It can be diffiult to keep up with everything on in London’s West End, which is full of more theatre shows, musical productions and ticket offers than you can shake an interval ice cream at. So where to start? We’ve pulled together literally everything currently running in the West End, from new plays to long-running musicals, for YOUR delight.
Want to shortcut to the good stuff? Check out our pick of the top ten West End theatre shows in London.
West End theatre shows on now
The impressively multitalented Kibwe Tavares started out as an architect, before turning filmmaker with a trio of futuristic 3D animations. Now, he's turning his hand to dance; he's directing a new Rambert and the Royal Ballet collaboration set in a fantastical landscape. 'Aisha and Abhaya' follows two sisters who escape their troubled homeland and struggle to make it in a new country. It'll mix animation, dance choreographed by Sharon Eyal, new music, and lavishly ornamented costumes.
The ‘taste of honey’ in Shelagh Delaney’s cherished play refers to the brief relationship sparked between teenager Jo (Gemma Dobson) and her sailor boyfriend, Jimmie (Durone Stokes). But it could also describe the whole of this touring National Theatre revival by Bijan Sheibani, which spills out like a sticky, sweet mess of mothers, daughters and a tiny, claustrophobic flat. One of the best choices Sheibani has made is to avoid turning the play into a hysterical screechfest. Helen (Jodie Prenger) drags her daughter from one dank bedsit to another, uprooting her from schools and streets like a bashed-up, unwanted weed. They bicker and argue constantly – one of the brilliant things about Delaney’s script is how the women make bitchy asides about ‘she’ when the other is well within hearing distance and nobody else is present – before Helen ups and leaves with a new husband shortly after they’ve relocated once again. It would be tempting to play the at-each-others-throats relationship as a drawn-out screaming match. Yet the convincing thing about this bullying and neglectful, but also co-dependent, set-up is how well-worn the insults seem. A lot of the sadness of the play comes from the suggestion of being trapped in cycles of repeated mistakes, poverty, and toxic relationships. Prenger is great as the sharp-tongued Helen, not to mention resplendent in her ’50s wiggle skirts and emerald green wedding dress. But it’s Dobson who puts in a really fascinating performance. Convent
A grown-up chimpanzee locked up in a biomedical facility thinks back to happier times when a human family raised her. ‘Chimpanzee’ is a poignant show from American Nick Lehane inspired by true tales of US families who fostered apes but abandoned them when they got too big. A trio of puppeteers control the lifesize chimp, which visits the Barbican as part of the London International Mime Festival 2020.
‘Always different, always the same’ is how the late John Peel famously described his favourite band The Fall, and it’s a description that could quite tidily be applied to Cirque du Soleil’s annual start-of-the-year stand at the Royal Albert Hall. The venue and the run-length are resolutely identical year on year, the prices resolutely astronomical, and while the directors and the show titles change, you kind of know what you’re getting: spectacular acrobatics, new-agey costumes, visuals and music, and ‘light relief’ clowning bits that make you pray for death’s tender kiss. The Daniele Finzi Pasca-directed ‘Luzia: A Waking Dream of Mexico’ conforms to most of these things, but is definitely on the stronger side. Great credit is due to composer Simon Carpentier, costume designer Giovanna Buzzi and whoever the hell designed the rain wall that steals the show in the first half, but at its best ‘Luzia’ marshals a genuinely awesome spectacle that lives up to the dreamy title. A euphorically hallucinatory world stuffed with weird creatures is given a widescreen dream-folk soundtrack with a mariachi tinge, and the capacity to turn the entire yawning space of the RAH into a canvas for the weird shapes projected by the impressive rain machine. I’m not sure you’d guess it was about Mexico if it didn’t say so in the title, but in some ways that’s good: there are no naff homages to the Day of the Dead or Frida Kahlo or whatever; it’s more a sort of agreeably trippy tribute to the count
Belgian’s Kiss & Cry Collective calls in to the Barbican as part of the London International Mime Festival 2020 with a whimsical show that tells the story of seven surprising deaths in startlingly choreographed physical fashion – look out for the ‘hand choreography’ – set to music by Ravel, David Bowie and Janis Joplin.
