Written by Daz Gale
We’ve made it through another year and what a year it has been for theatre. While I have already counted down my favourite shows of the year specifically in another post on here, I always like to write a review of the year in theatre on a more general basis for all of the highs and lows, and God knows there were no shortage of either of those this year. So sit back and let’s recap the year in theatre that was 2023:
THEATRE ISN’T OUT OF THE WOODS YET
While Covid may seem like a distant memory for some of us, it is easy to forget how uncertain those years were for the survival of theatres. While many theatres have been open consistently for more than two years now, they still face challenges - mostly financial: some from the lingering effects of that prolonged closure but also the costs of remaining profitable (which brings me to another point I’ll mention later). ACE funding announcements at the end of last year proved lethal for some theatres who saw their funding cut drastically or, in some cases, completely with National Theatre Wales losing 100% of its funding.
Some big new shows struggled to find their audiences with major new Broadway transfer Ain’t Too Proud – The Life and Times of The Temptations ending their run four months earlier than planned, while Aspects of Love at the Lyric theatre also shut its doors much earlier than it was supposed to. Many theatre lovers and critics alike would agree that one of the best new musicals this year was the sensational Crazy For You. That too has struggled somewhat – while it has only brought forward its closing by three weeks, it was a shame to see such an acclaimed and feelgood musical failing to play to full capacity audiences night after night – a trend a lot of new shows found this year as audiences seemed more reluctant to take their chances on something new or unfamiliar to them and instead stick with the tried and tested shows that will probably outlive us all.
IN WITH THE NEW
Every cloud has a silver lining, and the early closure of Aspects of Love left a big empty house on Shaftesbury Avenue, paving way for many shows that wouldn’t have otherwise had the chance to play a West End venue at that point in their journey. New musicals Babies and SuperYou were among those to fill the stage as was a Queer season of shows featuring Bloody Elle, Boy Out The City and Cake. Reminiscent of Nimax’s Rising Stars festival back in 2021 when they cleverly filled their (then) six West End theatres with works from new producers making their West End debuts as they waited for the green light to reopen the shows that usually resided there due to social distancing restrictions. I for one loved this initiative and wish there was a designated space in the West End for a revolving roster of brand new works. It may have only been a few months at the Lyric Theatre this year, but it was a joy to see so many varying shows at that space in quick succession… even if at times it did feel I spent more time in that theatre than my own house.
HAS THEATRE LOST ITS ORIGINALITY?
A recurring subject that came up this year was on the lack of original musicals that were coming up. With musical adaptations of established movies and books becoming more common, there was concern for what that meant for the chances of getting something original seen by the masses. I see both sides of the argument – while it may seem like a no-brainer to adapt a title that already has a fanbase, it is by no means a guarantee for success. While there have been some of these I have seen in the last 12 months that haven’t resonated with me, others such as The Time Traveller’s Wife and The Witches have been among my favourites of the year.
ACCESSIBILITY VS ELITISM
There was a lot of talk of prices in theatre throughout the year, with many fearing the industry was pricing out the majority of people due to excessive prices of £300 and more for tickets. While this is noticeably creeping up more and more as is the cost of living and inflation, it can be countered by those who do great initiatives for cheaper tickets. Producer David Pugh always ensures all of his productions are affordable – a promise he maintained with this year’s standout play Shirley Valentine offering very reasonably priced tickets for every show. The most talked about musical of the year, Sunset Boulevard, offering £20 tickets for anyone under 30 – a trend that many theatres also offer, allowing more young people into the theatre. While that begs the question where does it leave those of us over 30 who can’t afford the extortionate prices of some shows, it is a step in the right direction at least. Obviously theatres and productions shouldn’t be operating at a loss but similarly they shouldn’t be pricing out anyone. Theatre should be for everyone, not just a select few.
There are those that will see the hefty price of some tickets and scoff as it doesn’t matter to them. These are the same people that want theatre to remain elitist so that they can feel better about themselves. These are the same people I will always call out for their bullsh*t, no matter how annoyed that makes them. Similarly, these people like to dictate what people should and shouldn’t do in the theatre, recently chastising those who choose to give standing ovations if they themselves don’t feel a performance warrants it. This is a subject that always frustrates me. If people aren’t causing any harm and actually trying to lift performers, shows and the industry in general up, what is wrong with that? Perhaps these people should try to do something positive for the industry rather than wanting it to remain their own private members club.
DO YOU HEAR THE PEOPLE SING?
The key with that last point is letting people enjoy themselves while still being respectful of the industry. This year we have witnessed a sharp decline in audience behaviour quite severely. Many shows have been stopped due to disruptive audiences, fights have broken up, people have been escorted out, people have even been hit. This is disruptive to the show itself, the performers on stage and all of your fellow audience members who are all entitled to the same joy – it is never fair for one person to ruin it for everyone else because they have had a few too many glasses of house wine. I liken this to the rise of people blasting music on their phone without earpods on public transport – there seems to be an increasing lack in consideration or respect for other people of late which is sad to see. I wonder if this is a direct result of all of us being locked up for all of those months during Covid – perhaps we forgot how we should act around others, and this has had permanent changes, resulting in some of these issues that have become more apparent this year.
Another key component to this was on whether people should be singing along to jukebox musicals, not helped by Vanessa Feltz’s tone-deaf comments that she’ll sing along if she wants to, even going as far as making up the words if she doesn’t know it.
All these points tie together, with jukebox musicals being a great way to get bums on seats in the theatre, appealing to a mass market so theatre isn’t just for a select few and is for everyone, creating more accessibility. It’s great we all know the words to these songs in jukebox musicals, but as much as I love a bit of ‘The Winner Takes It All’ at karaoke, I’m almost certain that Mazz Murray can sing it better than me, so why not leave her to it? And just because somebody is singing a Whitney Houston song, that doesn’t mean you can start a fight in the theatre or shout disgusting heckles at the cast (that last one happened when I went to see it.. and no, I wasn’t the one shouting).
