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Cultural highlights of 2020

Cultural highlights of 2020

Michael gives a month by month overview of his favourite cultural events of 2020…

One of my favourite things to do during the Christmas break is the self-indulgent treat of reflecting on my cultural outings of the year. If I write stuff down it helps to fix the memory of experiences I definitely don’t want to forget.

And I know some people don’t, but I revel in the retrieval and archiving of it all; skimming emails, scanning calendars, collating tickets and sorting through ephemera and digital files.

That’s obviously been a simpler task this year; I’ve not been out much since March.

I’m definitely not complaining. I live in the countryside with my family, a garden, dog and chickens. My lockdown has not been arduous. I know how incredibly lucky that makes me.

The only thing I’ve truly missed is live performance: the collective experience of humans expressing their humanity and me being there to bear witness.

I still wanted to do a round-up this year, even if it’s a very different type of annual reflection to normal. As I write each year, I know my opinions aren’t any more valid than anyone else’s, I just I find the process useful.


The year started really well. I had a busy diary of pre-booked events, and there was some big occasions to look forward to through the coming months. 2020 was going to be a great year for culture.

On 2nd January I rounded off my first day back at work with a family trip to see Jojo Rabbit (again) at Greenwich Picturehouse, and on the 3rd it was my first theatre outing of the year…

The Greatest Play in the History of the World

A gentle hug to begin the year. Julie Hesmondhalgh welcomed us in to the small Trafalgar Two space, greeting each audience member as if she knew them (she evidently did know quite a few). She explained that she’d be telling a story, a story where time stood still and people made magical connections. Cozy, comfortable, like favourite slippers. The writing of Hesmondhalgh’s husband, Ian Kershaw, feels familiar and fantastical; and his wife delivered it with wide-eyed wonder.


I love that I find it so difficult to describe the experience and feeling of Fleur Elise Noble’s fantastical show. Visually, I suppose it was like we were watching an animated storybook. It was the story of an artist, trapped in the monochrome mundanity of life, dreaming of an alternate, colourful existence with a kangaroo-man. It was disturbed, funny and clumsily brilliant. Part of the London International Mime Festival at The Pit, Barbican.

I also snuck in some more cinema trips including 1917 (again) and the remarkable Bait, with a new live score from Gwenno Saunders, at BFI. I enjoyed Lucy Kirkwood’s The Welkin at National Theatre with a cast of a dozen incredible women including Maxine Peake; and I began my VAULT Festival run with Sophie Hagan’s The Bumswing.

Oh, and Cog’s monthly outing was a fantastic trip to The Crystal Maze Live Experience. That’s cultural, right? It was really good fun.


VAULT Festival

My February (and a bit of January and March) were dominated by the annual residency of VAULT Festival in the railway tunnels under Waterloo Station. This year I’d decided to really embrace the scale of it and to try to squeeze in as much as my evenings would allow. I had a great time, saw lots of interesting shows from exciting young performers and wrote about the experience to help me remember. I missed the last weekend, due to self-imposed isolation, but I vowed to return again, confident that the pandemic scare would be a distant memory by January 2021.

The Lost Hours at VAULT Festival

It’s worth picking out this astonishing show because it blew me away. Trapped in a shipping container, confined to a wheelchair, I was the solo audience amidst a troop of Canadian mimes. The story was of Salvador Dali and his estranged sister’s imagined final meeting. I wrote about it at the time, and there have been few days since when that experience hasn’t crossed my mind.

Also in February… I saw some amazing dance from Candoco at Laban Theatre, and the incredible Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch UK premiere of Bluebeard at Sadler’s Wells. At the theatre, I witnessed some awful audience reactions to Alan Cumming and Daniel Radcliffe in Endgame at Old Vic, and sat on a bar stool, eyebrow singeingly close to a crematorium fire whilst enjoying Rafe Spall’s compelling performance in Death of England at National Theatre. And my last cinema trip for a while was to the IMAX to see Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn).


The start of March was packed with more VAULT Festival outings and a trip to Soho Theatre to see The Special Relationship, a verbatim work featuring the voices of US detainees and their ICE guard, plus incongruous songs, dance and impressions.

