2023 has been another busy year for our team of reviewers, with more than 600 productions being reviewed in various theatres and venues in London’s West End, Off West End, Brighton, Manchester, Leicester, and Reading.
Here is a list of the top shows as selected by our reviewers.
“Daniel Rigby’s Maniac has a larger-than-life stage presence, and in a world where people are increasingly wary of saying anything at all for fear of being the next target of ‘cancel culture’, to have strong viewpoints, whether one agrees with them or not, spoken with such confidence and conviction, is refreshing. Tackling some uncomfortable truths head-on, this production is ruthless, relevant and riotous.”
2) Heart – Roundabout, Summerhall, Edinburgh Fringe (24 August)
“The beauty of it lies in [Jade Anouka’s] storytelling ability, mixing poetry and prose seemingly effortlessly. She is accompanied by Grace Savage, who beatboxed and had a mixing deck and a laptop balanced on – wait for it – an ironing board. Savage and Anouka (or is it Anouka and Savage?), it transpires, are in perfect harmony with each other in more ways than one.”
3) Christina Bianco: In Divine Company – Menier Chocolate Factory (12 May)
“The enjoyment she gets from accumulated years of doing impressions is palpable – and practice makes as perfect as humanly possible. […] An eclectic, enthusiastic and enjoyable concert, Bianco is versatility personified.”
4) Diana: The Untold and Untrue Story – Pleasance Dome, Edinburgh Fringe (17 August)
“Gloriously irreverent, a couple of patrons served as childminders to William and Harry, and a brave soul even put on a corgi mask, got down on all fours, and chased Diana around the stage. An energetic and upbeat show that is as poised and polished as it is anarchic and outrageous.”
5) Ballet Nights – Lanterns Studio Theatre (28 October)
“There was a clear passion for dance amongst the company, and a commitment to present a diverse range of performances. The house pianist, Viktor Erik Emanuel, opened both parts with some brisk and energetic piano solos. The ballets themselves were all brief extracts: rather like speed dating, the programme moves on to the next performance, and the next one, and so on, and it’s entirely up to patrons if they want to explore a particular work in greater depth at some point in the future.”
6) Groundhog Day – The Old Vic (5 July)
“It’s a slick production, with set and props coming on and off seemingly effortlessly. […] Faith in humanity is restored in this delightful show: the hype, for once, is to be believed.”
7) Breaking the Castle – Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh Fringe (17 August)
“There aren’t many shows […] that delve into as much detail as this one does about a person’s level of resistance [to rehab treatment], and seeing David go from outright denial to genuine and sincere acceptance is very moving. […] A powerful and poignant production.”
8) Kiss Me Kate (National Youth Music Theatre) – Curve Theatre, Leicester (9 August)
“‘Too Darn Hot’ could well be an anthem for many countries in the northern hemisphere this summer – Britain being a notable exception – but it’s an accurate description of this sizzling show, pulsating with passion and full of fire.”
9) Bonnie and Clyde – Garrick Theatre (8 March)
“Slicker than before, the show has not lost the rapport with the audience it had in its earlier, considerably more intimate incarnation. This bigger, bolder, better production is worth a shot, and few will feel robbed after seeing it.”
10) The Ocean at the End of the Lane – New Victoria Theatre, Woking (25 January)
“Not every concept introduced is followed through properly, which adds to the suspense – and, in my case, ordering a copy of the novel on which the production is based to see if that will shed any light on certain things I still have questions about! One to be avoided by those of a nervous disposition. One to be enjoyed by everyone else.”
I have been lucky enough to see some excellent theatre in 2023, much of which I have found very involving, moving and frequently very amusing. In no particular order, but just the ones I remember most are:
ALONE TOGETHER, a beautifully written new play by Simon Williams, memorably acted by Jenny Seagrove and Martin Shaw at Theatre Royal Windsor
TAMBO AND BONES, a very strong new American play energetically staged at Theatre Royal Stratford East – so powerful that the audience was given ten minutes in their seats after the show to begin to take in what they had experienced
THE RETREAT at Finborough Theatre (still minus its pub!) , a fascinating Canadian play – as always at the Finborough being well staged in every respect. In fact, almost every play I have seen at this theatre in 2023 could have found its way into my Top Ten! But I will content myself with just one more Finborough production, PUSSYCAT IN MEMORY OF DARKNESS, a sixty-minute monologue that left one feeling as if one had endured ten rounds with Mike Tyson! Again, very powerful!
On a lighter note, ANNIE GET YOUR GUN at the new Lavender Open Air Theatre at Epsom Downs was most enjoyable, showing how a perhaps dated 1940s musical can seem relevant to 2023. It was well acted, sung and acted and on the day I attended it did not rain!!!
I also hugely enjoyed Charles Court Opera’s production of THE MIKADO which suited the Arcola very well – witty, well sung and imaginative.
