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Top shows of 2023 from reviewers at LondonTheatre1.com

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.

Chris Omaweng

1) Accidental Death of an Anarchist – Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith (17 March)

Jordan Metcalfe, Tony Gardner and Daniel Rigby in Accidental Death of an Anarchist. Photo by Helen Murray.
Jordan Metcalfe, Tony Gardner and Daniel Rigby in Accidental Death of an Anarchist. Photo by Helen Murray.

“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.”

Terry Eastham

Carl Mullaney (Albin) in La Cage aux Folles. Photo Johan Persson.
Carl Mullaney (Albin) in La Cage aux Folles. Photo Johan Persson.

It’s that time of year when It is customary to reflect back on the shows I’ve been to see and review for LT1, and I have to say it’s been a great year theatrically for me and I’ve been very lucky to see a lot of absolutely awesome productions both in and off the West End. Unfortunately, I can only pick a top ten for this article so here we go. No

10 – Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! – Wyndham’s Theatre
It is possibly a bit of a controversial choice as I know opinions were very divided over this version of the Rogers and Hammerstein classic musical. But I loved it from the off. Forget any version of Oklahoma! You may have seen before, Director Daniel Fish’s version changes everything except the characters, script and songs and produces a dark and really visually compelling story of Curley, Laurey, Aunt Eller and not forgetting Jud Fry – an outstanding performance by Patrick Vaill. It’s difficult to get into more detail as if you’ve seen it, you know and if you haven’t, well you really should next time it is on. Believe me, you will have experienced nothing like it.

No 9 – Buff at the Vault Festival
This one-person play tells the story of a thirty-something gay guy and how his life goes when he does not fit the stereotype of being an archetypal lean and fit gay person who is often considered the height of perfection. I loved this show as it was great to see a ‘gay’ play that was not populated by super fit, handsome young men. Instead, we had an ordinary bloke whose life experiences were not that good. The writing, acting and Scott Le Crass’ direction gave a very realistic performance that did a fantastic job of mirroring certain elements of my own life.

No 8 – Grindr The Opera at the Union Theatre
This show took me completely by surprise. I had not seen an earlier version so really had no idea what to expect, though in my mind I thought it would be some tacky, frothy, jokey singing and dancing show with lots of handsome boys and not much plot. What I got was a first-rate production with a good story, powerful songs, and excellent performances from the seven-strong cast.

No 7 – Cinderella in the Round at the Royal Alber Hall
This was a staging of Prokofiev’s version of the old pantomime by English National Ballet and wow what a performance. The ‘round’ in this case is the area where the ‘Promenaders’ are normally based during the BBC Proms season. A vast area that, at first glance, seems too massive to fill with one ballet. But with a company featuring over ninety dancers, a live orchestra, Julian Crouch’s magnificent sets and Daniel Brodie’s transformational projections it was transformed into a wonderful performance space that choreographer Christopher Wheeldon utilised beautifully to tell the story of Cinderella and her prince. I enjoyed the show so much that as I left the Royal Albert Hall, I tweeted that I need more ballet in my life, and I stand by that today.

Tom Crabtree, Harry Curley, Oh What a Lovely War, UK tour, credit Alex Harvey-Brown.
Tom Crabtree, Harry Curley, Oh What a Lovely War, UK tour, credit Alex Harvey-Brown.

No 6 – Dumbledore is so Gay at the Southwark Playhouse
This show was a bit of a surprise. It has a fairly simple plot – 13-year-old Harry Potter-obsessed closeted Jack falls in love with his best friend and we follow his life through to adulthood – and yet, in reality, a complicated story of ‘what if I could have another go at life‘ that is beautifully written by Robert Holtom and brought to the stage by the highly talented cast of Alex Britt, Martin Sarreal and Charlotte Dowding. Although ostensibly the story of Jack, the production is in fact the story of everyone in Jack’s life from his parents, through to his friends and on to his many acquaintances. Whilst only having a run-time of around seventy-five minutes. The story fits in so much without ever seeming rushed or illogical – assuming you accept the ability to turn back time.

No 5 – Operation Mincemeat at the Fortune Theatre
Imagine going to a producer and saying that what the world needed was a comedy musical about one of the darkest allied secrets of World War II with a cast of five playing both men and women and a total lack of reverence for anybody. You would be out on your ear before you even came to the name of the show. Nothing about Operation Mincemeat should work and yet it does, in spectacular style. I think, and I may be wrong, that the show has garnered more 5-star reviews than any before it, and they are well deserved. Everything, plot, songs, actors, lighting, sound, and set just works to produce a fascinating and highly entertaining production that tells a true historical tale but does it with a style that appeals to young and old alike.