But by now, going out was starting to feel less safe. There was danger in the air. Nobody was wearing masks (that would be embarrassing) but we were all very aware that our neighbours could be carrying the virus thing.

White Plague

On 11th March, my final show before the pandemic lockdown was ironically an immersive play about a global pandemic. White Plague was an outing with the Cog team to our local theatre in Greenwich. The show was problematic for many reasons that I wrote about in my review at the time but it would seem strange to summarise my cultural year and not mention this pivot point.

That weekend I’d booked for three shows to round-off my VAULT Festival, and the seven-hour Robert Lepage epic, The Seven Streams of River Ota, at National Theatre. I didn’t feel safe going to any of them so I stayed at home.

By the following Tuesday we’d closed the Cog studio to protect our team. And within a week the rest of the country followed us into lockdown. It was terrifying but also somehow thrilling, like we were living through a moment in history. Some people thought it would be over within a month but the wisest amongst us were preparing for longer, perhaps as long as three months.


Just a fortnight later that Summer deadline seemed ambitious. People were genuinely shocked at the cancellation of the big summer music festivals and we were contacting Airbnb to postpone our August booking in Edinburgh.

But being stuck at home in the Kentish countryside felt like a novelty rather than a chore. I was quite enjoying the free evenings, long walks and time with my family. We started watching a film most evenings (a habit that’s stayed with us through the rest of the year). I’ve made a list of most of the films I’ve watched on TV since then (not including documentaries or those I watched as part of the London Film Festival)…

28 Days / 3 Idiots / A Clockwork Orange / A League of Their Own / About A Boy / American Beauty / American Graffiti / American Son / An American Werewolf in London / Angel Heart / Anna and the Apocalypse / As Good As It Gets / Atonement / Ava / Bad Boys / Bad Boys II / Bait / Barry Lyndon / Battleship Potemkin / Beats / Berberian Sound Studio / Beverley Hills Cop / Birthmarked / Black Christmas (1974) / Black Orpheus / BlacKKKlansman / Blue Juice / Blues Brothers / Boyz n the Hood / Bridge Over The River Kwai / Bright Young Things / Bringing Up Baby / Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid / Cadaver / Can You Ever Forgive Me / Candyman / Cape Fear / Carrie Pilby / Casablanca / Catch Me If You Can / Chariots of Fire / Circle of Friends / Citizen Kane / Close Encounters of the Third Kind / Clue / Crawl / Creature from the Black Lagoon / Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon / Dawn of the Dead / Dead Poets Society / Devil / Dirty Dancing / Dirty Harry / Do the Right Thing / Dolls / Don’t Look Now / Dr. Strangelove / Drowning By Numbers / East is East / Edie / Elizabethtown / Enola Holmes / Ex Machina / Faintheart / Falling Down / Fame / Father of the Bride / Fiddler on the Roof / Field of Dreams / First Blood (Rambo) / First Love / Flash Gordon / Flatliners / Footloose / Frost / Nixon / Full Metal Jacket / Full Monty / Funny Cow / Gangs of New York / Gaslight / Get Carter / Ghost / Ghost World / Glengarry Glen Ross / Good Morning / Gumnaam / Happiness of the Katakuris / Happy New Year, Colin Burstead /Harvey / Heat / Heathers / Hereditary / High Fidelity / His Girl Friday / House of Flying Daggers / Hush / I’m Thinking of Ending Things / In Fabric / Inception / Ip Man / Jarhead / JFK / Joe Bullet / / Judy / Juliet Naked / Jumanji:The Next Level / Kaleidoscope / Killer Klowns From Outer Space / Krampus / LA Confidential / La Haine / Lawrence of Arabia / Layer Cake / Lethal Weapon / Like Father / Little Women (1949)/ Logan’s Run / Lord of the Flies / Love Wedding Repeat / M (Fritz Lang) / Me And You And Everyone We Know / Memento / Midsommar / Miracle on 34th Street / Molly’s Game / Monty Python’s Life of Brian / Moonlight / Moulin Rouge / Mr Saturday Night / Muppet’s Christmas Carol / My Name is Joe / My Own Private Idaho / Napoleon Dynamite / Network / Night of the Comet / Night of the Living Dead / On The Waterfront / Once Upon a Time in the West / One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest / Pan’s Labyrinth / Parasite / Parenthood / Peanut Butter Falcon / Perfect Blue / Phantom of the Paradise / Platoon / Psycho / Puzzle / Quadrophenia / Raising Arizona / Ran / Rear Window / Rebecca (2020) / Rebirth / [Rec] / Robocop / Rocky / Rocky Horror Picture Show / Roma / Roman Holiday / Sabrina / Saturday Night Fever / Saving Private Ryan / Say Anything / Scarface / Scent of a Woman / Schindler’s List / Searching / Serpico / Seven Samurai / Sexy Beast / Shaft / She’s Gotta Have It / Shock Treatment / Shoplifters / Silent Running / Sister Act / Sleepless in Seattle / Slumdog Millionaire / Snatch / Snowpiercer / Solaris / Sorcerer / Spartacus / St Elmo’s Fire / Strictly Ballroom / Suspicion / Suspiria (1977) / Swimming with Sharks / Taxi Driver / The 40-Year-Old Virgin / The Babadook / The Beach / The Big Chill / The Birds / The Blob / The Children of Men / The Deer Hunter / The Departed / The Devil Rides Out / The Devil’s Advocate / The Devil’s Backbone / The Elephant Man / The Fast and the Furious / The Firm / The Forty-Year-Old Version / The French Connection / The Freshman / The Full Monty / The Fundamentals of Caring / The Godfather / The Godfather Part II / The Godfather Part III / The Grandmaster / The Happiness of the Katakuris / The Invisible Man (2020) / The Italian Job (1969) / The Karate Kid / The King of Comedy / The Ladykillers / The Magnificent Seven / The Manchurian Candidate / The Omega Man / The Pale Rider / The Remains of the Day / The Santa Clause / The Seventh Seal / The Song of Names / The Time Machine (1960) / The Van / The Wall / The Warriors / The Wave (2008) / The Wicker Man / The Witch / The Witches of Eastwick / This is Spinal Tap / Throne of Blood / To The Devil A Daughter / To Catch a Thief / Trance / Trick ‘r Treat / Twelve Angry Men / Under the Shadow / Unforgiven / Vertigo / West is West / White Men Can’t Jump / White Christmas / Wild at Heart / Wild Rose / Withnail & I / Zodiac

