Sunday 31 December 2023

Best Theatre and Live Perfomances Seen in 2023

Marek Pospieszalski at Fabryka Sztuki
(Photo: Marta Zając-Krysiak fotografia)

I decided to do things a bit differently than usual, and combine theatre and concerts on this list this year. In some ways, the line between the two grows ever blurrier: the most popular concerts right now tend to be highly produced theatrical spectacles - carefully choreographed down to the last gesture. 

There's little space for spontaneity in these huge arena scenarios, and the shows I've gravitated towards this year tended to foster closer audience/performer connections, whether it was Daniel Cerqueira combining song, serenade, silliness, memoir and memorial under fairy lights in a tiny Brixton art studio in the beautiful Danny is Fantastic or Marek Pospieszalski making a saxophone do things you didn't know saxophones could do in his captivating solo show at Fabryka Sztuki. 

Performing in Poland for the first time since 2014 accompanied by long-time bassist Jon Evans plus drummer Ash Soan, Tori Amos' Ocean to Ocean show in Katowice retained every bit of the intimacy of her two previous solo tours as she operated her arsenal of keyboards and welcomed the Katowice crowd with a casual "Hey Poland, what's up?" 

Tori Amos at Spodek in Katowice
(Photo: Jacek Raciborski )

Part blistering rock show, part revival meeting, the trio stretched the songs into supple, jazzy jams across a set list tailored to the place and moment. Surprises were many but the single moment I loved most was the ferocity with which Amos pulled out a gem of a line from "Smokey Joe": "One's past is not a destination".

Mo­rze ∞ moż­li­wo­ści 
Photo: Agnieszka Cytacka fotografia)

From the bewitching gentle puppetry of Fundacja Gra/nice's Mo­rze ∞ moż­li­wo­ści  (Sea of ∞ Possibilities) to the exhilarating wild rides of BUD and Rejs (Cruise), this summer's Retroperspektywy Festival in Łódź provided several of the year's theatrical highlights; the absolute standout was the closing Livet. Suite for the Earth concert, which brought together singers and musicians from several countries in an extraordinary performance. 

(Photo: Agnieszka Cytacka fotografia)

Otherwise, a tendency toward Łódź-specific stories with a wider resonance characterised some of the best theatre presented in the city, especially at Teatr Nowy, whether Dobrze ułożony młodzieniec's innovative dramatization of the interwar life of transman Eugeniusz Steinbart or the immersive evocation of the city's rave culture in Mój pierwszy rave.

Dobrze ułożony młodzieniec

Spectacularly subversive takes on Hamlet and Carmen were also highlights, and I predict a  bright future for Grzybki (Mushrooms), a sharp, playful and song-filled exploration of motherhood, written by Aleksandra Skraba, who co-starred alongside Elżbieta Zajko.

(Photo: Mr. and Mrs. Oh!)

I saw less theatre in the UK this year, which still seems too in thrall to new plays based on real-life figures, confusing celebrity status with dramatic interest.

(Photo: Marc Brenner)

Tom Littler began his Orange Tree Artistic Directorship with two smart and crowd-pleasing productions: of The Circle and She Stoops to Conquer. Still, the best production I saw at the OT this year was Kalungi Ssebandeke’s rich and haunting revival of Mustapha Matura's Meetings, in which a postcolonial conflict between tradition and modernity plays out in the kitchen of an upwardly mobile Trinidadian couple. With a great trio of performances from Kevin N Golding, Bethan Mary-James and,  especially, an absolutely stunning Martina Laird, Meetings wasn't the hit it deserved to be, but Ssebandeke’s production won't be forgotten by those who were lucky enough to catch it

Trouble in Butetown 
(Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Also brilliantly locating a big story in a domestic space (and with another role vividly played by Bethan Mary-James) was Diana Nneka Atuona's latest play Trouble in Butetown at the Donmar, an absorbing WWII drama, set in a racially mixed household in multicultural Tiger Bay. Tinuke Craig's production had a beautiful tenderness and warmth but also gave the drama the drive of a thriller. And also at the Donmar, Michael Longhurst directed a not very popular but pleasingly tough-minded Private Lives that dispensed with any sentiment in conveying the play's vision of love as a battlefield.

Finally, beginning the year on a high note was the glorious touring production of Fisherman's Friends: The Musical, and ending it on one that captured all the joy, craziness and sadness of the season was Barb Jungr and Dillie Keane's wonderful Christmas show, Two Turtle Doves

Here's to 2024! 

Tuesday 12 December 2023

Best Films of 2023

The full set of ballots for this year's Sight and Sound Best Films of 2023 list are now up; you can read them here

These are the films I voted for: 

Sight and Sound (Winter 2023/24)


The Sight and Sound Winter issue is out now, including the Best Films of 2033 feature. I wrote about Harry Belafonte for the "In Memoriam" feature of this issue. More details here.