London theatre critics' choice

Our theatre critics recommend the best London theatre of the moment

New and limited run shows

King Charles III

Critics' choice

The royal family is a soap opera that the whole nation loves to tune into – even the Scots. And Mike Bartlett’s audacious new comedy imagines their next episode as if it were Will Shakespeare scripting ‘The Thick of It’. Elizabeth II is dead, Charles III finally ascends the throne and promptly clashes with a handsome, populist Labour PM (sorry Ed, his name’s Tristram).

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Wyndham's Theatre Saturday January 31 2015

Bad Jews

Critics' choice

Family tensions are bound to run high when a loved one dies. But in this hilarious new comedy from Joshua Harmon, you frequently wonder whether a tragic death might actually provoke a bloody murder. Three cousins are lumped together in a one-room apartment in New York because ‘the most important person’ in their family, their Holocaust survivor grandfather, has died. 

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St James Theatre Until Saturday February 28 2015

The Changeling

Critics' choice

If comedy equals tragedy plus time, then Thomas Middleton and William Rowley’s 1622 tragedy ‘The Changeling’ has had almost four centuries to get funny.Some of it already was: setting aside the darker Middleton-penned main story for a moment, Rowley’s subplot about romantic shenanigans in a loony bin was always intended to elicit a few un-PC lols. That’s why exasperated modern directors often give it the heave.

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Sam Wanamaker Playhouse Until Sunday March 1 2015

The Caucasian Chalk Circle

The bods at the Unicorn Theatre don’t scare easily. They recently staged a riproaring adaptation of Shakespeare’s ‘Henry V’ for children and now they’re tackling Brecht’s 1944 play ‘The Caucasian Chalk Circle’. It is a demanding work, which asks complex questions about capitalism and social justice, but Amy Leach’s vivid production keeps both children and adults enthralled.

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Unicorn Theatre Until Saturday March 21 2015

Tree

Critics' choice

On the face of it, ultra-DIY comic Daniel Kitson should feel about as at comfy doing a month at the 1,000-seat Old Vic as Gandhi might doing a season in Vegas. But he’s made it feel like home for ‘Tree’, his first ‘proper’ play after years of increasingly theatrical storytelling shows. Tickets have been capped at his approved top price of £16.

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Old Vic Until Sunday February 22 2015

Title and Deed

Critics' choice

‘I’m not from here’, a man tells us. And he’s audibly not: he’s Irish performer Conor Lovett of acclaimed theatre company Gare St Lazare. ‘I guess I never will be’, he continues. He’s an outsider, as the play’s subtitle, ‘monologue for a slightly foreign man’, informs us.Not very foreign: he’s a native English speaker and he’s dressed for invisibility, with an everyday blue suit jacket and carrying a bag full of everyday items.

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Print Room Until Saturday February 7 2015

The Railway Children

Critics' choice

Mike Kenny’s hit stage adaptation chugs into a new station at King’s Cross with all its charm and energy intact. E Nesbit’s book-turned-cult movie about three exceptionally well-mannered Edwardian children is essentially ‘Brief Encounter’ for families. But this lively live version is more than just a ticket for the nostalgia express.

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King's Cross Theatre Until Sunday September 6 2015

Bull

Critics' choice

Two audience members fainted during the press night performance of ‘Bull’, and I can’t say I blame them: anybody thinking the 55-minute running time of Mike Bartlett’s shocking play means an easy ride is sorely mistaken.Not that a single drop of blood is spilt in the boxing ring-like set of Clare Lizzimore’s production, which premiered in Sheffield a couple of years ago and finally arrives in London just as Bartlett’s ‘King Charles III’ is winding down in the West End.

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Young Vic Until Saturday February 14 2015

Bat Boy: The Musical

Critics' choice

Some cult classics spring naturally into being, as what was once thought trash is transmuted into box-office gold, and some are made. ‘Bat Boy: The Musical’, which first premiered off-Broadway in 1997, could be the fang-toothed poster child for the latter category as it’s custom-built for the midnight-movie crowd. Inspired by the greatest ever scoop in the lunatic tabloid Weekly World News, it’s a playfully gruesome satire that revels in its own weirdness and takes gleeful potshots at the prejudices of Bible-belt America.

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Southwark Playhouse Saturday January 31 2015

Othello

Critics' choice

With trademark style, theatre company Frantic Assembly breathe brutal new life into Shakespeare’s tale of manipulation, sexual jealousy and murder. First staged in 2008, this exceptionally good production drops ‘Othello’ into a Shane Meadows-esque landscape of bare-knuckle friendships and simmering violence. While retaining the verse, Frantic Assembly’s adaptation downplays the dukedoms and overseas warfare. Iago’s machinations play out over a pool table in a grubby pub with a slot-machine flashing in the corner.

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Lyric Hammersmith Until Saturday February 7 2015

Long-running shows

The 39 Steps

Critics' choice

Current cast features Andrew Alexander as Richard Hannay and Catherine Bailey as Annabella Schmidt/Pamela/Margaret. Other parts are played by Paul Bigley and Stephen Critchlow. There's a wonderful '80s comedy sketch where one extremely effete doctor turns to another and declares, 'I learnt everything I know about women from the novels of John Buchan.' Though Buchan was aggressively heterosexual, his emphasis on a world where a chap's upper lip was as stiffly starched as his collar meant there was little room for ladies – pleasant creatures though they were – in his tales of intrigue. 

