Last year wasn’t even over before theatres were teasing what’s to come in 2023. Hit shows make a comeback, acclaimed companies and directors release new work, and famous faces take to the stage. It also marks the long-awaited return of London’s Vault Festival after multiple COVID postponements.
As another year of exceptional British theatre gets underway, here’s 10 shows coming up which already have the theatre world buzzing, and which you should definitely book for ahead of time.
1. Sylvia, The Old Vic Theatre
This Suffragette musical garnered a fair bit of attention at the Old Vic when it had a work-in-progress run back in 2018, and now has a full stretch of performances at the West End venue five years later. The Drifters Girl‘s Beverley Knight stars as Emmeline Pankhurst, sister of Sylvia Pankhurst (Sharon Rose), the musical’s protagonist.
‘Sylvia’ plays at The Old Vic Theatre from 27 January to 1 April.
2. The Pillowman, Duke of York’s Theatre
It’s been a while since we had a Martin McDonagh play on in the West End. The last one for the acclaimed writer of films such as Seven Psychopaths and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was his latest original play, the Jim Broadbent-led A Very Very Very Dark Matter, which played at the Bush Theatre in 2018.
Now, after COVID scuppered a 2020 staging, the playwright’s dark comedy The Pillowman has a revival, with Inside No 9‘s Steve Pemberton playing detective Tupolski and Lily Allen (last seen in 2:22: A Ghost Story) now cast as a female Katurian. That’s in lieu of Tenet‘s Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who was set to play the fiction writer if the version from three years ago went ahead. No news yet on who will play Ariel, though.
There’s also the fact that this version, directed by Matthew Dunster (of 2:22 and A Very Very Very Dark Matter), is from Empire Street Productions, who are still riding high off the phenomenal success of Prima Facie, starring Jodie Comer.
‘The Pillowman’ plays at the Duke of York’s Theatre from 10 June to 2 September.
3. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, Barbican
A new production from theatrical titans Complicité will make seasoned theatregoers heads turn. Those who haven’t watched one of the company’s shows directly (such as Can I Live? and The Encounter) will at least – I hope – be familiar with some of the artists affiliated with the critically acclaimed group. There’s co-founder the late, great Marcello Magni (The Chairs) and co-founder and artistic director Simon McBurney (Utopia and The Theory of Everything) – the latter of which directs this new show.
No stranger to exploring the issues of environmentalism and climate change (see the two aforementioned examples), the play is a staging of Polish author Olga Tokarczuk’s violent and controversial novel of the same name, which sees suspicion levelled at local animals for the mysterious deaths of men in the village.
On top of this, veteran of the stage Kathryn Hunter (The Chairs and King Lear) is among the cast.
‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead’ plays at the Barbican from 15 March to 1 April as part of a UK and European tour.
4. Groundhog Day, The Old Vic Theatre
Don’t worry if you feel like Groundhog Day has been staged before – it has. The Old Vic production, based on the classic 1993 film starring Bill Murray, graced the theatre back in 2016 before transferring stateside, and now returns to the venue where it had its worldwide premiere.
The timing (heh) couldn’t be more perfect, as its songwriter and lyricist Tim Minchin is currently getting all the attention with his contribution to Matilda: The Musical, which had a recent film adaptation starring Emma Thompson and continues to play to audiences in . The director of that production, Matthew Warchus, directs this production too, and Olivier Award winner Andy Karl reprises the role of disgruntled weatherman Phil Connors stuck in a time loop.
And I’m not writing this on a hunch, either, as technical issues on the day that tickets went on sale for the show demonstrates the demand is still there close to six years later.
‘Groundhog Day’ plays at The Old Vic Theatre from 20 May to 12 August.
5. August in England, Bush Theatre
The Bush Theatre always boasts an exceptional programme of shows across its two performance spaces, and this year, it’s home to the playwrighting debut of none other than Sir Lenny Henry, who also stars in this one-man show about an individual caught up in the Windrush scandal.
The Bush’s artistic director Lynette Linton (Chiaroscuro, House of Ife) and its associate artistic director Daniel Bailey (The High Table, Made in India/Britain) both have a growing collection of successful shows to their name, and co-direct this story from the well-known actors and comedians.