Some of the less conventional theatre companies were starting to do some interesting work with video platforms. I particularly enjoyed Forced Entertainment’s foray into multi-part Zoom interactions, End Meeting For All.

I did also try a few conventional online theatre shows. But I found them all very shouty and clumsy compared to the slickness of TV. I could not imagine how filmed theatre could be more than a novelty.

However, I’d booked for this show at Barbican on the recommendation of a colleague. The live show was cancelled so when they announced it would be available online I paid to view it, despite my grumpiness .

It’s True, it’s True, it’s True

Breach Theatre’s production was clever, engaging and powerful. They introduced me to the 17th Century artist, Artemisia Gentileschi. More importantly it was a lesson from history and drew modern parallels around the ways that society still fails to believe women over allegations of rape.

Within a few months, Gentileschi was everywhere, including a major exhibition at National Gallery which I excitedly booked for. With a few days of booking my home entered tier 4, so I also only got to see that on screen (via documentaries on both BBC and Sky Arts).

In April I’d booked for plenty of other things that I had to cancel or postpone, including Derren Brown’s new show at The Orchard in Dartford, ENB and Akram Khan’s Creature at Sadler’s Wells (which I rebooked and was re-cancelled in November), John Cooper Clarke at the Stag in Sevenoaks, Schaubühne Berlin’s Orlando at Barbican, and the immersive Van Gogh exhibition on the South Bank.

And I was so upset at missing Scottee’s Class at Shoreditch Town Hall, that I ordered a script from him and read it through, imagining his performance.


Still looking for artistic input, I gave audio books a go. Actually I mostly listened to plays that I’d previously seen on stage. Highlights included Laura Linney performing My Name Is Lucy Barton, and Carey Mulligan’s performance of Dennis Kelly’s Girls & Boys. But the idea didn’t stick. I’ve not downloaded a single audio book since then.

