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Critic's pick: Top shows to see in 2023

Sarah Crompton selects the shows she's most excited by this year

A mosaic of shows featured in Sarah Crompton's top picks

This is a very partial list of what I am really looking forward to in the next few months. These choices are always impossible and never more so than in a year when the cost-of-living crisis is going to put pressure on every ticket bought – at exactly the same moment as audiences haven't quite decided how brave they are feeling about returning to theatre-going anyway.

There are many things I know I will end up enjoying that I haven't included; the list is notably low on new writing, partly because it is just so difficult to predict (which is what makes it hard to sell in the first place) and partly because not all theatres have announced their plans.

But here are the dozen shows that are firmly in my diary.

Sylvia, from 27 January, the Old Vic

Sharon Rose and Beverley Knight
© Chantel King

I am a huge admirer of Kate Prince but even she admits she took on more than she could cope with when she first tried to launch this musical version of the life of the suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst in 2018. When the production – sold as a work in progress – was hit by illness, it closed without ever really opening. Now it's back, redeveloped and complete, but still with Beverley Knight as Emmeline Pankhurst, music by Josh Cohen and DJ Walde and book and lyrics by Prince herself.

Phaedra, from 1 February, National Theatre

Janet McTeer and Assaad Bouab

A mini Greek season (see below) in London theatre begins with Simon Stone's reimagining as writer and director of Seneca's tragedy, starring Janet McTeer as the tragic heroine who falls in love with her husband's son with devastating consequences. He's played by Assaad Bouab (of Call My Agent! fame) making his London stage debut. If it's anything like as gripping as Stone's visceral Yerma at the Young Vic, it will be one of the highlights of the season.

Medea, from 10 February, @sohoplace

Sophie Okonedo and Ben Daniels
© David Gordon

The magnificent Sophie Okonedo returns to the stage for the first time since Antony and Cleopatra in 2018 in this adaptation of Medea, directed by Dominic Cooke. It's the second production by Cooke's own company FictionHouse, following close on the heels of Good with David Tennant, and the fact that such a fine director is bringing serious drama to the West End feels like a good deed at a difficult time. The production is all the more intriguing because Ben Daniels (so strong in Cooke's production of The Normal Heart) is taking on all the male roles.

Oklahoma!, from 16 February, Wyndham's Theatre

Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! at the Young Vic
© Marc Brenner

Another cheering act of faith that challenging work can thrive in the West End is represented by this transfer of Daniel Fish's thorough-going rethinking of a Rogers and Hammerstein classic. What I admire about this production is the way it honours the score (played by a bluegrass band) while examining its darker sub-text. It also makes the choice Laurey (Anoushka Lucas) has to make between cocky Curly (Arthur Darvill) and sad misfit Jud, a real one. Patrick Vaill's performance as Jud just won a Standard award; it is one of the best and most nuanced things you will ever see.

Top Girls, from 3 March, Liverpool Everyman

Suba Das
© Pamela Raith

Forty years on, Caryl Churchill's searing play about the unenviable choices facing women has lost none of its savage power. It's smart of the Liverpool Everyman to revive it and to ask Churchill to reimagine it to suit the city in which it is played. Helmed by the theatre's creative director Suba Das, it forms part of an enterprising season which also includes Richard III, directed by and starring Adjoa Andoh (of Bridgerton fame), which opens on 6 April, produced in partnership with Rose Theatre, Kingston where it runs from 26 April.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, from 24 March, Royal Exchange

Roy Alexander Weise with fellow Royal Exchange artistic director Bryony Shanahan
© Lee Baxter

I'm a sucker for big, sprawling American drama (see below), and for all the grand guignol excess of Tennessee Williams, he's still a playwright who strikes truth from the human heart. The casting of this revival has not yet been announced and will be crucial, but the fact that it is directed by Roy Alexander Weise makes me confident.

Dancing at Lughnasa, from 6 April, National Theatre

Ardal O'Hanlon, Siobhán McSweeney and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor

The original Abbey Theatre production of Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa transferred to the National Theatre in 1990 where the infinite subtlety of his description of the shafts of happiness and ultimate sadness afflicting the lives of a family of Irish sisters won it the Olivier Award for Best Play. It repeated the success on Broadway and has gone on to become a classic example of the power of a memory play. Now it returns, in a production directed by Josie Rourke, and with a cast including Siobhán McSweeney, so memorable as Sister Michael in Derry Girls, Ardal O'Hanlon, and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor.

The Secret Life of Bees, from 8 April, Almeida Theatre

Tarinn Callender, Danielle Fiamanya, Rachel John and Ava Brennan

This pedigree of this musical adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd's novel is golden. It's got a book by Lynn Nottage (who wrote Sweat) and a score by Duncan Sheik (responsible for Spring Awakening), lyrics by Susan Birkenhead (Tony-nominated for Jelly's Last Jam) and is directed by Whitney White who is being talked about as one of the hottest young directing talents in the US. The story follows a Black housekeeper and her white charge who run away from home in South Carolina in 1964 and find a refuge in a honey farm. Apart from its awkward title, all the odds are in its favour.

The Motive and the Cue, 20 April, National Theatre

Johnny Flynn, Mark Gatiss and Tuppence Middleton
© Dan Wooller

As someone obsessed with Richard Burton's Hamlet, directed by John Gielgud, I cannot wait to see Jack Thorne's new play inspired by the making of the production and the backstage clashes that resulted when two generations of theatrical thinking and of art and celebrity suddenly collided. Johnny Flynn stars as Burton, newly married to Elizabeth Taylor (Tuppence Middleton) with Mark Gatiss playing Gielgud. If you want to whet your appetite, watch the real thing on YouTube. It's a tantalising glimpse of greatness nearly achieved.

Groundhog Day, 20 May, the Old Vic

Andy Karl in Groundhog Day
© Manuel Harlan

When Groundhog Day, with music and lyrics by Tim Minchin and a book by Danny Rubin, premiered at the Old Vic in 2016, it seemed set for success, opening to a string of five-star reviews. But despite a similarly favourable reception, the Broadway run, also starring Andy Karl, closed after only 176 performances and there was no US tour. Its relative lack of success is hard to understand; it is a heart-warming show full of attractive tunes and featured a winning central performance. It will be fascinating to see if it achieves take-off this time. My feeling is that a musical about a man whose hard heart is healed by small-town care, should have a chance of success in our difficult days.

La Cage aux Folles, from 29 July, Regent's Park Open Air Theatre

Artwork for La Cage aux Folles
© Regent's Park Open Air Theatre

Anyone who has ever sung "I Am What I Am" at the top of their voice should be rushing to book tickets for Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Herman's musical, written in 1983, and still one of the best of the past few decades. Here directed by Timothy Sheader, it's a tribute to the power of acceptance, tolerance, love and the true meaning of family, and raises the spirits in even the bleakest of times.

Long Day's Journey Into Night with Brian Cox

Brian Cox
© David Gordon

No theatre and no date are yet announced for Jeremy Herrin's production of Eugene O'Neill's lengthy classic about a theatrical family fading into the night. Yet the opportunity to see Brian Cox take on the leading role of James Tyrone, terrifying paterfamilias and dreamer has to make it one of the most eagerly anticipated theatrical events of the year.