Must see performing arts of 2021: Part One – theatre and musical theatre

Our Performing Arts Editor Richard Watts selects some of the shows he’s most excited to see in 2021.
Must see performing arts of 2021: Part One – theatre and musical theatre The company of the 2019 production of Once – The Musical. Photo credit: Robert Catto.
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Richard Watts

Wednesday 13 January, 2021

As the latest outbreaks of COVID-19 have reminded us, we’re still living in the midst of a pandemic. This makes curating a list of some of the 2021’s most intriguing and promising performances something of a gamble, given that a new wave of infections could close theatres, borders and concert halls across the country in an instant at any time in the coming months.

Nonetheless, I remain optimistic that after the ‘Great Pause’ of 2020, we will once again see and experience exquisite artistry in the performing arts nationwide. To that note, here is a subjective list of some of the many theatre and musical theatre performances I’m most keenly anticipating in 2021.

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Other artforms will be explored in the coming days, with Part Two providing an overview of dance and circus highlights for 2021, while opera and classical and orchestral music will be covered in Part Three of this series.

Many companies, such as NORPA, RUMPUS, HotHouse and Mudlark, have yet to announce their 2021 seasons; others, such as Malthouse, La Boite and the MTC (Melbourne Theatre Company) are announcing their seasons in acts and stages, showing appropriate caution given the changeable circumstances we all face.

Consequently, this cannot claim to be a definitive list of what you should see this year, given so much is still unknown – but hopefully it’s a good start.

MUSICAL THEATRE

Come From Away

After its Melbourne season was cut short last year due to COVID-closures, Come From Away – an uplifting and optimistic celebration of our shared humanity that was praised as ‘smart, incredibly moving and refreshingly down-to-earth’ by our reviewer – reopens at the Comedy Theatre from Tuesday 19 January, before embarking on an east coast tour, opening in Brisbane in March and Sydney in June. On paper, a musical about the immediate aftermath of September 11 hardly sounds appealing, let alone uplifting, but truly, Come From Away is a delight. See it if you need your faith in people’s innate kindness restored.  

Fangirls

Belvoir’s smash hit contemporary musical about pop music and teen devotion (a co-production with Queensland Theatre and Brisbane Festival, in association with Australian Theatre for Young People) returns for an encore season at Sydney’s Seymour Centre from 30 January. Featuring a book, music and lyrics by Sydney-born writer Yve Blake, Fangirls is a refreshing take on the ardor of adolescence. ‘This musical doesn’t stigmatise the world of the fangirl and her pop-star fixations, it revels in it,’ said The Conversation. The production can also be seen as part of the Adelaide Festival from 27 February – 14 March and at the Illawarra Performing Arts Centre thereafter.

The 2019 cast of Fangirls. Photo: Brett Boardman.

Fun Home

One of many 2020 productions rescheduled for 2021 and beyond, the MTC/STC co-pro Fun Home – based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel/memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic – gets a Sydney season from 27 April – 29 May this year before opening in Melbourne in early 2022. Dean Bryant directs Marina Prior and Lucy Maunder in this Tony Award winning non-linear story about coming out, closets, and ‘the multiple mysteries of family life’ (The Guardian).

Hamilton

The most-anticipated show of the year is surely the Sydney season of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s critically acclaimed, Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, Hamilton. The Australian production has aptly demonstrated that racially diverse performers can be cast locally instead of relying on international imports (producers and directors across the country, please take note!) and opens at Sydney Lyric Theatre from 17 March.

Read: And the world is gonna know your name: Australian Hamilton cast revealed

H.M.S. Pinafore

Technically, Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore is an operetta, not a musical, but let’s not quibble, because Kate Gaul’s production for the Hayes Theatre – remounted at Riverside Theatres for Sydney Festival – is by all accounts an absolute hoot. Sexy, saucy and playful, it’s been lauded as ‘a delight from bowsprit to sternpost’ by Audrey Journal while Suzy Goes See praised the production in which ‘Genderfucking is the order of the day … A doggedly heterosexual world is radically transformed into something much less binary, where we no longer have to care what’s between the legs, as long as we understand that the heart wants, what the heart wants.’