The Interminable Suicide Of Gregory Church

In fact my only notable cultural activity of the month, other than a lot of telly, was Daniel Kitson’s The Interminable Suicide Of Gregory Church. It was an archive recording (from Tobacco Factory, I think) that he sold limited tickets to across several performances. He’s always great value but it was his mildly rambling live introduction and live pressing of the play button that made the archive recording all the more special.

Amongst the events I’d booked but couldn’t experience this month were: Belarus Free Theatre’s Dogs of Europe at Barbican, Sardinian Theatre’s Macbettu also at Barbican, 4000 Miles with Timothée Chalamet at Old Vic, Aaron Sorkin’s take on To Kill a Mockingbird at Gielgud Theatre, and Damon Albarn’s new project: The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows.


Love Letters at Home

By June lots of theatre companies were using the online medium in more interesting ways. I signed up to this Fuel Theatre event without really understanding what it would be.

They’d adapted their Love Letters Straight to Your Heart show to bring an audience together via Zoom. Back in June it felt very edgy to be interacting, remembering to mute, and knowing that other people could see into our living room. They played my request and we toasted each other across the internet.

I didn’t do much else cultural in June, perhaps because the weather was so lovely that I spent most evenings pottering around in the garden. In fact I was enjoying the long evenings so much that I completely missed a Billy Bragg show that I’d booked, a fundraiser for Clapham Grand

But I did still watch a lot of telly.

When Boris came to power a few months earlier, our two vital public institutions, BBC and NHS were under attack as outdated and perhaps unnecessary. By June they were being hailed as our cornerstones of society. As we clapped the NHS on our doorsteps (even in the Brexit voting heartland of Kent) we turned to the BBC for objective truth and our escapist fantasy.

The BBC channeled money into an exceptional programme of arts and artistic broadcasting, under the banner Culture in Quarantine, which included a Performance Live strand that I enjoyed very much. My favourites includes a surrealist tour through Battersea Arts Centre, a full set from Kate Tempest, and the wonderful Missing Episode (a kind of long-form performance poem, combined with a detailed thesis about a particular episode of Eastenders) from Ross Sutherland.


My White Best Friend

We’d paused our monthly Cog Nights, due to a dearth of things to do. But by July we had a few options of interesting online excursions. We chose Royal Court’s important show, with actors opening and reading letters from black writers to their white friends.

In the fall-out from the murder of George Floyd, the world felt… well, it’s difficult to say it felt different because it was already inside out. But it did feel like an important corner had been turned. It was exceptional to be ‘at’ a London theatre show where white people were in the minority of the audience.

As always, Royal Court handled it impeccably, opening post-show discussions to only people of colour to share experiences and debate the topics.

My colleague, Ed wrote about it in our journal.

Perhaps my biggest cultural disappointment of the year was not getting to see Cush Jumbo’s Hamlet at Young Vic. I’d queued (online) more than a year in advance for the chance to see what I am sure would have been a game-changing performance. Maybe they’ll reschedule.


After months of lockdown the restrictions had started to be lifted. Venues were finding ways to produce socially distanced work for limited audiences. Outdoor comedy was popular and there were quite a few drive-in events.

And then the rules changed again. People were still allowed to gather but performers were not allowed to perform. Lots of events were cancelled again but the show at Donmar Warehouse could go on…


My first cultural outing in five month revisited Blindness by José Saramagothe, ironically, coincidentally or perhaps inevitably, the same source material as the previous one. The Donmar version was an aural experience. The stage had been removed and we sat on distanced metal framed chairs, sterilised earphones on our heads. Juliet Stephenson spoke into our ears as we sank into the darkness. She told the now familiar story of a pandemic of white-light blindness that swept the country.

It felt so good to be part of a collective experience again, to applaud together, to be at an event, even if it was pre-recorded.

My colleague, Alex wrote about it in our journal.


Also in August, the cinemas were allowed to reopen, under some slightly odd conditions: you had to wear a mask but not if you’d bought popcorn; your seats were distanced from others in your row but people could sit directly in front or behind you.

