London theatre critics' choice

Our theatre critics recommend the best London theatre of the moment

Assassins

Critics' choice

There is a delightful photo doing the rounds of 84-year-old musical-theatre legend Stephen Sondheim calling in at a pie shop in Tooting to catch a site-specific fringe revival of his ‘Sweeney Todd’. It’s good he’s happy to see his shows in small spaces: it’s still surprising how few bona fide hits he’s had.

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Menier Chocolate Factory Until Saturday March 7 2015

Benefit

Critics' choice

London institution Cardboard Citizens continues its great work making theatre with people who have experience of being homeless with this piece of forum theatre. It's a medium used to educate, inform and provoke change as the audience are encouraged to comment on what happens in the play and direct the characters into a path that may bring a better outcome. 'Benefit' is based on the stories of individuals battling the benefits system and the impact of austerity.

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Pleasance Theatre Until Sunday March 8 2015

Britain's Best Recruiting Sergeant

Children of Britain: Do Your Duty. The Unicorn Needs You! Actually, no: You Need The Unicorn.The latest main stage offering at London’s best and most uncompromising kids’ theatre shows exactly why. Joy Wilkinson’s ode to the golden age of music hall actually turns out to be a training ground for young audiences (aged eight-plus).

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Unicorn Theatre Saturday March 7 2015 - Sunday March 15 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’.

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Unicorn Theatre Until Saturday March 21 2015

Fireworks

Critics' choice

At the Royal Court these days, it often feels like the difficult experimental work is put in the main house and the straight plays are tucked away in the small upstairs theatre. Which occasionally seems a bit topsy turvy, but it’s usually new voices being given their first break in the studio – what other major London theatre is going to stage a brand new play by a Palestinian playwright you’ve never heard of?

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Royal Court Theatre Until Saturday March 14 2015

Forest Fringe

Critics' choice

Over two nights excellent alternative theatre and live art festival Forest Fringe stages some exciting work from unpredictable performance artists. A regular in Edinburgh, Forest Fringe have made a name for being the place to catch challenging, mind-expanding pieces. Their residency at The Place includes a series of installations and one-on-one experiences that you sign up to on the night. That's alongside a dance theatre work about connecting from Jo Fong, an interactive dance lesson from Brian Lobel and a piece by Peter McMaster about turning 27 - the age Jimi Hendrix Brian Jones, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison all died.  

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The Place Until Saturday March 7 2015

Gods and Monsters

Critics' choice

The storm that once crackled over Frankenstein’s castle has drifted into the mind of legendary director James Whale. He is the monster’s most famous screen adaptor, and this biographical drama offers a semi-autobiographical look at his twilight years. Living in comfortable retirement with his maid Maria, enjoying frequent visits from attractive male guests, the Whale we meet is nevertheless suffering through strokes and the gradual disintegration of his mind.

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Southwark Playhouse Until Saturday March 7 2015

Grimm Tales

Critics' choice

The scariest thing about these six short adaptations of the Brothers Grimm’s more off-piste fairytales is the price tag: £45 is a hell of a lot to fork out for what is, essentially, a fairly stripped-back evening of high class but no frills storytelling. Not that you can’t see where the money’s going: the show’s new South Bank home the Bargehouse has been ravishingly decked out. And there are more stories – and all completely different stories – than when it premiered at Shoreditch Town Hall last Easter.

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Bargehouse Until Saturday April 11 2015

Happy Days

Critics' choice

It’s the most delightfully whimsical depiction of the crushing awfulness of human existence in stage history: Winnie, the heroine of Samuel Beckett’s 1961 ‘Happy Days’, is buried up to her waist in sand, prattling nervously as she tries to make the most of her dire straits. Her only company is her useless husband Willie who won’t, for whatever reason, dig her out. She also has a big bag of junk including, alarmingly, a gun that keeps floating to the top; oh, and a giant cosmic alarm clock blares every time she threatens to nod off. 

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Young Vic Until Saturday March 21 2015

How I Learned to Drive

Critics' choice

Saying Paula Vogel can write well is on a par with saying Kanye West is quite fond of himself. Her astonishing 1997 play ‘How I Learned to Drive’ brims with a real, raw poetry and treats the harrowing subject of child abuse with an audacious lightness of touch. It is very funny and horribly upsetting, and you can absolutely see why it won Vogel a Pulitzer Prize.

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Southwark Playhouse Until Saturday March 14 2015
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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 October 31 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 June 27 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

Closer

Critics' choice

Is ‘Closer’ the best play about London ever written?It’s not so much that Patrick Marber’s 1997 masterpiece has a fine eye for the nooks and crannies of the old City, though there is that – the play and 2004 film have pretty much made obscure Victorian memorial Postman’s Park famous.

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Donmar Warehouse Until Saturday April 4 2015

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 Saturday October 24 2015

Jersey Boys

Critics' choice

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
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Assassins

Critics' choice

There is a delightful photo doing the rounds of 84-year-old musical-theatre legend Stephen Sondheim calling in at a pie shop in Tooting to catch a site-specific fringe revival of his ‘Sweeney Todd’. It’s good he’s happy to see his shows in small spaces: it’s still surprising how few bona fide hits he’s had.

Read more
Menier Chocolate Factory Until Saturday March 7 2015

Billy Elliot the Musical

Critics' choice

A decade 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. 

Read more
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. 

Read more
Prince of Wales Theatre Until Saturday June 27 2015

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Critics' choice

Alex Jennings replaces Douglas Hodge as Willy Wonka from May 19 2014. ‘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.

Read more
Theatre Royal Drury Lane Until Saturday June 4 2016

Jersey Boys

Critics' choice

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.

Piccadilly Theatre Tue Mar 3 - Sun Oct 25

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.

Read more
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.

Read more
Cambridge Theatre Until Sunday December 20 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. 

Read more
Queen's Theatre Until Saturday September 26 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 February 13 2016
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