Musicals don’t come much more low-key, wholesome or Canadian than ‘Come from Away’. Writers Irene Sankoff and David Hein cook up the straightforward world of the Newfoundland town of Gander using a very straightforward set of ingredients. The cast wear sensible shoes and lumberjack shirts. They tramp across a wood-decked stage that evokes the huge skies of their tiny island. They sing their way through a set of folk-tinged songs that tell stories of the five days after 9/11, when 38 planes made emergency landings on the island’s huge, disused airstrip. And it’s all totally, soul-feedingly wonderful. ‘Come from Away’ has been a massive sleeper hit across North America, Broadway included, and it’s easy to see why: it mixes down-home authenticity with the desperate intensity that comes in times of crisis. This is a moment where 7,000 temporary arrivals join a community of just 9,000 people. Logistics might not be the sexiest of topics for a musical, but one of the many surprising joys of this show is how gripping it makes things like the struggle to rustle up transport at a time when the local school bus drivers were on strike and had to be coaxed into crossing the picket line. Then there are beds, food, medication and interpreters to be sourced for passengers from across the world: one non-English-speaking couple communicates by cross-referencing Bible verses. Based closely on interviews with real Newfoundlanders, this is a picture of a community that stretches itself to bre
It’s Cyrano de Berger-rap. It’s James rap-Avoy. It’s… perhaps more accurate to say the rhythms of Martin Crimp’s new version of classic French play ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’ are closer to the languid cadences of performance poetry than actual hip hop. But undoubtedly this is your first opportunity to listen to Mr Tumnus spitting verse. And James McAvoy is great in the role: sure, the idea of updating ‘Cyrano’ in this fashion is a bit yikes on paper. But in fact, this is a ferociously good revival from Jamie Lloyd, that almost totally reclaims, reinvents and reinvigorates a play so engrimed in period camp that it can sometimes feel like a chore to even remember it exists. ICYMI: Edmund Rostand’s 1897 drama about a big-nosed, hyper-poetic French soldier who finds himself in a very complicated love triangle with his cousin Roxane and good-looking but tongue-tied fellow soldier Christian is written in rhyming verse. And with the hindsight of Martin Crimp’s scorching adaptation, it is blindingly clear that modern rhymes offer a clear and exciting way forward. Lloyd and Crimp have conjured up something pretty remarkable, the cut and thrust world of seventeenth-century France reinvented as a series of rap battle royals, or grand poetry slams. Although stripped to the bone aesthetically – Soutra Gilmour’s stark set is just a white stage and few mics – the first half in particular is vivid and teeming with ideas and life, as McAvoy’s lovelorn loon Cyrano, Eben Figueiredo’s nice-but-d
This wildly hyped Broadway hit musical is basically ‘Faust’ for high-schoolers. A nerdy, anxiety-ridden teenage boy sells his soul (well, his integrity, anyway) for the popularity and appreciation he’s spent his whole life craving. But his guilt makes every YouTube follow or Twitter retweet become excruciating – and then the whole fragile edifice comes crashing down. It’s easy to see why ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ has won so many fans since it first premiered in 2015: it mixes agonising tension with surgingly catchy songs by songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who’ve also worked on movies ‘La La Land’ and ‘The Greatest Showman’. The standout numbers are emotive rock ballads like ‘You Will be Found’, the kind of thing you’d wave your lighter along to if the West End’s theatres weren’t imperilled enough already. But the score’s also stuffed with inspirations from emo to bluegrass, and Evan’s mum gets a gravelly howl of frustration that could be straight out of Alanis Morissette’s back catalogue. The intense emotionalism of the score is characteristic of a musical where everything’s dialled up to 11. Evan Hansen isn’t just your archetypal teen movie loser; he’s as fragile as a peeled egg, bouncing from humiliation to humiliation in a high school that’s like a machine designed to slice him up. A West End newcomer, 21-year-old Sam Tutty glows with sweat and goodness, bringing integrity to a storyline that’s somewhere between ingenious and tortuous. Evan’s mother gets him treatment
Rafe Spall stars as Michael, a man in mourning for his late father, who decides to confront the dead man’s legacy at his funeral in this new monologue from Roy Williams and Clint Dyer. It’s directed by Dyer, who becomes the first black artist to have written, performed and directed at the National Theatre.
No, not a stage version of the Avengers blockbuster, but the first major London revival in a fair while for Samuel Beckett’s existentialist classic about four characters trapped in a strange, cyclical world of endless beginnings and endings. Daniel Radcliffe and Alan Cumming are the big name first cast announcements, and they’ll be directed by Richard Jones. The longer ‘Endgame’ (which usually comes to about an hour-and-twenty-minutes) will be paired with Beckett’s short play ‘Rough for Theatre II’, a vaudeville-influenced piece about two bureacrats that usually runs around half an hour.