No 4 – F**king Men at Waterloo East Theatre
A new version of an old favourite here. I first saw this show at the Finborough Theatre one Sunday afternoon, a long time ago, and I really enjoyed it then. Since that time, I’ve seen the show probably four or five times. Sometimes with ten actors, but mainly with three. This time, there were four – Alex Britt, Charlie Condou, Derek Mitchell, and Stanton Plummer-Cambridge – playing out the scenes, and they really delivered. They were helped by Cara Evans’ set which split the stage using, initially transparent, panels to create the two halves. This, when combined with Alex Lewer’s lighting and Charlie Smith’s sound, gave the players plenty of scope to use the not-huge Waterloo East stage and produce what has now become the definitive version of this show.

No 3 – Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds
When it comes to immersive shows, this must be the best at the moment. Based on Jeff Wayne’s musical version of HG Wells’s book, the production takes a group of people directly into the story of the Martian attack on Earth in the last years of the nineteenth century. Using a combination of live-action and some of the best VR you will see, you and your group are fully immersed in the story. It’s difficult to say too much as everybody’s experience is going to be different – this was my second time seeing the show and was very different to the first – and it really is one to be experienced and (hopefully) survived.

No 2 – Oh, What a Lovely War at the Southwark Playhouse
For a show that is sixty years old and commemorates one of the darkest periods in mankind’s history, Oh What A Lovely War seems an unlikely production to feature in a list of top ten shows but this production from Blackeyed Theatre really demonstrates how well the original production has stood the test of time and can still talk to audiences no matter what their age. The cast of Christopher Arkeston, Tom Crabtree, Harry Curley, Alice E Mayer, Chioma Uma, and Euan Wilson manage to cover the four years of horror that were World War I from the pre-war posturing until the moment the troops go home not wanting to talk about their experiences in the trenches. The production is currently touring and is highly recommended.

No 1 – La Cage Aux Folles at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre
This so nearly didn’t happen. The press night was called off partway through the first act due to the terrible weather but luckily, they were able to fit me in a couple of nights later when the weather gods were a lot kinder, and I am so glad they did. This was my sixth visit to the particular show since the first time I saw it at the Menier and, rather like F**cking Men, this production has become my favourite. From the Opening number – with the Cagelles making their way to the stage through the audience – through to the finale with Albin and Georges alone on the stage exchanging one tender kiss, this production did everything perfectly. Colin Richmond’s set gave the audience a direct look at Albin’s performance space and the wings to the side at the same time, and this made for an amazing rendition of ‘I Am What I Am’ which left many in the audience – me included – shedding a tear at the end. Billy Carter and Carl Mullaney truly shone as Georges and Albin/Zaza giving outstanding performances. Overall, a truly awesome production. Well deserving all the plaudits it received and my definite Number 1 show of 2023.

John Groves
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. Tom Daniels Photography.
Alone Together. Tom Daniels Photography.

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.

Alan Fitter
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

Didn’t review:
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

Mary Beer
This year still felt the effects of lockdown with productions waiting their turn to come out or have their development

Rhashan Stone (Tambo) in Tambo & Bones at Stratford East. Photographer The Other Richard
Rhashan Stone (Tambo) in Tambo & Bones at Stratford East. Photographer The Other Richard .

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

John O’Brien

1. Voyage Round My Father by John Mortimer.
2. The Woman in Black by Susan Hill.
3. She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith.

Joseph Dunitz

  1. Little Wimmin by Figs in Wigs (ZOO Southside, Edinburgh)
  2. Birthmarked (Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh)
  3. A Streetcar Named Desire (Almeida Theatre)
  4. Dear England (National Theatre)
  5. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Southwark Playhouse)
  6. Lucy and Friends (Pleasance, Edinburgh)
  7. Next to Normal (Donmar Warehouse)
  8. Sunset Boulevard (Savoy Theatre)
  9. Infinite Life (National Theatre)
  10. The Secret Life of Bees (Almeida Theatre)

Louis Mazzini

1 – Shooting Hedda Gabler – Rose Theatre, Kingston
2 – All of It – Royal Curt Theatre
3 – Murder Trial Tonight London County Hall

Ben Ross
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.

Peter Yates
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.


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