Some cinemas were better at it than others: I went with my family to see Christopher Nolan’s Tenet at Ashford Cineworld. The staff were super vigilant in an all but empty multiplex; we felt very safe. I saw it again at the IMAX in Waterloo where the room was crowded and there was no attempt to get people to keep masks on; we won’t be going back for a long time. And in October we went to see St Maud at ODEON Tunbridge Wells where the staff were so officious that they wouldn’t let my 25-year-old son in without ID; our family group accounted for perhaps a third of their audience that day so it was a bold stand to take.


By now venues and production companies had adapted to peculiar circumstances. Many were adding the excitement of broadcasting live from their stage. One of my favourites was Old Vic with their In Camera series.

I’d probably book to hear or see Andrew Scott do just about anything. So I put aside my prejudice against filmed theatre and booked for the production of Three Kings, a monologue, written for Scott by Stephen Beresford.

Scott’s character reveals the tragedy of unfulfilled potential, through a series of flashback vignettes: the trauma of rejection and a life spent craving approval. Three Kings is a pub gambit, a conversation starter, the trick his father taught him.

The filming style was stark and simple. Up to three cameras trained on one actor on the dark Old Vic stage, mixed live. It worked so well that I booked for their next show…

Faith Healer

Brian Friel’s play was perfect for the lockdown (at least from a production perspective). Three characters, each recounting the story of their life on the road together. Each actor performs on their own, each skewing to their own perspective.

It’s one of my favourite plays. I’d seen a brilliant production at Donmar a few years ago (with Stephen Dillane, Gina McKee and Ron Cook). I was scared that this couldn’t be as good. I was wrong.

David Threlfall was funny and very believable as Teddy. If he wasn’t getting genuinely more inebriated, drinking the several bottles of beer, then he’s an even better actor than I give him credit for. Indira Varma is always superb and somehow she’d transformed her usual powerful frame into a frail, broken Grace.

But of course it was Michael Sheen who transfixed us all. He was absolutely perfect as the magnetic and mercurial Francis Hardy.

My colleague, Emma wrote about it in our journal.


The Third Day: Autumn

I’d heard a lot of rumours about Punchdrunk’s transmedia project, The Third Day. But I’d not invested enough attention. I’d assumed that all the grand plans (including a cross-over music festival) had been abandoned because of Covid.

I’d been watching the TV series on Sky Arts when they announced there would be a 12-hour live episode. I liked the idea and thought I’d have it on in the background while I pottered about doing work. But I didn’t get to do that. I was completely transfixed.

I watched Jude Law silently digging his own grave in rain-sodden clay for almost a hour. Then followed him as he passed more stations of the cross, dragging a boat before being made to climb onto a post in the sea, in his pants, and stand for what felt a lifetime. And then there was a village party where Florence Welch was a kind of Wicker Man folk bride, and a house was set on fire, and there were black suits, stuffed with straw, hanging by their necks.

BFI London Film Festival

Like every other year, my October was dominated by the London Film Festival. Unlike any other year, I didn’t spend it rushing to get to Leicester Square in time to be ushered away from the talent on the red carpet.

I did get to see 13 excellent films. 12 at home (Kajillionaire / Herself / Honeymood / Relic / Shirley / Undine / The Intruder / Rose / Delia Derbyshire the Myths and the Legendary Tapes / Limbo / Possessor / Zanka Contact) via the very slick BFI Player, and one (Ammonite) at the BFI itself, in a cinema that was so socially distanced I was in a completely different screen to my partner. I wrote about it all in our journal.

Evening with an Immigrant

I also got to go to the theatre in October. Well, not actual theatre but a live performer and a live audience in a venue – Bridge Theatre. The performer was the excellent Nigerian-born poet, Inua Ellams, in a performance produced by Fuel Theatre (them again).

Ellams read poems and told the story of his immigration to the UK. He talked about his privilege as the son in an affluent family. He talked about the lawyers who ignored their case, lost their documents and disappeared with their money; about the government officials who treated him inhumanely and about the triumph he felt at being granted residency.

Oh, and about the faith placed in him by Kate McGrath at Fuel Theatre, and the power of the arts to transform lives.