‘Everybody’s Talking About Jamie’ is a burst of joy in the heart of the West End. This new British musical, transferring from the Sheffield Crucible, is the real deal. Watch out, tired revivals: there’s a new kid in town. Inspired by a 2011 BBC documentary about a teenager who wanted to be a drag queen, the show follows 16-year-old Jamie on his journey to be himself – out of a classroom in a working-class part of Sheffield, away from the bigotry of a deadbeat dad, and into high heels. Director Jonathan Butterell’s production is a high-impact blaze of colour, combining video projections with seamless scene changes and a live band above the stage. It captures the frenetic energy of being a teenager. Every element of this show works beautifully together. The music, by The Feeling frontman Dan Gillespie Sells, is a deft mix of irresistibly catchy, pop-honed foot-tappers – try not to hum ‘And You Don’t Even Know It’, I dare you – and truthful, heart-wrenching numbers. This is Sells’s first foray into writing for musicals, but he’s always excelled at telling stories in song. He is matched by the show’s writer and lyricist Tom MacRae. Apart from notable exceptions like Punchdrunk’s ‘Doctor Who’-themed kids’ show ‘The Crash of Elysium’, he’s largely written for TV, but this works well here. His dialogue is punchy, funny and often lands with a sting. While most of the characters exist to orbit Jamie, they still have their own stories and these are crisply told. As Pritti, Jamie’
‘Fame’ transfers to Troubadour Wembley Park in December 2019. This review is from its September run at Peacock Theatre. Almost 40 years since the original film, 37 since the TV show, and 31 since the theatrical version was first staged, it increasingly looks like ‘Fame’ really might live forever. The stage musical is now back in theatres with a slick, suitably energetic production. It follows the pupils at the High School of Performing Arts in New York, as they’re taught to sing, dance and act their way to stardom – finding their true selves along the way. Nick Winston’s choreography is absolutely on the money: pert, sprightly and a blast to watch. But the story hasn’t exactly got better with age. Loosely woven around three couples, the plot feels virtually non-existent in the first half and descends into mawkishness in the second. The will-they-won’t-they romantic trials of these talented teens – all hard-working, hard-bodied and hard with ambition – nonetheless feels fairly aimless for much of the show. Then there’s a sudden lurch after the hot-headed Carmen (Stephanie Rojas) quits school and follows a sleazy agent to LA – and gets punished for being too impatient for celebrity with a quickly cooked up descent into drug addiction. There are also storylines about a dancer who can’t stop eating, and a young black man from the ’hood who’s unable to read, which have all the subtlety of… well, of a 1980s children’s TV show. But while the earnest theatre majors might spout le
‘The Girl from the North Country’ goes west again, as Conor McPherson’s highly acclaimed musical, using the back catalogue of legendary American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, opens at the Gielgud Theatre. This follows the previous West End transfer of the original Old Vic production in 2017. Once again, it’s performed and sung with electric energy. McPherson’s book is a haunting slice of Depression-era Americana that draws not only on Dylan’s songbook but finds inspiration in the sad, vivid pages of authors like John Steinbeck and other chroniclers of the wrenching upheaval of the 1930s in the US. It takes place in 1934, in Duluth, Minnesota – Dylan’s birthplace, but seven years before he was born. Nick Laine (Donald Sage Mackay) is trying to keep his failing boarding house afloat in a sea of debt, while resentfully looking after his dementia-suffering wife Elizabeth (Katie Brayben), as well their adopted daughter, Marianne (Gloria Obianyo), who is unmarried and pregnant, and Gene (Colin Bates), their alcoholic son. The Laines’s crumbling home has become a place of last resort for America’s outcast and abandoned. McPherson understatedly explores the cross-currents of poverty, racism and mental illness at a time when deep, ugly social divisions were laid painfully bare by economic hardship. His writing is both blunt and poignant, weaving together disparate lives with tough, twisted threads. Shaq Taylor’s ex-con and ex-boxer Joe Scott and Marianne are united by the bigotry th
Okay, let’s just get this out of the way. ‘Hamilton’ is stupendously good. Yes, it’s kind of a drag that there’s so much hype around it. But there was a lot of hype around penicillin. And that worked out pretty well. If anything – and I’m truly sorry to say this – Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical about Alexander Hamilton, the first secretary of the US Treasury, is actually better than the hype suggests. That’s because lost in some of the more waffly discourse around its diverse casting and sociological import is the fact that ‘Hamilton’ is, first and foremost, a ferociously enjoyable show. You probably already know that it’s a hip hop musical, something that’s been tried before with limited success. Here it works brilliantly, because Miranda – who wrote everything – understands what mainstream audiences like about hip hop, what mainstream audiences like about musical theatre, and how to craft a brilliant hybrid. Put simply, it’s big emotions and big melodies from the former, and thrilling, funny, technically virtuosic storytelling from the latter. ‘Alexander Hamilton’, the opening tune, exemplifies everything that’s great about the show. It’s got a relentlessly catchy build and momentum, a crackling, edge-of-seat sense of drama, and is absolutely chockablock with information, as the key players stride on to bring us up to speed with the eventful life that Hamilton – the ‘bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman’ – led before he emigrated to America in 1772 as a teenager