Perhaps surprisingly, the highlight of the touring productions that I saw at Theatre Royal Brighton was Willy Russell’s BLOOD BROTHERS, not even beginning to show its age after 40 years and still as gripping and enthralling as it was all those years ago. The much-missed Bill Kenwright is still credited as director, and this show can claim to have introduced many young people to the joys of theatre-going. The current production is as well cast and polished as one would expect.
Perhaps my highlight of the year, though, is the truly spectacular Old Vic production of A CHRISTMAS CAROL with Christopher Eccleston in the title role. I have seen many versions of this seasonal tale, and avoided many more, but this is a MUST-SEE version, especially with the current cast.
Oh What A Lovely War – Southwark Playhouse
Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell – Coach & Horses Pub
Next To Normal – Donmar
Recognition – Fairfield Talawa Studio
Charlie & Stan – Wilton’s Music Hall
Guys & Dolls – Bridge Theatre
The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button – Southwark Playhouse
The White Factory – Marylebone Theatre
A Woman Walks Into A Bank – Theatre 503
Crazy For You – Gillian Lynne Theatre
This year still felt the effects of lockdown with productions waiting their turn to come out or have their development
pick up again. I saw some spectacular set design and ambitious elegiacal drama. A number of musicals delivered solid entertainment and I would say dramatic tellings centred on masculinity and Blackness made an especially strong showing this year. I saw more than one new comedy from a big-name misfire but some excellent smaller-scale experiments with verbatim theatre that were brave and exciting. I also saw pro wrestling and Norse mythology mix in a mind-blowing and sensate way! Other artists took risks and brought a lot of entertainment along the way.
10) The Confessions – Lyttelton at the National
10) Medea at Soho Place (tied)
9) Mythos: Ragnarök at the Vault Festival (tied)
9) Terrible Thames River Cruise
8) Newsies – Disney at the Troubadour
7) The Unicorn – the Arcola (tied)
7) Debate: Baldwin / Buckley
6) Sea Creatures by Cordelia Lynne – Hampstead
5) Standing at the Sky’s Edge – Olivier at National Theatre
4) Re-Member with Dickie Beau at the Hampstead Theatre
3) Good Person of Szechwan – Lyric Hammersmith
2) Maud – conceived by Jeffery Miller – verbatim, multi-media drama at the Vault Festival about the 2020 lynching of Ahmaud (“Maud”) Arbery in a Glynn County, Georgia subdivision
1) Tambo and Bones – Royal Stratford East
- Little Wimmin by Figs in Wigs (ZOO Southside, Edinburgh)
- Birthmarked (Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh)
- A Streetcar Named Desire (Almeida Theatre)
- Dear England (National Theatre)
- The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Southwark Playhouse)
- Lucy and Friends (Pleasance, Edinburgh)
- Next to Normal (Donmar Warehouse)
- Sunset Boulevard (Savoy Theatre)
- Infinite Life (National Theatre)
- The Secret Life of Bees (Almeida Theatre)
My top show of 2023 was Saint Jude, by Swamp Motel. It explored and reinvented the form of theatre, reflecting back to an audience’s concerns about the fast pace of technological development (particularly around artificial intelligence), and has stayed with me ever since I went. It was staged with heart, and it was clear that its producers were as interested in learning along the way as they were in presenting themselves as experts in a new theatrical experience. Other cities have great traditional shows, but London is undisputedly the home of immersive theatre – and this production demonstrated the willingness of creators and audiences alike to try something completely new.
1. The Little Big Things @sohoplace
The show is about change. It’s also about energy and momentum. Purely from a theatrical point of view, after a deliberately low-key opening – in which the wheel-chaired protagonist declares to us that his condition “doesn’t sound like a great subject for a show” – the production is suddenly and dramatically supercharged by the incendiary arrival of Malinda Parris as Doctor Graham, an extraordinarily powerful songstress with an exceptional range. Parris explodes onto the scene galvanising both cast and audience alike and there is no looking back from this point on.
2. My Brother’s Keeper at Theatre503
“Rome wasn’t built in a day. But Margate was.” Mahad Ali’s script gives us a powerful, intelligent, sensitive window on today’s Britain – in general – and Margate in particular. We have white English residents pitted against black African insurgents (refugees) who are basically wannabe English residents to the chagrin of the incumbents and the discomfiture of… er… well… the racists. At heart, though, it’s not a play about racism: rather it’s a play about identity. And it’s brilliant.
3. Cuckoo at the Royal Court Theatre
Here we have a ménage a quatre set in that strange modern hinterland of smartphone central: Cuckoo is an intensive exploration of mother-daughter-granddaughter-sister relationships. We are hosted through a pageant of soft-core middle-class angst in all its Waitrose glory though the ritual consumption of fish and chips from the Chippy down the bottom keeps Michael Wynne’s script firmly grounded in the lower echelons of said middle class: no avocados here.