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The unforgettable shows that defined Manchester’s theatre in 2023

As Manchester theatres wrap up a year of diverse performances, reviewers reminisce on impactful plays. Join the journey down memory lane as they share their favourite theatrical highlights of 2023.

Theatres all over Manchester are welcoming many first-time visitors, as they woo families over Christmas and New Year.

And we are spoilt for choice as there are beloved literary adaptions, pantos – big and small, a show about drag queens based on a hit film, a musical version of a Jules Verne classic and a show about Manchester for Manchester.

It has been an incredible year for Manchester, and not just on stage.

But, what did we all see that left an imprint on our hearts, or made us laugh loads, or left us weeping behind our programmes when no one was looking?

Grab a mince pie a hot chocolate, and scroll down memory lane with us, as we take a look back at our theatrical highlights of the year.

Looking for a show? Check out some of the best theatre shows currently taking place in Manchester.

Glenn Meads

Pornography at 53Two
  1. Pornography at 53two

I love a big theatre show as much as anyone else, as I find it transformative. But one play which has remained etched on my mind is a small, beautiful and challenging production which took my breath away. Simon Stephens’ writing does not dilute the darkness and the characters are all deeply flawed. This is a play which is as unpredictable as it is brave. Oliver Hurst directs with urgency and embraces the darkest of themes, but never forgets the beauty that lies beneath. Issac Radmore wows as a troubled schoolboy.

  1. A View From the Bridge at the Octagon

Watching Arthur Miller’s classic play performed on stage, as we sit with jaws at Suella Braverman’s surly and sardonic soundbites make it incredibly relevant and timely. This striking production gets right to the heart of the piece and it still stings. Naturalistic performances and a galloping pace, that rarely lets up, this is the best play I have seen at the Octagon in some time.

  1. Leaves of Glass at the Hope Mill Theatre

I love a thriller that twists and turns like a restless anaconda. Phillip Ridley’s Leaves of Glass is one of those plays, that leads you down a blind alley, only to wrong-foot you and leave you in awe because of the wonderful writing. The cast performs like athletes and you are left with a memorable night at the theatre, which gives you thrills, and chills and leaves you feeling quite fragile by the end. A sublime piece of theatre.

  1. Wasteland at Contact and I, Daniel Blake at HOME

Productions which highlight those who felt that were not being heard, or had their voice taken away can have a profound effect on an audience. I know I am cheating here by having two but Wasteland focused on the plight of miners and managed to connect this with ravers, and how both were silenced by the government. And I, Daniel Blake revisited as a stage production has more anger and fire in its belly, now that food banks are more prevalent on our streets than McDonalds. Productions like this remind you just how urgent, vital and powerful theatre can be.

  1. Coke, Machines, Stars and Kisses at 53two

I paid just a tenner to see this John O’Neil’s terrific two-handers and I have never stopped thinking about it. The setting is a trampoline in a rubbish-strewn garden in Manchester. It is the day after the night before and the host and a guest reminisce about growing up in Salford. We explore secrets, lies and hidden selves and you end up with a refreshing take on masculinity and sexuality. John O’Neil and Alexander Townson have the sort of chemistry money cannot buy; it’s just there in the stars. This was an intimate and magical night of theatre.

 A special mention goes to the Oldham Coliseum which I miss dearly. Thinking of the staff and casts, crew and audiences who gave the place their all. X X

Thom Bamford

Leaves of Glass at Hope Mill Theatre
  1. Leaves of Glass at the Hope Mill Theatre

It’s not often you’re left thinking about a piece of art for months after you’ve seen it. This was my experience with Leaves of Glass. Complex, embittered, loving relationships and wonderful sound, light and set design all come together to create a tumultuous and once-of-a-kind experience. The themes of memory, manipulation and truth – constantly asking yourself – am I being lied to creates a tense paranoia that is half gripping, half deeply unsettling. The play demands introspection and encourages the audience to question their systems of belief and perceptions. I’ve never felt so happy to feel so uneasy. Seriously powerful storytelling, hats off to all involved.

  1. Project Dictator at HOME (or ‘Why Democracy is Overrated and I Don’t Miss It At All’)

A brilliant, interactive performance satirising totalitarianism. Very, very strange – but inventive and out of the box – something that should always be encouraged in art. Project Dictator is a bold and clever satire that invites contemplation on the dangers of political manipulation and the fragility of democracy. And let’s be honest, isn’t that more relevant than ever?

