The best theatre of 2023
With 2023 drawing to a close, we asked our columnist to look back on his top 10 shows of the year, which include Dear England and Sunset Boulevard.
Emerging from unprecedented setbacks in recent years, 2023 saw the West End back to its full force, and as a freelance critic, I had a front row seat to many of this year’s most exciting nights at the theatre (not literally, they were mostly mid stalls).
From long-awaited transfers to altogether-unexpected revivals, both the classic and the controversial have wowed London’s audiences this year and given theatregoers plenty to enjoy.
A show whose West End transfer I’ve waited more than a decade for, this popular rock musical about the inexact science of treating complex mental health symptoms finally received its UK premiere at the Donmar Warehouse. Praise for its stellar cast, including rising stars Jack Wolfe and Eleanor Worthington Cox and veterans Caissie Levy and Jamie Parker, echoed so loud that it secured a 2024 West End transfer for this explosive production.
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A Strange Loop
I first discovered this Pulitzer Prize-winning musical during lockdown and was thrilled when it announced it would cross the Atlantic this summer and make its way to the Barbican with Broadway understudy Kyle Ramar Freeman joined by a talented British ensemble cast. A story set in the centre of a venn diagram of identity that transcended its own specificity with a message that was enduringly powerful.
Surely one of this year’s most talked about shows, though many were uncertain about the announced revival of Sunset Boulevard, I had faith that visionary director, Jamie Lloyd, would deliver another bold and thrilling new staging. The show’s unique approach to cinematic storytelling, as well as a no-holds-barred performance from its star, Nicole Scherzinger, have cemented it as a truly unforgettable piece of theatre.
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When I headed to the Bridge Theatre for their new immersive staging of this classic musical comedy, I hardly expected to be so transported to the dynamic world they had created. Standing amongst this show’s adapting performance space, dodging water pistols and twirling ribbons was a unqiue theatrical thrill and my personal version of a rock concert.
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Ahead of the show’s opening, producer David Pugh shared that the dramatist Willy Russell had only one actress in mind for a revival of his acclaimed play. Sheridan Smith, whose dramatic performances remain some of my all time favourites, afforded it all of the warmth, charm and wit that has made her a beloved household name, as she discussed her domestic disappointments and Mediterranean escape with the kitchen wall, all while cooking eggs onstage.
The true story of artist Henry Fraser and his extraordinary family was the focus of this new musical that articulated an honest and authentic perspective on disability, platforming talented disabled artists within its cast and crew. This uplifting and heartbreaking show had me in floods of tears and was a particular triumph for the West End’s newest theatre, the dedicatedly accessible @sohoplace.
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After years of wowing audiences, myself included, at various off-West End venues, this ‘little show that could’ finally found a West End home this year after the shocking closure of The Woman in Black. From the gleefully madcap minds of Spitlip Theatre came this riotous World War 2 era musical during which I only stopped laughing to sob at the moments of unexpected sentimentality.
Seemingly unusual fodder for a stage play and the last thing I’d expect to enjoy, the tenure of former England football manager Gareth Southgate is the subject of Dear England, a new play one of Britain’s most exciting writers, James Graham. The smash hit from the National Theatre mines penalty shootouts for their full theatrical potential as it asks potent questions about the nation’s relationship to this sport.
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The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
I learned, while interviewing the show’s cast and writers, that this would be a unique new perspective on the familiar title. Relocating the story to pre-war Cornwall and retaining only the concept of a man ageing backwards, a profoundly haunting folk musical was birthed at the new Southwark Playhouse. Portraying the titular role at a range of ages, Jamie Parker’s performance left me heartbroken.
Following the star-studded gala held in honour of the late composer/lyricist, Sir Cameron Mackintosh recruited legendary performers Lea Salonga and Bernadette Peters to join more of Stephen Sondheim’s old friends for a prestigious evening of high class cabaret performances. This teary-eyed Sondheim lover who, at 16, begged his parents to let him fly to see Peters in the Broadway revival of Follies was ecstatic.
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This article was first published in the December 2023 issue of London Theatre Magazine.
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