Theatre should be for everyone. Theatre IS for everyone. As the Wildcats once wisely exclaimed in the modern classic High School Musical (Stage adaptation when?), we’re all in this together.
THE LANDSCAPE WAS CHANGING
Through initiatives by many theatres and shows, more people got to experience theatre this year. Those who might not have otherwise had a chance to see certain shows got the opportunity, hopefully setting them on a path for a lifetime of theatre-loving (not THAT kind of theatre-loving – that belongs in the previous point of bad behaviour).
The same is also true of those of us who enjoy reviewing theatre.
You may have seen some of the outspoken things I say on Twitter/X/Whatever it’s called this week, and that is because I truly believe theatre should be for everyone. Have I said that already?
It is great that established newspapers exist to print theatre reviews and I have the utmost respect for those critics, but the world is changing and so is the way we consume media. The same person that picks up the newspaper to see what shows they should go to see in the theatre is not the same person who will look at theatre websites or on social media to find this out.
To get theatre accessible to all, it is important to have a wide variety of voices out there who all appeal to different sections of the market. I started this website close to 4 years ago, not thinking for a moment anyone would ever read my reviews or buy a ticket to something based on my review. Thankfully, I was very wrong about that. Yes, it is an extreme change for those who have been in the industry a long time to get used to and may feel alien to them. Change is scary but change is also good. I have been warmed this year to see so many new blogs and theatre websites emerging – there can never be too many of us. It should never be a competition – all we want to do is uplift theatre and help give something back to this industry we all adore. This is a common goal for us all – to dictate who should and shouldn’t be allowed to attend a press night or review a show is exclusionary and elitist.
I won’t name specific people as in the words of Gwyneth Paltrow, “I wish them well” but you may have seen a disgusted response to a major West End play this year using a quote from me on their marquee. This was a huge career milestone for me and stopped me dead in my tracks when I saw it as I never expected to see my name on a theatre like that, especially on a show as high profile as this. It’s a shame this was tarnished by the negativity but it didn’t stop it being a proud moment for me. Thankfully, the landscape IS changing – more producers, shows and PRs are realising there is value in theatre websites, blogs and influencers and are working with us to help shout about all that we love (and the things that we don’t, let’s be honest). In that respect, 2023 has been much better than 2022 with more doors opening for people like me than I ever expected. I hope this trend continues in 2024 and we all learn to support each other.
Representation in theatre is an issue that many shows don’t always get right. While some will argue about casting the right people, there can sometimes feel like a sense of tokenism rather than a cast that accurately represents as it should. This year, steps were made to rectify that with reassuringly more and more shows taking the time and care to cast appropriately. Whether it was based on gender, race or religion, some shows got it right – others, not so much.
It was The Little Big Things that really paved the way, though. In the beautifully new accessible @sohoplace, not only did they cast disabled people in disabled roles, they also made sure it was far more than a story about disability. My friend Kerrie wrote about it much better than I ever could on her website, but seeing it through her eyes gave me a better understanding of why representation isn’t just necessary, it’s absolutely vital.
Let’s hope for more improvements in 2024.
IT DON’T MEAN A THING IF IT AIN’T GOT THAT SWING
Swings and understudies are the lifeblood of the industry.
SAY IT LOUDER FOR THE PEOPLE AT THE BACK.
We all know this, I assume? This year was no exception with swings and understudies ensuring the show went on on a daily basis, but sometimes going the extra mile… literally. People that had left shows ended up returning to them to save the day, hopping on a train to the other end of the country to ensure the show that night could take place. This happened most recently last week as Laura Harrison finished her matinee at Sunset Boulevard to return to Wicked that evening, saving the day by going on as Elphaba.
It’s not just swings too – absolute superstar Aisha Jawando hotfooted it back from Hamilton in Manchester to reprise the leading role of Tina Turner in TINA despite having already left the show. This year has seen stories from Heathers, SIX and The Choir Of Man – a callout on Twitter had no shortage of examples which really proves their vitality.
To all the swings and understudies, you may not always get the plaudits and adoration you deserve, but to me, you are all superheroes – each and every one of you, and I am incredibly thankful you do what you do, as crazy as it is for me to wrap my head around how you do it.
THEATRE REMAINS CRUCIAL
I’m someone who always likes to be open about struggles and my mental health wellbeing in general. It’s fair to say I haven’t had the easiest of years with some setbacks and personal issues sometimes leaving a cloud of darkness hanging over me. Theatre is my saviour in these situations. Some people may not understand it but, if you’re reading this, I hope you do. Sitting in a theatre and experiencing that magic does something to me that makes me think anything is possible. It manages to lift my mood, give me hope and put a much needed smile on my face. It may have been something I realised years ago, but this year especially I really appreciated the silent friend that is theatre.
The sense of community theatre can bring too is something that truly warms my heart - from conversations with like-minded people in the theatre to interacting on social media to the community based events such as West End LIVE, West End Flea Market and Musical Con to the communities that are created within shows from the mutual love of it - Mincefluencers, I'm looking at you! Theatre itself may be amazing but so are the people that live and breathe it.
What a year it has been! Whether you are a first time reader here or someone who has regularly been here throughout the year, thank you for your support – not just for me and this website but for theatre in general. It isn’t always the easiest industry, full of frustrations and challenges – but ultimately, there is nothing else like it. I would take all of the difficulties theatre throws at me if it meant I could still get those moments of pure euphoria when I am sat inside a theatre watching magic happen, as I have been lucky enough to experience many times this year.
Wishing everyone a happy and healthy New Year and I will see you in the theatre in 2024.