Longstaff Reviews's top shows from the last year
What a year it has been for theatre and despite being in the fortunate position to cover much of London's theatre scene, I feel like I have barely scratched the surface. 105 reviews across London and the Edinburgh Fringe have seen me sit myself down in over 60 different venues and I could not be more grateful to have laughed, cried and applauded some utterly incredible pieces of work alongside some productions that maybe didn't reach their desired potential.
I wanted to take a moment to celebrate the shows that have stood out to me this last year in the hope that more audiences are able to connect with the productions if they are still running or the creatives behind them in their future work. This is solely my personal opinion so take it with a pinch of salt, but I would encourage everyone, if they are able, to take a risk and see something you would never normally see in 2024. The arts need support more than ever and as audiences, we have the power to champion great work in tiny and huge spaces alike.
Please note shows denoted with an * are productions where I bought my own ticket, the rest were PR invites where I was given a ticket in exchange for an honest review.
Returning or continuing shows that I took a repeat visit to
The Ocean at the End of the Lane
UK Tour and West End
Neil Gaiman’s story is one of grief-infused imagination with the boy having buried himself in classic tales of adventure and wonder, before going on to mirror the actions and qualities of the characters he obsesses over. A world of magic and mystery is built before us that is equally welcoming as it is unnerving. Productions such as these have a mighty power to inspire the next generation and uncover the inner child within all of us.
My Neighbor Totoro*
Once again, I felt the pure magic that the RSC's show creates. The puppetry, music and performances are like nothing else and the way in which the play is paced holds the emotion of the room with such majesty. Simply breathtaking.
My Son's a Queer (but What Can You Do?)*
Broadway is not ready for this joyous and urgent show. With the continued hateful rhetoric that those holding power have repeatedly spouted, Rob Madge's production is a beacon of positivity and light. It is a statement that queer and trans people exist, and their stories deserve to be told. Seeing the representation of some of those closest to me on that stage will live long in my memory.
Southwark Playhouse Borough
Imagine the sweetest and silliest combination of satirical and farce-ridden action films of the 1980s, smushed together with musical goodness from Eugenius co-creator Ben Adams. This outstanding show, packed with multi-rolling hilarity never drops its aim with shot after shot hitting its intended target - musical comedy does not get much better than this.
Returning to Southwark in March 2024 - Tickets
The Bush Theatre
Productions like this are rarer than they should be but Matilda Feyisayo Ibini has shown how it can be done. With a stellar cast and a creative team on fire, this piece is a whirlwind of representation and celebration that is accessible to all. It will have you laughing out loud but will also hold you at the edge of your seat as its emotional weight hits you with full force. An accurate Tupperware time capsule of growing up with your friends by your side.
The Bush Theatre's programming has been exceptional this year, with each show a triumph of entertainment and education.
Guys & Dolls
The Bridge Theatre
This is the first musical staged at The Bridge Theatre since it opened in 2017, but productions of this calibre and ingenious design are surely what a modern, versatile space like this is destined for. This is more than a must-see show, it is one that will be discussed and revered for years to come - pure musical theatre joy.
Marisha Wallace and Cedric Neal save souls eight shows a week by offering up two of the most accomplished musical theatre performances I have ever witnessed.
Booking until 31 August 2024 - Tickets
Southwark Playhouse Elephant
Joy and heartbreak radiate from this production that has evolved since its inaugural run at the Charing Cross Theatre and it is impossible not to be swept up in the impossible tale that unfurls. Annie’s story, when paired with this wondrous creative team and phenomenal cast, is a match made in heaven. “What is reality?” Annie asks. The reality is that this show is a mighty addition to the remarkable, and still evolving, tale of Annie Londonderry, cyclist extraordinaire. A masterpiece.
Accidental Death of an Anarchist*
Theatre Royal Haymarket/Lyric Hammersmith/Sheffield Theatres
Tom Basden's adaptation of Dario Foand Franca Rame’s farcical Accidental Death of an Anarchist was oh-so silly but laser-focused in its satire of modern policing and government. Daniel Rigby gives a career-defining performance as The Maniac who dupes the police officers into reenacting the death of an anarchist whilst in custody exposing the lunacy and corruption at the core of the force.
Southwark Playhouse Borough
Drawing on the source material with utmost care and understanding it ploughs forward with complete silliness armed with a rib-tickling script and highly infectious soundtrack to deliver a hilarious evening all-round. The future star-studded cast is faultless in bringing the caricature characters to the stage, no musical parody has the right to be this good.
Touring until May 2024 - Tickets
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button*
Southwark Playhouse Elephant
If this production doesn't find a bigger home in 2024 I will be distraught. Jethro Compton's sublime musical sets the Benjamin Button story on the Cornish Coastline towards the end of the First World War. Cornish shanties fill the air in this surprisingly moving production delivered by a talented ensemble of actor-musicians, led by the impressive Jamie Parker. I dearly hope to see this show return next year.
The Little Big Things
An unlikely narrative for a musical, Henry Fraser’s transformative memoir is a vibrant story about accepting and overcoming adversity that resonates beyond the confines of the theatre. Crafted with delicate care but imbued with bold choices, the London theatre scene has a new bright spark ready to leave audiences warmed, hopeful and supplied with the resilience to face the outside world - a beautiful evening of theatre.
Running until 2nd March - Tickets
Operation Mincemeat is rapidly farcical and beautifully satirical all wrapped up in a warm and compassionate bundle that could melt an iceberg. Rarely can a show handle the high-speed hijinks of instantaneous transitions between laugh-out-loud comedy and tear-jerking moments of stillness, but Mincemeat does so with ease. This latest musical addition to London’s West End is a beacon of what is possible when homegrown talent is allowed to flourish and god it is brilliant! It may be the most unlikely comedy musical but it is the perfect tonic for troubled times, and long may it reign on the West End.
A recent return visit has made this production all the more impactful after the unveiling of a plaque dedicated to Hester Leggatt, one of the historical characters represented in the show. With meticulous work from the show's brilliant fanbase (Mincefluencers), Hester's history was uncovered and her family was put in touch with the show so that she finally received some of the recognition she undoubtedly deserves.
Booking until June 2024 - Tickets
Many thanks to all the artists, performers, producers and PRs who invited me along to assess their productions in 2023. Being a theatre critic can be challenging and lonely at times (particularly when managing the normal day job at the same time) as you aim to strike the balance between honesty and consistency whilst recognising the massive undertaking that is creating a show, but it has been an utter delight to see creatives risk it all in the pursuit of fantastic theatre and to play a small role in connecting people to their work. Bring on 2024!
*Asterisk denotes that I paid for my own ticket. The rest were PR invites where I was given a ticket in exchange for an honest review.