It’s showtime! Stage sensations to watch out for in 2023

Ross Willis unveils his new play Grim Brenda, Nancy Medina takes over at Bristol Old Vic and Sung Im Her has all the right moves. Here are 10 of theatre’s brightest talents today

Mei Mac

Somewhere backstage at the Barbican there’s a giant cuddly Totoro and I can’t be alone in wanting to dive on top of it. That’s testament to My Neighbour Totoro’s puppet masters, of course, but also to the warm performance of Mei Mac as the younger of the Kusakabe sisters who encounter the furry forest sprite. The scene in which she scales the sleeping creature’s tummy is a delight. As her namesake, Mei, she veers between happy-as-can-be glee, determination and distress whether through mile-a-minute dialogue or, just as effectively, in silence. Adult actors playing kids can grate but Mac fully inhabits her character and lets us see the others through her eyes. On TV, she has already starred in Call the Midwife and Nigel Ng’s sketch show East Mode. Totoro is at the Barbican for a few more weeks – it will be fascinating to see what happens next for the show and for her.

Sung Im Her

Shazia Nicholls, Annabel Baldwin, Michele Moran, Ayoola Smart and Rakhee Thakrar in Paradise Now! with movement direction by Sung Im Her.
Shazia Nicholls, Annabel Baldwin, Michele Moran, Ayoola Smart and Rakhee Thakrar in Paradise Now! with movement direction by Sung Im Her. Photograph: Helen Murray

Margaret Perry’s Paradise Now! is a play that’s as much an earworm as the tracks by Nicki Minaj and Sophie that power its production at the Bush (where it runs until 21 January). The show’s impact is boosted by the movement direction of Sung Im Her, the South Korean choreographer who studied under Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker at Parts in Brussels and has collaborated with Les Ballets C de la B and Needcompany. She has created her own hypnotic dance pieces for 10 years – one of the latest is Everything Falls Dramatic – and with Paradise Now! she proved how stylish movement direction can turbocharge a drama, not just in the play’s off-kilter party sequences (including a frenzied night of bowling) but also its most fragile moments and even the scene changes in between.

Frankie Bradshaw

Was there a better looking play in 2022 than Blues for an Alabama Sky at the National Theatre? Frankie Bradshaw designs rooms you can smell on sight and costumes you can sense on your skin. Her revolving Harlem tenement block set teemed with life and those slinky silks, Sunday best suits and choice accoutrements brought out the dreams and fears of every one of Pearl Cleage’s characters. A former Linbury prize finalist, Bradshaw also designed an eye-popping, chessboard-floored Hamlet for kids at the National. That show returns in March and this year she also designs Unexpected Twist, an adaptation of Michael Rosen’s take on Oliver Twist.

Maimuna Memon

Maimuna Memon in Ghost Quartet at the Boulevard theatre, London, in 2019.
Maimuna Memon in Ghost Quartet at the Boulevard theatre, London, in 2019. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian

Where to begin with Lancashire’s Maimuna Memon? She’s an accomplished composer and lyricist for theatre. She’s a superb actor with credits including Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar at Regent’s Park Open Air theatre. She’s a singer-songwriter who released her first open-hearted singles in 2022. And, at last year’s Edinburgh festival, Memon brought all those talents to bear in her mesmerising gig-theatre show Manic Street Creature, which drew mellifluous wisdom from even the most inharmonious plot turns. Also a founding member of Wildcard theatre company for emerging artists, she’s next to be seen in the Richard Hawley musical Standing at the Sky’s Edge at the National Theatre.

Sophie Ellerby

Back in 2006, a teenage Sophie Ellerby played Pob in Shane Meadows’ film This Is England. Based in the East Midlands, the actor went on to become a playwright and her blistering account of adolescence, Lit, was staged by HighTide in 2019. She then reunited with Lit’s director, Stef O’Driscoll, for To Whom it May Concern, a play about welfare and homelessness staged by Cardboard Citizens. Ellerby excels at portraying teenage lives and often works with youth theatres – last year her new play Painkiller was presented by the Stratford East Young Company while trainee actors at the Lyric Hammersmith put on her update of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, set around a protest at an STI clinic. Now she’s developing her own screen projects, too.