  1. Falstaff Opera North at the Lowry 

Without a doubt, the funniest thing I’ve seen all year (Apart from Liz Truss’ effort at being PM). This is an opera that could get your most curmudgeonly anti-opera person into the genre. It’s that brilliant. Henry Waddington, who plays Falstaff could do a stand-up show on his own, his timing is so impeccable and his mannerisms are just hilarious. Can we get a shout-out for the incredible stage design from Opera North? Especially the Deer Antler throne, and the incredible costumes at the end. Brilliant!

  1. Free Your Mind at Factory International

Simply mind-blowing, made you incredibly proud to be from the city and was a world-class production that wouldn’t have been out of place in New York or London. Roll on Manchester’s renaissance. It was hard on the walk home not to feel like the city is back at the cutting edge of culture in a big way.

5. Vignettes at CONTACT

How often do you get completely floored and ugly cry at a play? Despite what you read in the news every day people can be good to each other. People can be beautiful to each other. And some people are too good for this world. One of these people is Anne Stebbings, one of the main workers at Manchester Rape Crisis.  Based loosely on the story of Manchester Rape Crisis, this emotional rollercoaster of performance offers a raw and unapologetic exploration of the repercussions of sexual violence, laying bare society’s illness and irreverence towards the devastating consequences faced by its victims. It is a shame it was only on for such a short period, such was its immense power.

Lily Houston

Hot Brown Honey at HOME
  1. Hot Brown Honey – HOME 

This educational extravaganza was a feast for the eyes, ears and the soul. All the way from Australia the Hot Brown Honey team had so much energy and passion it was hard not to leave the theatre smiling. The diversity in the cast and their performances and dedication to their work earn them my top spot for this year.

  1. Kathy and Stella Solve a Murder! at HOME 

Fresh from the fringe and only doing a small tour of this show I was lucky to catch it when it came to Manchester. Full of hilarious one-liners, a grippingly good storyline and plenty to relate to. This is one to watch and I think it’ll be touring a lot more in 2024.

  1. Hamilton at The Palace Theatre

This could be one of the best shows touring the UK at the moment, and Manchester audiences are SO lucky to have it here until February. The performances from the cast are incredible and the hype is very well deserved.

  1. Heathers at The Palace Theatre

Another classic film comes to life on the stage in Heathers. The preppy plaid-clad teen drama about love and murder, mixed with upbeat pop songs, what’s not to love?! A super fun watch with a cult fanbase.

  1. Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby (Rambert) at The Lowry 

The hit TV series turned into a stage show. I wasn’t sure what to expect, how do you turn a dark and gritty show into a theatrical dance? Exactly how they did it. The inspiring cast from the Rambert Dance school blew me away and for Thomas Shelby lovers this is one to watch.

Eric Riley

Noises Off at The Lowry
  1. Noises Off at the Lowry

Classic British comedy about a play that goes disastrously wrong, that had the whole audience laughing with an excellent cast that played their roles perfectly.

  1. Rock of Ages at the Opera House

A great love letter to 80’s rock music in this jukebox musical with lots of fun comedy to match the amazing vocals.

  1. Head over Heels at the Hope Mill Theatre

A really fun musical that blends the music of the Go-Gos, Greek myths and Shakespeare with an uplifting message about finding your own identity.

  1. Message in a Bottle at the Lowry

Incredibly well-choreographed dance show that uses dance, emotion and the music of Sting to shine a light on the horrors of forced displacement and human trafficking. Excellent!

  1. Greatest Days at the Palace Theatre

A very emotional musical with a lot of heart and laughs that uses the songs of Take That to tell a story of childhood friends reconnecting as adults, many years after they were separated by tragedy. It relights your fire for musicals and then some.

Craig McDonald

Merchant of Venice at HOME
  1. The Merchant of Venice at HOME

William Shakespeare’s famous yet problematic comedy is uprooted from 16th-century Venice to 20th-century London, in a slick and accessible retelling featuring astonishing and passionate performances from a talented cast. My favourite of the bard’s plays that I have seen adapted.

  1. Giselle at The Palace Theatre

On arrival at the Palace Theatre, I was a ballet novice with no idea what to expect; upon leaving I was deeply moved, having felt that I had just witnessed something truly special. Above all else, I was filled with a greater appreciation of the hard work and dedication that goes into the art and craft of ballet.

  1. Steel Magnolias at The Lowry

It felt like a wonderful couple of hours spent in the company of good friends you’ve known for years, enjoying some light-hearted and heartfelt banter. A much-needed dose of southern (US) hospitality and Louisianan sunshine to shake off the Mancunian winter blues.