Kate Gaul's saucy take on H.M.S. Pinafore for the Hayes Theatre returns at Sydney Festival. Photo credit: Phil Erbacher.

Moulin Rouge! The Musical

Based on Baz Luhrmann’s hyper-kinetic film of the same name, Moulin Rouge! The Musical is coming to Melbourne’s Regent Theatre in August, following a Broadway season in 2019. Produced by Global Creatures, it’s to be hoped the show is more successful artistically than the company’s adaptation of Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom, which ArtsHub described as ‘sickly-sweet and colourful, but insubstantial and unsatisfying’. Based on the US reviews, one thing’s for certain: Moulin Rouge! is going to be a visual extravaganza, with Variety praising it as ‘gorgeously flashy’. But what about the music? According to The Hollywood Reporter, Moulin Rouge! is ‘a gaudy and gorgeous jukebox pastiche in which eye-popping spectacle, off-the-charts energy and almost non-stop musical mashups provide the plush padding for a featherweight plot … it virtually defies you not to be entertained.’

Once – The Musical

Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s production of the intimate and utterly charming Once (based on the film of the same name, and featuring songs by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová) was one of the best productions of a musical I saw in 2019, so its return this year for a national tour – supported by the RISE fund – is absolutely to be celebrated. Sincere, lively, and delightful, Once is directed by Richard Carroll with musical direction by Victoria Falconer-Pritchard. Performance dates and details have yet to be announced. 

The Producers

Mel Brooks’ satire of Broadway clichés and good taste (based on his 1967 film of the same name) premiered in early 2001 – a very different world to the one we live in now. Can we still laugh at Nazis and demagoguery in light of the recent mob attack on the US Capitol and the rise of Trump and the so-called ‘alt-right’? A 2018 UK production suggests that the musical’s humour still works, with Guardian critic Michael Billington noting, ‘Brooks understood, like Chaplin before him, that there was always an element of kitsch vulgarity to nazism.’ Altitude Theatre, a new company dedicated to supporting medium-scale music theatre, brings The Producers to Brisbane Powerhouse in March, directed and choreographed by Joseph Simons.

THEATRE

The Anniversary

Clare Bartholomew and Daniel Tobias, better known as their alter-egos Astrid and Otto of Die Roten Punkte, bring their new characters to Melbourne’s fortyfivedownstairs in February. Jim and Barb are Baby Boomers from Balwyn who literally want to kill each other. Meanwhile, their 50th wedding anniversary is looming, and Greta Thunberg is on the TV telling them it’s their fault that the world is on fire. Expect a skilled blend of physical comedy, clowning and satire from these two adept and experienced performers.

Clare Bartholomew & Daniel Tobias in The Anniversary.

Bluey’s Big Play

Based on the reactions to its world premiere season at QPAC (Queensland Performing Arts Centre) in December (Guardian Australia’s five-star review praised the production as ‘an incredibly fun, energetic performance … [with] plenty of heart’) this COVID-delayed stage production of the beloved children’s show is not to be missed. With Windmill Theatre’s Rosemary Myers’ experienced hand on the helm, production design by Jonathon Oxlade and puppetry directed by Jacob Williams, Bluey’s Big Play promises to delight all ages. The production tours nationally this year, including seasons in Adelaide, Canberra, Darwin, Perth and regional QLD and NSW. 

Boy Swallows Universe

One of many productions postponed in 2020, Queensland Theatre’s Boy Swallows Universe sees Brisbane author Trent Dalton’s award-winning debut novel adapted for the stage by Tim McGarry and directed by former QT AD Sam Strong. Dalton’s book ‘folds time on itself, flirting with magic while rooted in realism,’ to quote The Sydney Morning Herald; it will be fascinating to see how theatrical magic is employed to bring the novel to life. The world premiere season of Boy Swallows Universe is Brisbane Festival co-production. 