This is a review of ‘Henry VI’ and ‘Richard III’, which run in rep together. For ‘Richard III’ listings, go here. Much like Peter Jackson’s ‘The Hobbit’, William Shakespeare’s ‘Henry VI’ is a cracking single story that’s been overstretched by being turned into a trilogy. Hence, it rarely gets done: the simple economics of an obscure three-part-play are enough to scare off most producers. But the Globe is currently ambling its way through Shakespeare’s English history plays, and this smart solo edit directed by Sean Holmes and Ilinca Radulian is very much ‘Henry VI’ living its best life, paired for a rep season with the much more famous ‘Richard III’, which follows on from it immediately. Stripped of its longueurs, it serves two essential purposes. One, it’s a breakneck (and naturally somewhat biased) history of England during the chaotic reign of Henry VI, during which the country lapsed into civil war and most of his dad’s prodigious French conquests were lost. And two, it’s a truly almighty prologue to the (let’s be honest) manifestly superior ‘Richard III’. Both directed by Holmes/Radulian, the two plays are performed by a slimmed-down version of the Globe ensemble, which did ‘Henry IV’ and ‘Henry V’ this summer. Here, ‘Henry VI’ (a three-and-a-quarter-hour edit of original parts two and three) is rendered atmospherically and interestingly: Grace Smart’s set gradually disintegrates across the two intervals; the battle scenes are weird and intense. But it’s also incred
Keen-eyed readers may notice that this review of the laboriously entitled ‘Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds: The Immersive Experience’ is in fact a re-review: a misunderstanding led to our first writer being invited down before the VR elements of the show were working, so I agreed to write about it again.Anyway. ‘JWMVoTWoTWTIE’ is a VR-augmented immersive theatre show that straddles two iconic properties: HG Wells’s seminal 1897 sci-fi novel ‘The War of the Worlds’, and Wayne’s 1978 prog rock album inspired by it, which has gone on to be an enduringly popular live spectacle complete with puppet Martian war machine and – in some iterations – a holographic Liam Neeson.The album’s spoken word sections offer a divergent telling of Wells’s story, with different characters and a more fragmented plot. Given the task of turning it into a coherent narrative is dotdotdot, a company specialising in tech-enhanced immersive theatre who had a hit last year with their show ‘Somnai’. Their job is to immerse us in Wells’s serious-minded alien invasion story, while incorporating Wayne’s campier embellishments: the characters, the kitschy steampunk art and – of course – the musical anthems.It doesn’t exactly work. But it’s quite good fun. Sent into the experience in small staggered groups, most of the interactions with human actors we encounter are on the comic side, meaning there can be some weird shifts in tone when the show remembers it’s supposed to be scary. At the sta
‘& Juliet’ is a heavily ironic Shakespeare rewrite based on the songs of super-producer Max Martin. And with the gift of that knowledge, I can fairly confidently state that you’ll probably like ‘& Juliet’ almost precisely as much as you expect to like ‘& Juliet’. Me, I grew up with Martin’s greatest hits: Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys dominated the radio when I was at school, and while I’ve never spent a single penny on his music, I’ve probably spent days of my life listening to it. These were Big Tunes to start with, and in ‘& Juliet’ they sound immense, reconfigured into lush new Tudor-nodding arrangements (a harpsichord features prominently). Most crucially, in a musical that Martin is heavily involved with, they’re deployed in ways that always find some emotional connection to the plot (by no means a given in a jukebox musical – *takes a long, hard stare at ‘Mamma Mia!’*). The plot is fun provided you refuse to take any of what happens seriously. It’s basically ‘Romeo & Juliet’ rewritten into a sort of woke panto. The Bard of Avon (Oliver Tompsett, channelling a mid-tier ‘Love Island’ contestant) is very pleased with himself for having written the play. But his wife Anne Hathaway (Cassidy Janson, scene-stealingly bolshy) has other ideas. She browbeats Will into allowing Juliet to survive then persuades him to let her rewrite the play as an empowering feminist road trip for Juliet and her gal (and non-binary) pals. A lot of wilfully silly, somewhat subversive, occa
John Kani's play is set in South Africa, where an ageing Shakespearean actor is gearing up to the last great role of his career: King Lear. Kani will star as carer to fellow South African Antony Sher's worn out thespian, in a drama that explores decades of apartheid, prejudice, and thwarted hopes. 'Kunene and the King' transfers to the West End's Ambassadors Theatre, after landing warm reviews on its premiere at the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon.