  1. Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story at the Opera House

Featuring some of that ‘old-time rock n’ roll’ performed by an accomplished and enthusiastic cast of actor-musicians: Buddy Holly was a fascinating insight into one of the most legendary and tragic figures in rock and roll history.

  1. Glad To Be Dead – The Manchester Fringe Festival, Gullivers Lounge

A series of thoughtful and humorous monologues delivered in an intimate setting by some of history and fiction’s most interesting characters on everything from the circumstances surrounding their lives and deaths to the absurdity of modern life. Dorian Gray poking fun at the social media-obsessed vanity of the modern era was a standout theatre moment of the year for me.

Annalise Bennett

Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of) at The Lowry
  1. Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of) at The Lowry

This adaptation of the Austen classic was brilliant. It was a retelling of the renowned narrative, being told from the perspectives of the maids in the Bennet household, who donned costumes to transform themselves into the characters they were depicting. It was a jukebox musical, the comedy was fantastic and overall it was a fantastically well-made play. I saw it in January off the back of its West End run, having been so successful with its run at the Edinburgh Festival. I am still recommending this to people now – if you get the chance to see it, do. You don’t even need to be familiar with the text to appreciate it!

  1. Shrek the Musical at the Opera House

Goes without saying – Shrek has stood the test of time, and the musical adaption is no different. It’s full of original songs and music, making the familiar story all that bit more feel good. It’s a great night out for all ages and an excuse to appreciate your favourite characters in a new, exciting way.

  1. Romeo & Juliet at The Royal Exchange Theatre

It defined itself as a love letter to Manchester, and it lovingly and lightly brought in Mancunian references in one of Shakespeare’s most well known plays, while still honouring the original material and subject matter. The acting was fantastic, and the Royal Exchange of course is a stunning venue.

  1. This Kind of Black at HOME

One-man show showing and performing the experiences he had in life that shaped him into being the person he is today. Reece Williams grew up on the streets of Manchester and this knowledge and these references are the foundations of his performance and are the very fabric of his being.

  1. The Book of Will at the Octagon

An homage to Shakespeare; a group of his friends gather after his passing to write down all their parts to forever eternalise their dear friends’ work. This was a lovely production at the Bolton Octagon, with a wholesome narrative of friendship and legacy.

Connor Cooper

Beautiful Thing at HOME
  1. Beautiful Thing at HOME

Beautiful Thing is a play by Jonathan Harvey that follows neighbours Ste and Jamie and their families. It is such a gentle story that was so lovingly told. I kept forgetting I was watching a play and not just looking into somebody’s living room. It manages to convey the violence and cruelty of homophobia without ever being gratuitous or exploitative. This made the play feel like an honest reflection of a lived experience.

  1. Mother Goose at the Lowry 

Another piece written by Jonathan Harvey and his Mother Goose is one of the most fun theatre experiences I’ve had in the past year! I’d never been to an Easter pantomime before but I was not disappointed! It was such a good, truly fun show that hit the perfect tone for a pantomime: camp and silly and not quite PG!

  1. No Pay! No Way! at the Royal Exchange Theatre

No Pay! No Way! had the most interesting and distinctive set design I saw in 2023. For a play originally written in 1974, it is still extremely damning in its critique of late-stage capitalism, all while being hilarious! Despite bordering on absurd, No Pay! No Way! feels so grounded and deeply relatable. The ending in particular has really stuck with me. I admire how this production said so much about capitalism in such a funny way, without spoon-feeding the audience.

  1. Animal at the Hope Mill Theatre

Animal is a play that originated from a story by Jon Bradfield and Josh Hepple. It is a frank discussion of disability and sexuality and how they intersect. As a disabled person myself, I am always so excited to find stories that prioritise disabled voices and Animal did not let me down.

I practically rejoiced whenever the main character David was mean or selfish because so often disabled characters are only allowed to be saint-like, so it was incredibly refreshing and almost cathartic for me to see a play that talked about the realities of being a disabled adult.

  1. Hecklers Welcome at the Lowry

I’ve been a big fan of James Acaster for a few years now but Hecklers Welcome was the first show of his I saw live. As expected, I loved it. He was consistently hilarious throughout the entire show and I loved seeing how his stand-up has evolved since 2019.

There are so many moments and lines from the show that have yet to leave my head, even after four months! I could have quite happily gone to every single show of the run and still laughed my head off the whole time.

And that’s all folks! Have a great Christmas and let us know what your favourite productions of the year are on our socials.

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