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Top 5 shows of 2023 (according to me) 🎭

Hiya,

It’s top five time of year again – the shows that have made me laugh, cry, gasp, shudder. I have to say, it has been total chaos.

Yes: 2023 was a horror show. The planet is currently playing host to countless alarming crises. No wonder Mrs Doubtfire Musical is so popular.

Before we proceed, though, a recap of shows that should never have been staged.

Ah, Kenneth Branagh’s King Lear, starring Kenneth Branagh, directed by Kenneth Branagh, cheap and cheerless ABBA comedy The Way Old Friends Do, Kristin Scott Thomas and Lily James in Penelope Skinner’s joy-sucking play Lyonesse. A doomed Michael Ball in feeble Aspects of Love. Finally, Here We Are (NY) – the final (unfinished) Sondheim musical — all of them uniquely terrible.

Harsh, I admit, but I can confirm that, they were painfully dreadful.

Actually, people do tell you to write down your feelings in a journal, mine just happens to be public. I’m frequently asked why I don’t write my memoirs. I think I have.

And so on to my Top 5 Shows of 2023:

  1. Sunset Blvd, West End

In a good year for musicals, (I also loved Secret Life of BeesA Strange Loop and Miss Saigon) this Andrew Lloyd Webber show was the musical revival of the year.

Nicole Scherzinger starred in Jamie Lloyd’s quicksilver production that is Broadway bound. Scherzinger has such beauty and strength that she commanded attention.

Ultimately, it was a sleek, dark, glittering Andrew Lloyd Webber remix, the dehumanisation was funny and alluring and a little eerie.

  1. Oliver! Leeds Playhouse

It’s impossible to separate your reaction to a musical from your own history. I watched Oliver! so many times as a child that my absolute shit stepdad destroyed the VHS tape.

Anyway, this was a superb in-the-round regional production of Lionel Bart’s beloved musical. A bold, large-scale and ambitious production. Excellent.

Raw, stirring and deeply affecting, James Brining’s piece was a regional producing theatre delivering a huge Christmas musical a) precisely when their audiences needed it but also b) when the world most needs it.

Steve Furst was a superb Fagin. I sat there smiling and sobbing at the stage, in complete happiness.

  1. August in England, Bush Theatre

22 June 2023 was the 75th anniversary of the arrival of the passengers of the HMT Windrush in the UK. One of the great good fortunes of my 2023 – indeed career – was to to manage WINDRUSH 75; a creative schools project working with Windrush descendants across the North West of England.

Anyway, Lenny Henry made his debut as a playwright with a richly detailed one-man show about the Windrush scandal. Daniel Bailey and Lynette Linton’s powerful production was a blistering indictment of our government’s mistreatment of Windrush generation.

With a stunningly living-room set by Natalie Price, Henry’s part-monologue and part theatre as activism took us on a rollercoaster.

‘Have you seen Theresa May dance? Now that’s a hostile environment,” said August.

It was really funny and tackled all the big issues with a laugh.

  1. Here Lies Love – New York

I loved this imaginative and immersive  Imelda Marcos 90 minute disco musical on Broadway. It was a lot to cram in, but I was awed by the boldness of the conception: the Theatre was divided into four quadrants and the orchestra seats cleared out to make room for a dance floor.

Arielle Jacobs (better known as Jasmine from Broadway’s Aladdin) was simply brilliant as the former First Lady. And the all-Filipino cast breathed new life and feeling into the original source material.

The piece was, for me, concrete, simple, literal, yet it all worked on a metaphorical level, and it bursted with energy.

  1. Motive and the Cue, National Theatre

Sam Mendes and designer ES Devlin reignited Gielgud and Burton’s Broadway Hamlet in Jack Thorne’s beautifully rich play. Bonus was a staggeringly good Mark Gatiss. Johnny Flynn was exquisite, too. 

Thorne has a gift for snappy storytelling, rich dialogue and dry humour that allows him to handle big themes in an engaging way. Which is why this was the best new play of 2023. 

There we have it.

Beyond that, the theatre year broke down into five seemingly unending and increasingly apocalyptic elements.

Rip off ticket prices

Alas, whichever way you slice it, nauseating premium ticket prices are out of control, and are creeping closer to Broadway levels.

For example, next year’s West End revival of Neil Simon’s 1968 comedy Plaza Suite -starring Sarah Jessica Parker and husband Matthew Broderick – is shifting £350 tickets.

The intention to make money is generally all too obvious.

Indeed, the cheapest seats, which often have a restricted view, increased by almost 13% this year compared with last.

Furthermore, audiences – broken by industrial action, soaring inflation and a crumbling rail network – are being priced out of the theatre. 

Audience misbehaviour

Just to grind our gears a little more, a recent survey of theatre staff showed many feared for their safety. Incidents reported included physical aggression, threats of violence, sexual harassment, mass brawls, assaults on staff or other members of the audience, racial slurs, inappropriate use of mobile phones, and vandalism. Oh. Right.

Decline of Theatre criticism

The other thing is that, regrettably, there is much less of all arts criticism than there was.

It is not merely the praise of everything in sight — a special problem in itself — that infuriates theatregoers with a brain, but there is also the unaccountable decline in informed writing in favour of #gifted PR nonsense.

Nowadays, the shift from knowledgable writers to those simply in search of free tickets devalues theatre – and audience experience.

Arts in schools

The prioritisation of EBacc subjects (English language and literature, maths, sciences, history, geography and languages) in secondary accountability measures has led to a reduction in the level of teachers of arts subjects, resources, and GCSE and A Level take-up.

There is, too, an ever growing disparity between state and private schools provision of creative education. Colleges, too, that once fostered talent – often from working-class backgrounds – have vanished at an alarming rate – a creative education in the British state sector has essentially been demolished.

Cultural careers 

This year, filled jobs in music, performing and visual arts dropped by a total of 35,000 roles in the space of just under a year, “chilling” government statistics have revealed. 

Occupied positions in the creative sector fell from 311,000 to 276,000 between April 2022 and March 2023. Still, the reality is that only those from certain backgrounds can now embark on a creative career. 

Why does this matter? It’s not, to put it mildly, the immediate problem that really haunts me.

It’s the not too distant future, 10 years from now where only rich people get to make, write about and experience live performance.

And yet, theatre will always endure and thrive because it’s occasionally glorious, beautiful and thrilling but also very, unpredictable.

Good shows make you care, make you believe in possibilities again. 

What were your favourite shows?

Anyway: Happy Christmas everyone. Keep the faith.🎄

A joyous heart always,

Carl W x

Special mentions: The WitchesGuys & DollsPacific OverturesShuckedShirley ValentineCrazy For You. Standing at the Sky’s Edge.