There was an 11-year gap between the last two Tom Stoppard plays, so it wasn’t unreasonable to wonder if the 81-year-old theatre legend would actually get around to writing another. But here it is: following 2015’s so-so National Theatre outing ‘The Hard Problem’, here’s something that sounds much more like classic Stoppard. ‘Leopoldstadt’ is about the titular Jewish quarter of Vienna and follows it from its heyday as a haven for the Jews of Europe to the clampdown of the Nazi regime. Produced buy Sonia Friedman, it will be directed by Patrick Marber, who clearly impressed Stoppard with his recent revival of the playwright’s ‘Travesties’.
I would seriously question whether any other show on the planet bar ‘Les Misérables’ could get away with junking its original production and carrying on as if nothing had changed. But ‘Les Mis’ could be transposed to space, or underwater, or to the height of the Hittite empire and it would basically be the same show as long as the singing was on point. In case you missed it: the world’s longest-running musical that’s still playing shut for six months recently while the Sondheim Theatre (née Queen’s Theatre) was renovated by proprietor and producer Cameron Mackintosh. It has returned, not in the original Trevor Nunn RSC production, but a new(ish) one from Laurence Connor and James Powell that has already been rolled out around the globe, with London the last bastion of the ‘classic’ ‘Les Mis’. The ditching of the original has caused disgruntlement in certain quarters: hardcore stans distraught that the exact show they grew up with no longer strictly exists; and the original creative team, notably director Nunn, who understandably feel a little betrayed by the whole affair. All I can say is: yup, I really dug the old revolving stage too, but its loss is bearable. The songs are the same, the score is the same (accepting that it was tweaked to make it a bit less ’80s a few years back), the costumes are the same, many of the current cast are veterans of the original production, and the text is still Nunn and John Caird’s adaptation of Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’
Erstwhile young scamps Mischief Theatre have spun their pleasant ‘Noises Off’ knock-off ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’ into a veritable empire: not only is the original backstage farce still going strong on the West End and off-Broadway, not only do they have another sizeable long-runner in ‘The Comedy About a Bank Robbery’, and not only do they now have an actual BBC1 TV show in the form of ‘The Goes Wrong Show’, but they’ve also won a whole host of US celebrity fans, including JJ Abrams – who co-produced this latest show – and magicians Penn & Teller, who’ve helped them write it.And it’s… okay. There is something charmingly unchanging about the core Mischief players, who are presumably now all millionaires several times over but always attack each new venture with the pure elan of a fledgling university sketch troupe. They’re both winsome and limited, and ‘Magic Goes Wrong’ feels caught at a strange crossroads between Mischief’s bumbling Englishness and Penn & Teller’s edgier interjections.The plot is pretty much contained in the title: neurotic magician Sophisticato (Henry Shields) is throwing a charity magic gala in his late father’s memory, and he’s rustled up some truly terrible acts to perform, notably Henry Lewis’s hack mentalist The Mind Mangler, and Dave Hearn’s entertaining The Blade, an amusing send-up of faux-edgy ‘alt’ magicians.That this somehow stretches on for two-and-a-half-hours without really having a plot is not ideal, not least because the ambling pace burie
Magic Mike on stage feels a bit like dating in London in my thirties: all the young, hot people got it on while I sat on the sidelines. But as a voyeur at this expensive strip-meets-cabaret show, there was some serious titillation: pains are taken to remind you that it has very much been made with the female gaze in mind. The romp unfolds in a faux-club built in Leicester Square’s already-slightly-seedy (in a good way) Hippodrome Casino, based upon the Xquisite strip joint from Steven Soderbergh’s surprise 2012 cinematic smash. The movie’s star Channing Tatum – whose IRL undressing escapades originally informed the film’s plot – is behind this theatrical reimagining, with London the second destination of ‘Magic Mike Live’ following a hugely successful run in Vegas. But it’s important to note that co-director Tatum (who, alas, merely lends his voice to the performance) has worked with a gender-balanced team and the sense that this is a safe space for women enshrouds the entire show, despite it being filled with semi-naked men. The plot (in the loosest sense) centres on Michelangelo – Mike to you – a waiter plucked from the crowd and trained in showing a woman a (consensual) good time by our female emcee, played by actor Sophie Linder-Lee. She sounds a bit like Jane Horrocks and makes a lot of jokes about ‘jizz’ and the tightness of her own vagina. Most of the ladies pulled to the stage for some public gyration were mega hot (so hot, it almost felt like they’d been planted