We couldn’t get to the Nottingham Playhouse to see James Graham’s lockdown play, Bubble. But we could hear the live audience as we streamed the show for our October Cog Night. This two header was sparsely staged with the actors having to keep their own distance. Two women fall for each other on the eve of lockdown; should they share a bubble or flirt from a distance? It was fun, funny and very smart.

My colleague, Ed wrote about it in our journal.


Dot Dot Dot

By happy coincidence my next ‘outing’ was also with Nottingham Playhouse. This was my second Daniel Kitson show of the year, this time he was live, with his back to the Playhouse auditorium. He toured the country performing to unpacked houses, selling as many streams as there were empty seats. Sporting a smart new haircut and a surprisingly positive outlook, Kitson’s show talked us through his Covid anxieties, and his love and fears for friends and family (and the children in his road who he used to despise), all through the medium of post-it notes.

RAP Party – 10th anniversary

Our Cog Night for November was a fundraiser for our friends at the Albany in Deptford. The night marked the 10th anniversary of RAP Party, originally hosted at the Albany with more of less the same line-up as this online version.

The evening’s co-founder Inua Ellams (him again) introduced the performers and the format: each poet would read a piece of their own (often the same work they’d read a decade earlier) and then introduce a hip-hop track that meant something to them.

It was a great night of firm favourites and plenty of performers who were new to me, plus a playlist that I’ve listed to far too often since.

My colleague, Kristina wrote about it all in our journal.

Death of England – Delroy

The most exciting prospect for me in November was that I’d booked to see this new play from Clint Dyer and Roy Williams, a follow-up piece to their Death in England play that I’d seen in February.

This was a big deal. The National Theatre was reopening. They had reconstructed their huge Olivier Theatre, in the round, to make space for a socially distanced audience. They’d even had to recast, with Michael Balogun stepping in after the original Delroy pulled out with health issues.

The play opened on the same night that new lockdown restrictions came into force. So it also closed that night, after just one performance. Fortunately they had cameras there that night. So I didn’t get to see it live but I did get to stream it on the night it was available.

Of course it was brilliant.


As we turned into December you couldn’t move for offers of online panto. I can see the appeal if you have family tradition of such things, and I’ve been to a few great pantomimes but my commitment doesn’t extend to online viewing.

Instead, for our final Cog Night of the year, we chose comedy…

Cold Lasagne Hate Myself 1999

James Acaster’s stand-up shows are always incredibly constructed, brilliantly delivered and very funny. This one was all of those things, plus it was sometimes painfully raw and difficult to watch. Filmed exactly a year before it was streamed, the show was a bit about the best year of James’s life (1999) and lots about the worst year of his life (2017). Plus a fair amount about how audiences had not reacted well when he’d toured the material through 2019. There was no mention of lasagne.

Living Newspaper

Royal Court continue to amaze and intrigue. From May to mid November they hosted Hester Chillingworth’s installation, Caretaker: a live stream of the auditorium with very occasional inspirational interjections from an automated voice.

In December they began the Living Newspaper project. Drawing on the radical history of a great depression project, writers submit new work on Tuesday, actors rehearse on Wednesday and filming starts on Thursday. By Sunday the edited work is premiered online and is then available for a week. Set pieces take place all around the building, in every nook, cranny, performance and non performance space. The work is sometimes silly, often challenging and always provocative.

The first two editions were produced under huge pressure with the rules around social distancing shifting from week to week.

I’m hugely proud that they are using CogPlayer to host Living Newspapers, although I don’t have any special insight about when or if the next edition will be possible.

Looking back and forward

2020 was a totally shit year for so many reasons. But, looking back, I’ve been lucky enough to experience some great cultural events.

2020 has made me more determined than ever to support the sector and push to experience as much as I can as soon as I can in 2021.

I’m already booked for numerous events that have been postponed from 2020, plus a handful of new projects from brave artists and producers.

I’m particularly looking forward to Marina Abramović: After Life in the refined atmosphere of Royal Academy, and the mayhem of Pixies, headlining End of the Road. They are both in September. There’s no way this pandemic nonsense will still be going on then, right?