It’s difficult to neatly discern a theme from London theatre in 2023: as usual, there was just too much going on. However, it was undoubtedly the year that marked the return of new musicals to the West End after an extraordinary 2022 absence (a knock-on from the pandemic). Many of them were pretty so-so, but it’s not hard to look at what are surely the year’s two best shows – both radical reworkings of old hits – and not conclude that this was a special year for Brit directors of musicals. Jamie Lloyd’s astounding version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘Sunset Boulevard’ was visceral and swaggering and broke bold new ground on the use of live video in theatre. And Nicholas Hytner’s take on the classic ‘Guys & Dolls’ essentially drew up a game-changing blueprint for the possibility of genuinely immersive – and incredibly fun – musicals. Beyond that it’s been a truly incredible year for the National Theatre – artistic Rufus Norris really hitting his stride as he prepares to leave – while the performances of the year have come from Andrew Scott and Daniel Rigby.
This must have been a perplexing year for Andrew Lloyd Webber: a chintzy West End revival of his 1989 musical ‘Aspects of Love’ crashed so hard it’ll surely never be revived again; and then super-director Jamie Lloyd only went and turned 1993’s divisive ‘Sunset Boulevard’ into the best show of the year. Much has been made of the casting of Nicole Scherzinger as reclusive silent movie star Norma Desmond: and her voice is stupendous, it’s true. But the show is a lot bigger than the ex-Pussycat Doll: Lloyd’s live-video-enhanced direction was remarkable, and the truly astonishing sequence that opens the second act – in which co-star Tom Francis swaggers through the theatre’s dressing rooms then heads into the street, singing to the camera all the while – was the single most electrifying moment in any theatre show this year.
Savoy Theatre, until Jan 6. Buy tickets here.
A disclaimer: for those of us who had standing tickets, Nicholas Hytner’s revelatory immersive revival of the classic American musical probably had the edge over ‘Sunset Boulevard’ – it was just so deliriously fun to be shunted around Bunny Christie’s astounding rising and falling set, right in the heart of the action as a jaw-dropping good cast headed by Marisha Wallace and Daniel Mays belted it out around us. If you were sitting… it was a really good production of ‘Guys and Dolls’, but there’s a dimension of it that you were simply cut off from. Whatever the case, it was a truly incredible achievement: having hosted three or four shows a year since its opening, Hytner’s Bridge Theatre has been given over to the show indefinitely.
Bridge Theatre, booking until Aug 31. Buy tickets here.
If it’s not at all competing with ‘Guys and Dolls’ and ‘Sunset Boulevard’ in terms of star power, spectacle and directorial pizzazz, Annie Baker’s ‘Infinite Life’ is handily the best new play of the year… as Annie Baker’s plays tend to be. A droll meditation on pain, horniness and the bizarreness of having a corporeal body, it follows a group of aging women (and one man) as they lounge in a daze outside a desolate pain clinic in the Californian desert, hoping for a change in their lives that seems profoundly unlikely. Weird and great.
National Theatre, until Jan 13.
It feels regrettable that it was basically only on for a month, but Andrew Scott’s one-man take on Chekhov was truly extraordinary: not just a flashy one-guy-does-all-the-voices Edinburgh Fringe type affair, but a remarkable distillation of the entire play into a sort of piece of emotional shamanism, every thought and character shredded up and blasted through Scott’s body. We’ve not heard anything about it coming back, but presumably it can do so any time Scott has some time in his schedule – fingers crossed.
Harold Pinter Theatre, now ended, but coming to NT Live next February.
Dave Harris’s gleefully OTT satire on the African-American experience received muted notices in the US, which leads me to believe that the American production simply wasn’t directed that well. Because Matthew Xia’s UK premiere for Actors Touring Company and Theatre Royal Stratford East was simply the most eye-popping thing I saw all year: an irreverent, profane and truly wild that saw the title characters hurtle through history, from minstrel shows, to hip-hop superstardom, to a post-apocalyptic final section dominated by two hysterically executed humanoid robots. Scathing, mad, joyous.
Theatre Royal Stratford East, now ended.
Daniel Rigby signalled his arrival as one of our funniest stage actors over a decade ago with his wonderful turn as a pretentious wannabe thesp in the original production of ‘One Man, Two Guvnors’. But this year felt like his coronation as UK theatre’s greatest comic performer with his full-on turn as cartoonish, manipulative maniac the, er, Maniac, who runs rings around a corrupt Metropolitan Police in a gloriously angry update on the classic Dario Fo comedy.
Lyric Hammersmith and Haymarket Theatre Royal, now ended.
I could have easily put more shows from the National on this list: ‘Dear England’ and ‘Grenfell’ are possibly only absent because making 40 percent of the selections productions from the same theatre feels neglectful of the rest of London. But Lucy Kirkwood and Dave Malloy’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s ‘The Witches’ had to make it. It’s not a perfect musical – though it might be one day with a bit more tinkering – but it is almost unbelievably funny, and its current cast is stupendous, from the remarkable child actors to Daniel Rigby (again), sublime as furious hotelier Mr Stringer.
National Theatre, until Jan 27.
Lynn Nottage’s ‘Clyde’s’ is a tentatively hopeful semi-sequel to her bleak 2015 masterpiece ‘Sweat’, and its UK premiere saw the gang who made the UK production of ‘Sweat’ get back together under the eye of director Lynette Linton. ‘Clyde’s’ is a show about the possibility that some extraordinarily good people do exist in an unfair world, and that perhaps it’s okay to believe in them. Set in the eponymous truckstop cafe, it follows a group of ex-con staff who are given hope by the near messianic sandwich enthusiast Montrellous – another stupendous performance from Giles Terera.
Donmar Warehouse, now ended.
A caveat here is that Dickie Beau’s extraordinary solo show has been kicking around for a few years, and played a short run of dates at the Almeida as far back as 2017. That duly accepted, it had its first full London run at Hampstead Theatre in late spring this year, and what an astonishing piece of work it was. At first ‘Re-Member Me’ seems like an arch tribute to Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, as Beau lipsyncs along to various grandees’ thoughts on the play. But it slowly morphs into a gorgeous remembrance of the actor Ian Charleson and the extraordinary but little-recorded ‘Hamlet’ he gave while dying of AIDS in 1989. Unclassifiable and incredibly moving.
Hampstead Theatre, now ended.
Considering the Almeida’s 2022 ended with the blowout of Elton John’s Tammy Faye musical and Paul Mescal in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, the Islington powerhouse had a fairly low-key 2023, albeit a strong one with highlights including an excellent, energetic ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and the doomy loveliness of the current ‘Cold War’. But its best show was this bamboozling piece of new writing from Sam Holcroft, a mischievous satire that could be read as being about anything from actual totalitarian states to the Arts Council. Jonny Lee Miller made an excellent return to the stage as Čelik, a self-important deputy culyure minister in a repressive regime who believed himself to be a valuable ally to the artists of his country.
Transfers to Trafalgar Theatre, Jan 22-Apr 20. Buy tickets here.
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