Judy Craymer's bold idea of turning the insanely catchy songs of ABBA into a musical has paid off splendidly, in every sense – box office figures for 'Mamma Mia!' are as eye-watering as its outfits. This is largely because Catherine Johnson had the sense to weave the 1970s into her script, and director Phyllida Lloyd to cast accordingly. Heroine Donna Sheridan lived the free love dream (if only because her boyfriend ran out on her), wound up pregnant and survived to see her daughter, Sophie, reject all her principles in favour of a white wedding and the kind of certainty that comes from knowing which of your mother's three consecutive lovers ought to be walking you down the aisle. If you wanted to, you could see this as a conversation about feminism. But you'll look pretty silly debating patriarchal oppression while on your feet clapping to 'Dancing Queen'. Some of the songs are oddly static, but when the choreography does get going – for instance, when Donna's friend Tanya stylishly quashes a libidinous local puppy in 'Does Your Mother Know?' – it's terrific, and makes great use of props: I wonder if the producers can assure us that no electric drills or hairdryers were harmed in the making of this musical? The current cast appear to have been chosen more for their singing voices than their serious acting ability. But who needs dramatic conviction when you have purest pop to do the convincing for you? Given the songs, a story just about solid enough to stay upright on its
For the price of a ticket to ‘Mamma Mia! The Party’, an immersive Abba-themed dinner experience set in a ropey taverna on an idyllic Greek island, you could fly out to an actual idyllic Greek island and probably find a ropey taverna playing Abba songs.Okay, there are some practical reasons why you probably wouldn’t do that on a school night. And sure, it’s not like these are the only expensive theatre tickets in town. But the fact is most London theatre shows have a bottom price of £15 or thereabouts; ‘Mamma Mia! The Party’ starts ten times higher than that.Of course, dinner theatre is a somewhat different game to theatre theatre. And the fact is that there are plenty of people who can afford it: the London debut of ‘Mamma Mia! The Party’ is a roaring sellout success already. Masterminded by Abba’s Björn Ulvaeus, it’s an established hit back in Stockholm. Which is not really a surprise: people love Abba, and ‘Mamma Mia! The Party’, though not formally affiliated to ‘Mamma Mia!’ (the blockbuster musical), is pretty much the same idea, except with the plot mostly replaced by food. After a prodigious wait to get in, we’re spirited away to an attractive, convivial mock-up of a taverna on the island of Skopelos, where the ‘Mamma Mia!’ movie was filmed. The wittiest touch of the whole production is to make it ‘post’ the film: the walls are bedecked with dodgy mocked-up Polaroids of the cast of the show posing with Meryl Streep et al, and the wafer-thin plot revolves around the pre
Much like ‘Paddington’, ‘Mary Poppins’ is a gorgeously warm kids’ story that’s burrowed deep into the hearts of Londoners of all ages. It creates a seductive myth of a city that’s awash with cheery cockneys and lovable upper-crust eccentrics who roam picturesque tree-lined streets with a spring in their step. Cameron Mackintosh’s returning 2004 musical version couldn’t look more magical; the Banks family’s Cherry Tree Lane residence becomes a giant doll’s house of wonders, opening up to reveal charming Victorian interiors and plenty of magical surprises. Writer Julian Fellowes (‘Downton Abbey’) is clearly in familiar territory here. Where the 'Paddington' movies updated the setting to a warm, inclusive vision of 21st century London, his script opts for period-drama archness. The story is a hodgepodge of the movie, PL Travers’s original books and a few ideas of Fellowes’s own: he shifts the setting back a few decades to Queen Victoria’s heyday, and makes Mrs Banks a frustrated former actress instead of a militant suffragette. The effect is jarring at first, especially if you’re a fan of the movie: many of its most memorable scenes get scrapped, like the bit where Poppins summons up a hurricane to whisk away rival nannies, or the bit with the dancing penguins and carousel horses, or the ‘I Love to Laugh’ tea party where everyone ends up giggling on the ceiling. They get replaced with much, much weirder interludes that presumably come from Travers’s original book. The kids’ su
If there’s a screen still flickering in the UK at the end of the world, it’ll probably be playing on loop that bit where Derek ‘Del Boy’ Trotter falls through the bar. John Sullivan’s ‘Only Fools and Horses’ has long since transformed from being just a TV show into a cultural phenomenon, annually topping those breathless audience polls as ‘Best British Comedy Ever, Ever, Ever’. It’s on that tidal wave of public adoration that this musical version of the misadventures of wheeler-dealer Del Boy, his hapless brother Rodney and their granddad, living together on a Peckham council estate at the tail end of the ’80s, sails into the West End’s Theatre Royal Haymarket. It’s co-written by Jim ‘son of John’ Sullivan and comic actor extraordinaire Paul Whitehouse (who’s also on stage as Granddad). Director Caroline Jay Ranger sets out her market stall early, as Del Boy (Tom Bennett) promises ‘plonker’ Rodney (Ryan Hutton), ‘This time next year, we’ll be millionaires.’ What follows is a blizzard of catchphrases, quotes and characters. Boycie and Marlene, Trigger, Mickey and Denzil are all crammed on stage and into the Nags Head. When Del tries hawking dodgy Eiffel Towers to the audience, he’s also selling us easy nostalgia. His battered Reliant car turns up like a guest star. It’s affectionate fun. There are some good gags – including an early tease of Del’s bar fall – and the sitcom's iconic theme tune works well as a refrain (sung by the cast) for the twinkly cheekiness of this sh
Five acrobats battle a hostile environment – not Britain’s immigration policies, but wobbling walls, collapsing ceiling and the like – in this exciting show from Galactik Ensemble, one of many French entries in this year’s London International Mime Festival.