The Boy Who Talked To Dogs

Adapted by Irish playwright Amy Conroy from Martin McKenna’s memoir, The Boy Who Talked to Dogs tells the story of a bullied boy who runs away from home and finds a new family on the streets of Limerick – a pack of stray dogs. Andy Packer directs Irish actor Bryan Burroughs in this new collaboration between Slingsby, State Theatre Company South Australia and Dublin arts centre Draíocht. The production, which is presented by the 2021 Adelaide Festival, features original songs by Irish folk singer Lisa O’Neill (whose starkly beautiful ‘Rock the Machine’, a lament for Dublin’s dockworkers, won best original song in the 2019 Dublin Folk Awards). An international collaboration in an age when international travel has ground almost to a halt, making The Boy Who Talked to Dogs all the more appealing.

Dogged

The Australian Gothic is a rich vein of theatrical gold and has inspired such recent productions as Angus Cerini’s The Bleeding Tree, Tom Wright’s Picnic at Hanging Rock and Leah Purcell’s The Drover’s Wife. Co-written by Andrea James and Catherine Ryan, Dogged draws on similar themes to tell the story of a farmer’s daughter hunting for feral dogs in Victoria’s high country who soon learns that she is not alone. Presented by Griffin Theatre in association with Force Majeure, the production is directed by Griffin’s Artistic Director, Declan Greene, whose familiarity with the Australian Gothic resulted in Malthouse Theatre’s compelling 2019 production, Wake in Fright. Hopefully Dogged will be just as gripping.

Publicity image for Griffin's Dogged.

Hamlet

The Bard’s story of the melancholy Dane was the first work ever performed by Bell Shakespeare. Last year, for the company’s 30th anniversary, a new production of the play was programmed – only to have its national season cut short because of COVID-19. The much-lauded production (‘This is what Shakespeare should be,’ raved the Sydney Morning Herald) starring Harriet Gordon-Anderson as Hamlet and directed by Artistic Director Peter Evans returns in 2021, giving those of us who missed it the first time around (myself included) a chance to catch it at last.

High Performance Packing Tape

Cancelled because of injury, not COVID, in 2020, Branch Nebula’s profound, absurd and exhilarating High Performance Packing Tape returns to Adelaide Festival this year. Exquisite sound design emphasises and extends tension as performer Lee Wilson ‘challenges our perceptions of performance and allows us to delight in the dangerous, even if we’re biting our fingernails in terror for most of the show,’ to quote Theatre Travels. Audiences craving something other than a well written play are sure to find this solo work compelling.

Othello

Queensland Theatre was rightfully criticised for failing to include a First Nations work in their 2021 season brochure, an oversight which Artistic Director Lee Lewis has since apologised for, while also noting that a new production of Othello is due to be staged later this year by the company to coincide with Cairns Indigenous Art Fair. ‘We did not include this in the season launch as the date for CIAF in 2021 is yet to be finalised. This was a mistake,’ Queensland Theatre said in a statement. Created by Jimi Bani and Jason Klarwein, Othello will be a tri-lingual (Kala Lagaw Ya, Yumpla Tok and English) production illuminating the role of the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion during World War Two and premieres in Cairns in August. It will then be staged in Brisbane as part of Queensland Theatre’s 2022 season. Performance dates are yet to be announced.

Playing Beatie Bow

Playwright and actor Kate Mulvany has proved a dab hand at adapting Australian classics for the stage, having previously turned her hand to The Harp in the South, Jasper Jones and the children’s picture book Masquerade. Her latest play for the STC promises to work the same magic on Ruth Park’s evocative YA novel, Playing Beatie Bow, in which modern day teenager Abagail finds herself transported back in time to The Rocks in 1873. Kip Williams directs Mulvany’s adaptation of this Australian classic; a timeless and time-travelling celebration of friendship, history and Sydney itself.

Publicity image for STC's Playing Beatie Bow.