Ross Willis

I can’t wait to see Grim Brenda which is due to be staged at the Orange Tree and offers the enticing pairing of maverick director Ned Bennett (of Pomona fame) and playwright Ross Willis (who had his own cult hit with his debut play Wolfie in 2019). Each deliver the unexpected with productions that can seem nothing less than quests to tap theatre’s magical potential. In Wonder Boy at Bristol Old Vic, Willis’s dialogue fired around the stage like a pinball and showed he had an affinity with youthful turbulence. Grim Brenda finds seven-year-old Binky and his teddy bear on a mission to thwart a 2,000-year-old demon. Sounds like a walk in the park for Willis.

Tyrell Williams

Kedar Williams-Stirling, Emeka Sesay and Francis Lovehall in Red Pitch by Tyrell Williams at the Bush theatre.
Kedar Williams-Stirling, Emeka Sesay and Francis Lovehall in Red Pitch by Tyrell Williams at the Bush theatre. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian

Three young men’s life goals emerged through kickabout sessions at their local sports ground in Red Pitch, the debut of playwright Tyrell Williams at the Bush in 2022. Williams had previously co-created the viral YouTube series #HoodDocumentary and been an assistant director on plays at the Young Vic and the Gate. Red Pitch came with a hat-trick of brilliantly written roles and won him a handful of prizes including the George Devine award for an original new stage play by a promising playwright. It proved he can create comedy, pathos and tension through documenting a shifting sense of place as well as complex characters who are themselves on the cusp.

Hayley Grindle

The return of Iphigenia in Splott last year was a cause for celebration, not just for Sophie Melville’s performance but for Hayley Grindle’s equally indelible design for Gary Owen’s white hot monologue. The designer started 2022 with a bold Macbeth at Leeds Playhouse and created a striking set for the touring musical play Blood Harmony. Accessibility and creative captioning have been at the heart of such productions as The Boy With Two Hearts, first seen at Wales Millennium Centre in 2021, where she ingeniously and powerfully presented the precarious spaces shared by one family as they flee the Taliban. This year she reunites with Owen and Splott’s director Rachel O’Riordan for Romeo and Julie at the Sherman in Cardiff and the National Theatre.

Alex Howarth

Emily McGlynn, Alex Brain and Michaela Murphy in Cassie and the Lights at the Edinburgh fringe in 2022.
Emily McGlynn, Alex Brain and Michaela Murphy in Cassie and the Lights at the Edinburgh fringe in 2022. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/the Guardian

The relationship between three siblings was at the heart of last year’s Edinburgh fringe hit Cassie and the Lights but the play’s writer, director and designer Alex Howarth also ensured an uncommonly moving bond between them and the audience. Assured, authentic, brilliantly performed and imaginatively staged for the company Patch of Blue, it deserves to be widely seen. Assistant director on Richard Eyre’s La Traviata at the Royal Opera House and creator of an inclusive panto at Applecart Arts in east London, Howarth clearly works with care, mirth and musicality.

Nancy Medina

Bristol Old Vic’s new artistic director takes up her post in March, succeeding the esteemed Tom Morris, and it will be intriguing to see what she has in store for the UK’s longest continuously running theatre. Medina has directed plays including Two Trains Running at the Royal & Derngate in Northampton and The Darkest Part of the Night at the Kiln. Originally from New York, she has long been based in Bristol and is dedicated to making accessible theatre. Her response to securing the role was inspiring: “It will be a great honour to listen, reflect and engage with the people of Bristol and together imagine what the future of theatre and the arts can be in this shining city of the south-west.”


Chris Wiegand

The GuardianTramp

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