Mime Festival regulars Peeping Tom are back to complete their trilogy of family-based shows with 'Child'. A mezzo-soprano will play a girl who's lost in a creepy forest, and surrounded by dancers who contort and tumble themselves into dreamlike scenes.
‘Richard III’ runs in rep with ‘Henry VI’. For joint review and ‘Henry VI’ listings go here.
Back in 2015, Miriam Battye’s ‘Trip the Light Fantastic’ played at the Bristol Old Vic for just over a week. It was about a young man teaching an old man to ballroom dance and they performed it in the basement with a couple of plastic chairs. Despite seeing literally hundreds of plays since, I still, every so often, find myself thinking about this little treasure of a show, cuddling the memory of its understated brilliance. Fast-forward five years and, glory be, Battye’s at the Royal Court! And, true to form, it’s with a play that’s every shade of lovely. As with ‘Trip the Light’, there’s nothing in a basic description of ‘Scenes with Girls’ that suggests it’s going to be as gorgeous as it is. Tosh (Tanya Reynolds) lives with Lou (Rebekah Murrell) and they’re occasionally visited by Fran (Letty Thomas), their sort-of smugly engaged chummy mate. As it says on the tin, the play is made from little snapshots of their lives, each scene gradually filling in the backstory while dragging them towards an emotional earthquake. The rest is just ‘them’. All the ridiculous, hilarious, half-spoken things that fill their heads and world. Things like Tosh’s dream of decapitating Henry VIII and planting flowers in his severed spinal cord; Polly Pockets embedded in thighs; cocks with the aroma of omelettes. They speak with the assurance of bored, over-educated women – Tosh is writing a thesis – checking in with each other about ‘the narrative’ and what’s ‘normative’. It’s very, very fun
‘Six’ returns to Arts Theatre in January 2019. This review is from August 2018. ‘Remember us from your GCSEs?’ It’s Henry VIII’s six wives – and they’ve back, bitch, to re-tell ‘her-story’ as a slick, sassy girl band. Think Euro-pop remixes of ‘Greensleeves’, Anne Boleyn spouting tweenage text-speak (‘everybody chill/it’s totes God’s will’), and K-Howard warbling #MeToo tales of gropey employers. ‘Hamilton' looms large here, and although ‘Six’ has its own moments of clever-clever hip-hop rhymes, it’s a tough comparison: this musical started life as a student show (Cambridge, obvs). But its creators, Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, have succeeded in crafting almost brutally efficient pastiche pop songs – here a ballad, there a ballsy, blinging R&B number – performed with snappy dance routines by a talented, diverse cast (and all-female band). Since inception the show seems to have been given a good lick of gloss, too; it stands up in the West End. But beneath its super-shiny surface, ‘Six’ is totes vacuous. And so basic in its feminism that it’s hard to believe it’s written by, like, actual Millennials. The whole thing is staged as a deeply unsisterly competition, each wife getting a song in which to prove they’re the biggest victim, the one who suffered the most at Henry’s hands. This is treated weirdly as comedy though, OTT shrieks and snarks escalating until they’re actually in a catfight, pulling each other’s hair. Several of the wives are characterised as dim and ditzy;
There is something of Sarah Kane’s stark ferocity to this savage play about Elizabeth I’s rise to power by playwright Ella Hickson. Natalie Abrahami’s production is a searing 90 minutes that deals with history you’ll probably know, from angles you might not. ‘Swive [Elizabeth]’ repeatedly touches on the trauma the three-year-old princess suffered when she was left alone in the dark with a sleeping lady-in-waiting while her mother, Anne Boleyn, was taken away to be executed. And it follows the harsh, morally compromised scrabble to the top that she fought in subsequent years, manoeuvring around the machinations of siblings and relatives who saw her very existence as a threat. Following a sarcastic metatheatrical intro from Abigail Cruttenden’s older Queen Elizabeth, the first half of the play sees Nina Cassells play her as the adolescent Princess Elizabeth, circumventing the schemes of her brother Edward and sister Mary as she manipulates – sometimes deeply uncomfortably, given the yawning age difference between them – a series of older male nobles to help her ascent. Yet at no point does she seem like a petty schemer, or consumed with a lust for power: it’s always clear that it’s this or death. Swive is an archaic word for sexual intercourse, something Elizabeth reputedly never had. Hickson never disputes this (although never confirms it either), but shows how the commodification of, promise of, and above all withholding of her body enabled Elizabeth’s rise. She is furiou
