie Thompson

13. Sorry You’re Not a Winner – Bristol Old Vic

Another Paines Plough production, Samuel Bailey’s latest play followed working-class, West Country lads Fletch (Kyle Rowe) and Liam (Eddie-Joe Robinson) on the eve of the rest of their lives. Liam is about to head off to study at Oxford while Fletch is left behind, the scratchcard in his hand his only symbol of hope. Fast forward three years and Liam’s accent has almost vanished, while his friend is fresh out of prison. A darkly funny and powerful show, this left me desperate to see more winning performances from Rowe, who seethes and glowers as Fletch, inhibited by the stronghold of masculinity. Isobel Lewis

12. Prima Facie – Harold Pinter Theatre

Jodie Comer gave an acting masterclass in this 100-minute solo show, playing a barrister who defends men accused of sexual assault – until she is date-raped by a colleague herself. It was exhausting – and thrilling – to watch the Killing Eve star on stage as she slipped in and out of different accents and characters, in an electrifying performance that never let up for a moment. JT

11. I, Joan – Shakespeare’s Globe

When the Globe Theatre announced a new play about Joan of Arc, in which the French martyr would have they/them pronouns and be played by non-binary actor Isobel Thom, some critics suggested that stripping Joan of her femininity was misogynistic. They needn’t have worried: Charlie Josephine’s script is full of love for womankind, while also celebrating diversity of gender expression. With a slick ensemble cast and gleeful anchoring by Thom, I, Joan was as caring as it was radical. IL

10. Hungry – Soho Theatre/Edinburgh Fringe

New writing theatre company Paines Plough has staged some exceptional shows this year, but the highlight has to be Hungry. Written by Britain’s busiest playwright Chris Bush, this sharp two-hander centred on the relationship between ambitious, type-A chef Lori (Eleanor Sutton) and Bex (Leah St Luce), an effortlessly chill waiter. Their romance is conjured through grand metaphors equating food with love, but issues lurk beneath: those of race, class and cultural appropriation in the food industry and beyond. No one writes about love, anger and dinner quite like Bush. IL

9. Tammy Faye – Almeida Theatre

Wigs! Eye shadow! Songs by Elton John! Whoever decided to turn the story of larger-than-life televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker into a sparkly new musical was a genius. Okay, so none of the songs were massively memorable – although shout out to the one where Zubin Varla went full Javert – but it was pointless trying to resist the sheer, bouncy ebullience of Rupert Goold’s production, with a barnstorming performance from Katie Brayben as Tammy Faye. JT

8. Othello – National Theatre

Before Clint Dyer’s production, a Black director had never staged Othello at the National Theatre. But his production was history-making for another reason: it was an electric reading of the play that looks set to become an enduring contemporary reference point. Here, the racial prejudice faced by Othello was made stark – as was the toxic masculinity encountered by the doomed women. Paul Hilton’s Oswald Mosley-esque Iago is still making me shiver. JT

7. The Darkest Part of the Night – Kiln Theatre

Jumping back and forth between 1980s and current-day Leeds, Zodwa Nyoni’s play told the story of siblings Shirley (Nadia Williams) and Dwight (Lee Phillips), and their unbreakable relationship at crucial points in their lives. Phillips’s standout performance from teenage years to the adulthood of Dwight, who has autism, was truly something special to watch, while Williams shone as elder Shirley in some scenes, and then as their mother Josephine in others. A story of how love perseveres through issues of mental health, racism, police brutality and grief, the play never felt bogged down by its heavy subject matter. Instead, I walked away feeling hopeful and truly touched. Nicole Vassell

6. The Band’s Visit – Donmar Warehouse

In terms of pure charm, the Donmar Warehouse’s big-hearted European premiere of The Band’s Visit was the leader of the pack by a mile. The premise was simple – a group of Egyptian musicians accidentally end up in a small Israeli town because they mispronounced its name – but the emotional impact was shattering. Subtle, soulful and possessing of a unique spirit, it paid tribute to how art can build bridges – and gave me a solid case of the goosebumps as it did so. JT

5. My Neighbour Totoro – Barbican Theatre

Once in a while a show will come around that seems impossible to stage. My Neighbour Totoro is one of those shows. Breathing life into Hayao Miyazaki’s much-adored 1988 animation is no easy feat. After all, it does feature a 7ft-tall, pot-bellied, long-whiskered woodland creature. Oh, and also something called a Catbus, which looks exactly as the portmanteau suggests. The success of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s stage adaptation then, was as unlikely as it was astounding. Between the childhood glee of the adult actors, and the forever unfurling set designed by Tom Pye, My Neighbour Totoro left its audience alternating between a Cheshire grin and slack-jawed awe. A tiring two-and-a-half hours for your facial muscles, but well worth every second. Annabel Nugent

4. Operation Mincemeat – Southwark Playhouse

At a time when London’s musical theatre landscape is flooded with film adaptations and Broadway imports, Operation Mincemeat is that rare thing: an original British musical. Based on the hard-to-believe but true World War II mission of the same name, Spitlip’s show has lyrics as smart and snappy as Hamilton and a book as silly as the greatest slapstick comedies. They say that a mark of a good new musical is that you leave humming the songs. One year later, I still can’t get those tunes out of my head. And – hurrah – it’s coming back in 2023. IL

3. House of Ife – Bush Theatre

The Bush Theatre consistently knocked it out of the park this year when it came to putting thrilling new voices on stage. Never more so than with Beru Tessema’s House of Ife, directed by the Bush’s artistic director, Lynette Linton. After the death of their eldest son, Ife, a British-Ethiopian family battle to forge a path forward – a battle that only grows more complicated with the return of their estranged patriarch. The electric chemistry of House of Ife’s five-piece cast placed the audience fully into the character’s complex world, and made the journey towards the explosive end all the more dazzling. It was a thrilling and succinct exploration of how brushing troubles under the carpet can tear families can apart. NV

2. Legally Blonde – Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

Since it first opened on Broadway in 2007, Legally Blonde: The Musical has retained a devoted fanbase. It was no surprise, then, that the Regents Park Open Air Theatre’s summer revival – the first in the UK for a decade – attracted packed audiences, dressed in the show’s signature colour of pink, who were ready to watch, come rain or shine. Luckily, they weren’t left disappointed – it was just as fabulous as expected. Led by Courtney Bowman’s Elle and directed by Six co-creator Lucy Moss, it brimmed with energy, laughs and landmark performances – Nadine Higgin as dog-loving hairdresser Paulette all but stole the show. NV

1. Daddy – Almeida Theatre

Over in New York, Jeremy O Harris has cemented his status as the king of theatre’s most thrilling new vanguard. The Almeida’s long-delayed production of Daddy allowed him to do it here too. We watch cat-and-mouse games play out between rich, white art collector Andre (Dracula’s Claes Bang) and young, Black artist Franklin (Terique Jarrett). Harris’s play took both the actors and its audiences to wild, unexpected places. There was full-frontal nudity. Kinky sex. Fights. Drugs aplenty. A real working swimming pool. And a rendition of a George Michael song. It made for a woozy, disorientating epic, delivered with laser-focused precision. IL

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