Readers’ favourite stage shows of 2023

<span>Photograph: Foteini Christofilopoulou</span>
Photograph: Foteini Christofilopoulou

Operation Mincemeat

Fortune theatre, London
A gloriously silly take on second world war subterfuge. Think MI6 the musical, complete with General Melchett, cross dressing, and lots of eye rolling at Ian Fleming. The score is infectious, the jokes so fast you will only catch half of them on the first viewing, and a half dozen performers create the presence and energy of 50 on Broadway. See it while you can – you will laugh and cry, and you won’t regret it. Lewis, 32, London


Ustinov theatre, Bath
I have never seen anything like Machinal at the Ustinov studio, Theatre Royal Bath. A colossal play and extraordinary performances from the cast – devastating, shocking and entirely engrossing piece of theatre. The best thing I’ve seen for many years. It wouldn’t be out of place at the National. The fact that it was in a tiny theatre in Bath was mind-blowing. It’s unusual to see work of that calibre outside of the major cities. We are beyond lucky to have Deborah Warner producing theatre here. Annika Bluhm, Bath


Summerhall, Edinburgh
I saw Woodhill by Lung theatre company at the Edinburgh fringe. I hope it will do a full UK tour because everyone should see it. It’s campaign theatre with a really clear, emotive call to action, that makes you think differently about our UK prison system and how we deal with, or don’t deal with, suicide and bereavement. It wonderfully meshes dance and the voices of bereaved families together into a show that leaves you ready to discuss possible alternative future prison systems that address current injustices for hours on end. So well thought through, from every well-timed movement to the fact that you are given a wellbeing pack to support you with the play’s themes. Long live Lung theatre company. Minnie, 28, London


Home, Manchester
I had the privilege to see Penguin at Home, Manchester, in October. It was a powerful and moving performance told with dignity and pride by storyteller Hamzeh Al Hussien , who has personal experience of living with disability, and the discrimination he faces, fleeing conflict in Syria due to the war, and finally seeking sanctuary in the UK. I highly recommend checking it out if you get the chance. Produced with support from Curious Monkey, a theatre company based in the north-east, who do some amazing storytelling by and with underrepresented groups and for everyone. Pascal D Checkley, 42, Manchester

Boys from the Blackstuff

Royal Court theatre, Liverpool
First time the TV series from the 1980s has been staged and still as relevant in today’s political landscape, still made me angry and sad but also laugh out loud at the Scouse humour. Great ensemble cast but special mention to Barry Sloane as Yosser Hughes, I didn’t think anyone could match Bernard Hill’s original but I was wrong. Also, a mention for the emotional a cappella lament started by Andrew Schofield playing George and joined by the rest of the cast. Jackie, 65, West Lancashire

Groundhog Day

Old Vic, London
Unforgettable. I expected easy laughs and came out having experienced a deep connection with the trials of being human. It was a beautiful piece of theatre, and I ended up seeing it four times. It was only on for three months and will have another run after Christmas in Melbourne. How hard can it be to get to Australia? Helen, Southampton

The Motive and the Cue

National Theatre, London
My favourite was Sam Mendes’ production of The Motive and the Cue. I loved Jack Thorne’s play about a play within a play, bought the script and went twice. Mark Gatiss’s mastery of John Gielgud’s voice, gait and mannerisms was astonishing. Johnny Flynn and Tuppence Middleton were compelling as Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor – possibly our first modern celebrity couple? – with that odd mix of arrogance and insecurity. I had tears in my eyes each time. Jane Lee, 75, Kingston-upon-Thames

The Swell

Orange Tree theatre, Richmond
What seemed to be an (albeit well-acted and deftly drawn) story about a love triangle pulled off an audacious final act twist that I never saw coming. Spent much of the journey home stunned and replaying moments in my head in a whole new light. A little gem. Lizzy 38, London

Grenfell: In the Words of Survivors

National Theatre, London
Incredibly powerful, politically fierce examination of what happened that night, with a deeply respectful account of the community living there, before and after. A simple production stylistically, it avoided sensationalism, concentrated on the human voice telling us these shocking, frightening, deeply moving stories. An act of witness and a call to arms. Stephanie, 62, London