Sex, Drugs and Pork Rolls

Featuring new work by Oscar Sakr (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Poetry), Winnie Dunn, Stephen Pham and Shirley Le, with script editing and dramaturgical support from author Michael Mohammed Ahmad, Sex, Drugs & Pork Rolls is a theatrical storytelling experience adapted for presentation as a multi-screen installation. Described as a vivid and compelling portrait of life growing up in Western Sydney, these stories resonate with a sense of place and authenticity, and have been crafted for the screen by Helpmann Award winner S.Shakthidharan (Counting & Cracking). Showing at Riverside Theatres as part of Sydney Festival.

The Sum of Us

First staged in Australia by STC in 1992, The Sum of Us is the story of Jeff, a gay plumber and amateur rugby player whose dad Harry is perhaps a little too supportive of his son’s quest for love – with often hilarious results, until their shared life together takes a darker turn. David Stevens’ tragi-comedy – an inversion of many common AIDS tropes then common in drama – was adapted for the screen in 1994, with Russell Crowe and Jack Thompson in the lead roles. This new production of the play by Yirra Yaakin for Perth Festival marks the company’s first queer work, and will be performed by a First Nations cast directed by the company’s Artistic Director Eva Grace Mullaley.

Sunshine Super Girl

I’ve been looking forward to seeing Yorta Yorta/Gunaikurnai theatremaker Andrea James’ Sunshine Super Girl – a new play telling the story of Australian tennis champion Evonne Goolagong – ever since I saw the production pitched at the Red Earth Arts Precinct as part of PAC Australia’s 2018 Performing Arts Exchange. Following its world premiere in Griffith last year, the production – directed by James herself and featuring choreography by Vicki Van Hout – is now showing at Sydney Festival. The production has been praised by the Sydney Morning Herald as ‘a play that educates and uplifts, light entertainment with a bite of wit,’ while Limelight praised it as ‘an illuminating, entertaining play, which tells an important Australian story with humour and heart’. Keep an eye out for further presentations of the work in 2022.  

Performing Lines' production of Sunshine Super Girl. Photo credit: Yaya Stempler.

The View From Up Here

The impact of the 2019-2020 bushfires has doubtless helped shape this new theatrical work by Fiona Spitzkowsky, a playwright whose work focuses on femininity, climate change, and the relationship between the internet and contemporary dramaturgy. Directed by Julian Dibley-Hall and performed by John Marc Desengano, Chanella Macri, Andrea Mendez and Emily Tomlins, the production aims to be as sustainable as possible, in addition to being a compelling exploration of family, survival and legacy in the aftermath of disaster. Presented at Theatre Works from 20-30 October.

Whistleblower

The Last Great Hunt’s Whistleblower at Perth Festival fuses elements of the company’s older productions to create an entertaining new whole. One part Monroe & Associates (an immersive, theatrical role-playing game for an audience of one) and one part Lé Nør [the rain] (a live action foreign film created as the audience watch on) Whistleblower is a live mystery film shot on a sound-proof stage and projected into the theatre overhead – with a new member of the audience starring in the interactive show each night. Additional audience members play supporting roles, aided and abetted by the cast. No two nights will be the same, but every night promises to be deliciously entertaining.  

York

Staged as part of Black Swan State Theatre Company’s multi-disciplinary Maali Festival – a two-day festival of First Nations art and culture this July – York is a new play by Ian Michael (Wilman Nyoongar) and Chris Issaacs (The Last Great Hunt) in collaboration with the WA Youth Theatre Company. Blending humour and horror to speak to buried histories, York is in and around an abandoned hospital in the township of York, on Ballardong Nyoongar country, in regional WA. The production demonstrates Black Swan’s commitment to telling Western Australian stories, and promises to shed new light on how those stories are told – and who tells them.

About the author

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R FM, a program he has hosted since 2004.

Richard currently serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's volunteer Committee of Management, and is also a former Chair of Melbourne Fringe. The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, he has also served as President of the Green Room Awards Association and as a member of the Green Room's Independent Theatre panel. 

Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Festival Living Legend in 2017. Most recently he was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize for 2019.

Twitter: @richardthewatts