August in England plays at the Bush Theatre from 28 April to 10 June.
6. The Motive and the Cue, National Theatre
If Tammy Faye‘s tremendous trio of James Graham, Jake Shears and Sir Elton John was 2022’s winning combination, then celebrated playwright Jack Thorne (After Life, The Solid Life of Sugar Water) and exceptional director Sam Mendes (Skyfall, 1917) could well be this year’s strong contender.
Both creatives are already set to wow audiences this year, after all. Thorne has his adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials on BBC One at the moment, and Mendes’ sensational production of The Lehman Trilogy starts performances at the Gillian Lynne Theatre later this month.
The pair now join forces at the National Theatre for a tale of how Richard Burton and John Gielgud’s staging of Hamlet came to be – starring Sherlock‘s Mark Gatiss, Johnny Flynn from the Bowie biopic Stardust, and The Imitation Game‘s Tuppence Middleton.
‘The Motive and the Cue’ plays at the Lyttelton Theatre from 20 April to 10 June.
7. A Play for the Living in a Time of Extinction, Barbican
The casting of Years and Years and It’s A Sin actress Lydia West in this Headlong production should catch most people’s attention, as her popularity continues to rise exponentially. She stars as Naomi in a “darkly funny, life-affirming” one-woman show about the climate crisis where the actors are yet to turn up. The play has also been dubbed an “experiment” as while the play tours, the actors and materials used on stage do not. It also has a limited four-day run, making everything seem much more urgent.
‘A Play for the Living in a Time of Extinction’ plays at the Barbican from 26-29 April.
8. A Little Life, Harold Pinter Theatre
James Norton is back making us shout at the TV in Happy Valley this month, as he reprises his role of evil psychopath Tommy Lee Royce after a wait of more than six years, but later this year he’ll take to the stage alongside other stars in an English language adaptation of Hanya Yanagihara’s bestseller A Little Life.
As well as Norton, there’s Omari Douglas (Constellations, It’s A Sin), Luke Thompson (Bridgerton), Elliot Cowan (2:22), Zubin Varla (Tammy Faye), Nathalie Armin (ANNA) and Zach Wyatt (The Witcher: Blood Origin).
The choice of director is equally impressive, as it’s none other than Ivo van Hove, the Belgian creative known for theatre productions which are either strikingly minimalist (see The Human Voice or Who Killed My Father?), or loudly cinematic and technological (see Network, All About Eve, The Damned and Age of Rage).
Perhaps the former, as Yanagihara’s book is known to tackle some difficult subject matters, with quite a few heavy topics listed in the show’s trigger warnings.
9. Guys and Dolls, Bridge Theatre
The Bridge Theatre has occupied its venue right next to Tower Bridge for more than half a decade now, but it’s only in 2023 that the theatre has finally gotten round to staging its first musical, in the form of the classic musical Guys and Dolls.
It promises a pretty remarkable cast in the form of Daniel Mays (Line of Duty), Celinde Schoenmaker (Les Misérables) and Marisha Wallace (Waitress). If you caught – and loved – the Bridge productions of Julius Caesar and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, then you’ll likely enjoy this version, as Nicholas Hytner’s directing again and they’ve got Bunny Christie back on set design.
‘Guys and Dolls’ plays at the Bridge Theatre from 3 March to 2 September.
10. Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Harold Pinter Theatre
Even the name alone should be enough to pique your interest, before you learn that Jenna Coleman (All My Sons, Doctor Who) and Aidan Turner (Poldark, The Lieutenant of Inishmore) have been cast in this production. Sam Steiner’s debut play follows a couple dealing with a law which places a 140-word limit on what they can say each day. It’s also directed by Josie Rourke, whose staging of As You Like It is currently charming audiences at @sohoplace.
‘Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons’ plays at the Harold Pinter Theatre from 18 January to 18 March, before embarking on a short tour with stops at Opera House Manchester (21-25 March) and Theatre Royal Brighton (28 March to 1 April).
Let’s not forget too, of course, that some of the best shows of 2022 are still playing into the early months of this year. Edinburgh Fringe hit Sap has a UK tour, My Neighbour Totoro is continuing to perform at the Barbican, and Prima Facie remains available to stream online via National Theatre at Home.