Kim Noble: Lullaby for Scavengers

Soho theatre, London
Performance artist Kim Noble explores isolation and existential anxiety through mad yet profound public experiments. Kim covers himself in maggots, talks to us via a taxidermy squirrel, and disrupts the office of an Axa insurance company, sometimes hoovering naked. They get more extreme from here. There are touching moments, too, including a dialogue between Kim and his dying father. Just before I saw the show, I received a text saying that my childhood friend Emily was in hospital, and wouldn’t make it through the night. I remained in my seat, hyper-aware of the terrible reality that waited outside. Yet the way that Kim managed to fight for life, make peace with death and argue for connection, reminded me of why theatre is so vitally important. I know Emily would have loved the show. Scarlett Stitt, 24, London

The Real & Imagined History of the Elephant Man

Nottingham Playhouse
As a regular theatre visitor, I found this show to be so different from the mainstream work I have generally seen. An incredibly moving and thought-provoking play with powerful acting. Jen Shailes, 66, Market Harborough, Leicestershire

Trojan Women

Festival theatre, Edinburgh
The fear and pity of a Greek tragedy, taken to its fullest extremity and poured into the modern mould of a traditional Korean folk opera. Relentless and devastating, its peaks and valleys held me rapt by the scruff of my neck and wouldn’t let go. Everything was done with certainty, the performers some of the most embodied I’ve ever seen. The energy they contained and released in lamentation, they pierced the heart with the literal resonance of their grief. A shattering experience and towering achievement. Tom, 28, London

Miss Saigon

Crucible, Sheffield
I’ve seen Boublil and Schönberg’s Vietnam war musical before and felt uncomfortable watching the depiction of very young girl forced into prostitution. In this production, Kim is a strong, confident young woman who uses those around her to better her situation. The staging was more simple than the overly elaborate original version. The helicopter scene was far more effective and had the audience holding their breath. The sound was brilliant; the perfect pitch to match the action on stage. John Froggatt, 63, Derbyshire

untitled f*ck m*ss s**gon play

Young Vic, London
A friend bought a ticket to untitled f*ck m*ss s**gon play for me and I had few expectations. I found it to be both incredibly funny and very enlightening. It highlighted the racism, misogyny, and imperialism in theatre and TV in ways I hadn’t previously thought about. The dinner party at the end was the perfect uncomfortable conclusion. Jill, 50, Crofton Park

Free Your Mind

Aviva Studios, Manchester
My youngest son and I went to see Free Your Mind, directed by Danny Boyle and presented by Factory International at the brand new Aviva Studios in Manchester. It’s a new take on The Matrix film. The production was amazing and unique, making excellent use of a long catwalk-like stage in the second half. I feel privileged to have seen it. Jill, 66, Plymouth

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

Bristol Old Vic
It’s directed and conceived by Simon McBurney and based on an Olga Tokarczuk novel. It was just great to see a strong older female central character in Kathryn Hunter’s Janina – a woman so many of my peers could identify with. Joanna Cross, 72, Bristol

Woolf Works

Royal Opera House, London
My favourite show was the ballet Woolf Works by Wayne McGregor and the Royal Ballet, with Alessandra Ferri in the lead role, an excellent company and brilliant production. It left me stunned, fulfilled and grateful to have travelled to the UK for this. Ines, 33, Ireland


English National Opera, London Coliseum
I’m nominating Iolanthe by Gilbert and Sullivan at ENO. I saw it a few years ago and decided that it was so funny that my sons, age nine and 10, had to see it this year. They found it incredibly funny and wanted to go back and take all the extended family to see it. I love how layered the production is and how the humour was so current. There’s plenty of slapstick and even political satire. A great night out and I’ll definitely go again next time it’s on. I think it’s incredibly important to make the case for ENO. They sing in English and make opera accessible to so many. It’s a disgrace that they are in so much trouble. Kathryn, 45, London