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Criterion Theatre Until Saturday March 28 2015

Billy Elliot the Musical

Critics' choice

Current cast features Harris Beattie, Harrison Dowzel, Redmand Rance and Kaine Ward as Billy. Six years after it first stamped, swore, and pirouetted into audiences' hearts, 'Billy Elliot the Musical' continues to mark itself out as one of the best nights in town. Both as tough as a miner's fist after a Friday night booze-up and as soaringly sensitive as one of Tchaikovsky's swans, it's a gritty story of hope that works its magic by defying sentimentality and slaying stereotypes. 

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Victoria Palace Theatre Until Saturday December 19 2015

The Book of Mormon

Critics' choice

Brace yourself for a shock: ‘South Park’ creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Broadway-munching musical is not particularly shocking. Sure, there are ‘fucks’ and ‘cunts’ and gags about baby rape – but beneath it all, this is a big-hearted affair that pays note-perfect homage to the spirit of Broadway’s golden age as much as the sounds. The strapping young Latter Day Saints missionaries in ‘The Book of Mormon’ are as cartoonish as any ‘South Park’ character, with the endearing alpha-male woodenness of the ‘Team America’ puppets.

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Prince of Wales Theatre Until Saturday March 7 2015

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Critics' choice

‘Skyfall’ director Sam Mendes’s huge new Warner Brothers musical confirms it: the hottest property in the West End right now is a grouchy, dead half-Norwegian, who loathed show-offs and spent most of his working life hiding out in a shed at the bottom of his garden. Roald Dahl probably wouldn’t have liked the whiz-popping rave that Mendes has created from his addictive kids’ book ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ – because he felt it was Charlie’s story, and any adaptation inevitably becomes the Willy Wonka show. 

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Theatre Royal Drury Lane Until Saturday June 4 2016

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Critics' choice

Three theatres, three casts, one major disaster and seven Olivier Awards on, the National Theatre’s adaptation of Mark Haddon’s novel about Christopher Boone, the teenage ‘mathematician with some behavioural difficulties’ remains a thing of unbridled wonder.The occasion for this re-review is the end of the enforced layoff inflicted upon ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’. The show figuratively blew the roof off when it transferred from the NT to the Apollo Theatre, but unfortunately the ageing ceiling responded by literally collapsing, necessitating a change of venue and months off. 

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Gielgud Theatre Until Thursday October 22 2015

Jersey Boys

Here's the 'Jersey Boys' concept. Take one gleaming back-catalogue – that of Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons, whose Bob Gaudio-penned songs have become so woven into the fabric of Western pop culture that it's easy to forget who actually wrote them. Next, instead of torturously extrapolating a zany plot out of the lyrics, simply make the story of 'Jersey Boys' the story of the Four Seasons. Get a top-notch book, written by Rick Elice and Woody Allen collaborator Marshall Brickman. 

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Piccadilly Theatre Until Sunday October 25 2015

Les Miserables

Critics' choice

If the second longest running show in the West End was looking a little tired, a rejuvenating orchestral facelift was just what the doctor ordered. Cameron Mackintosh's 'little girl' has shaken off that 1980s synth vibe and finally woken up to the organic noughties. This is a new, richer sound with strong operatic undertones and even the faint echoes of chamber music. Led by compelling ex-'Phantom…' Ramin Karimloo as Jean Valjean, this dynamic cast blows a whirlwind through the Queen's Theatre, hurtling along Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg's famous melodrama. 

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Queen’s Theatre Until Saturday September 26 2015

Made In Dagenham

Critics' choice

Much like the epithet ‘the best David Bowie album since “Scary Monsters”,’ describing a show as ‘the best British musical since “Matilda”’ is becoming one of those platitudes that sounds a bit less enthusiastic every time it’s trotted out.Nonetheless: ‘Made in Dagenham’ is the best British musical since ‘Matilda’, a funny, messy, surprisingly idiosyncratic movie adaptation that’s powered by a lot of heart, a lot of jokes, a fair few clichés and a fantastic performance from screen star Gemma Arterton.

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Adelphi Theatre Until Saturday April 11 2015

Matilda the Musical

Critics' choice

'My mummy says I'm a miracle,' lisps a pampered mini-me at a purgatorial kiddies' birthday party at the outset of this delicious, treacly-dark family show. The obnoxious ma and pa of its titular, gifted, pint-sized heroine are not, of course, quite so doting. But 'Matilda' must be making its creators, playwright Dennis Kelly and comedian-songsmith Tim Minchin, a very pair of proud parents. Opening to rave reviews in Stratford-upon Avon before transferring to the West End in 2011 and snatching up Olivier Awards with all the alacrity of a sticky-fingered child in a sweetshop, Matthew Warchus's RSC production remains a treat.

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Cambridge Theatre Until Sunday December 20 2015

War Horse

Critics' choice

Five years on, the National Theatre's 'War Horse' has become ubiquitous. The toast of the West End and Broadway, as I write this it's sold out at the New London Theatre for the next two months – by contrast, you can book to see 'Matilda' next week. Its enormous success has negated the impact of Arts Council funding cuts on the NT, to the extent that the show has started to be singled out by some commentators as an example of 'safe' post-credit crunch programming. 

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New London Theatre Until Saturday October 24 2015

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