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 most of it is deployed ironically; beneath it all, this is a big-hearted affair that pays note-perfect homage to the sounds and spirit of Broadway’s golden age. 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. In other words, they are loveable, well-intentioned idiots, traversing the globe like groups of pious meerkats, convinced they can convert the heathen through sheer politeness. And if they have doubts, then as Stephen Ashfield’s scene-stealingly repressed Elder McKinley declares in glorious faux-Gershwin number ‘Turn it Off’, ‘Don’t feel those feelings – hold them in instead!’ His advice is ignored by the show’s heroes, narcissistic, highly strung Elder Price (Gavin Creel) and dumpy, lying Elder Cunningham (Jared Gertner). The pair are sent to Uganda in an effort to convert a village to Mormonism, a religion that essentially tells the penniless villagers how great distant America is. The locals are not keen: Price cracks and unwisely clashes with a crazed local warlord; Cunningham makes up his own version of Mormonism which involves fucking frogs to cure oneself of Aids. ‘The Book of Mormon’ is, above all, very funny, breath
If you’re a plucky producer hoping to get your new show into the Criterion Theatre, you’re flat out of luck once again. Because less than nine months after 'The 39 Steps' shuttered after almost a decade glowering over Piccadilly Circus, it’s now home to the brand new comedy by Mischief Theatre, which, if there’s any justice in the theatre world, will run for even longer. 'The Comedy About A Bank Robbery' is the latest play by the bogglingly prolific and talented team behind 'The Play That Goes Wrong' (or more accurately the 'Play That Goes Wrong' franchise) and it’s their best and funniest work yet. A genre pastiche, screwball comedy and classic farce that’s as clean and clear as its brassy branding, it spins with a manic energy from Two Ronnies-esque wordplay through surreal set-pieces to slapstick stunts prepped to bring the house down. The story of a bungled jewel heist in a sleepy Minneapolis bank branch, it features a host of hilarious but well-drawn characters who roar across the stage and tumble into disaster after disaster, each one more elegantly drawn than the last. The writers’ ability to snatch a laugh out of every line, and to intricately prime each scenario with zinging punchlines and pay-offs is stunning, as call-backs and running gags pile up into teetering edifices of absurdity. The entire cast is bang on the money, but Mischief Theatre’s own Henry Lewis and Jonathan Sayer are the standouts as booming bank manager Robin Freeboys and hapless loser (and eter
The posters have been plastered around the London Underground for years – long enough for this show to become the most successful musical of all time – but nothing prepares you for the sheer impact of 'The Lion King's opening sequence. With the surge of 'Circle Of Life' reverberating through your chest, Julie Taymor's animal creations march on, species by species. Gazelles spring, birds swoop and an elephant and her child lumber through the stalls. It's a cacophonous cavalcade that genuinely stops you breathing. You'd think Noah's Ark had emptied onto the stage. For a global blockbuster, 'The Lion King's absolute theatricality is astonishing. Techniques from all over the world – African masks, Japanese Kabuki costumes, Malaysian shadow puppetry – are smashed together in an explosion of spectacle. It's perfect for a musical, allowing both distinct flavours and an eclectic carnival spirit. Admittedly, things deflate when it sacrifices this defiant originality for subservient approximation of the film. Timon and Pumba (Damian Baldet and Keith Bookman), though impressively like their screen counterparts, step into the savannah from a different dimension. The hyena-infested elephant's graveyard swaps menace for goofiness and the famous stampede scene, so delicately handled and moving in the film, is merely ticked off with a sigh of relief. The familiarity of the film is a root cause of the show's commercial success. But, ironically, 'The Lion King' can't afford such compromis
Kind of caught halfway between ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘The Wind in the Willows’, it’s fair to say that CS Lewis’s ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ – with its well-spoken child heroes, twee talking animals and heavy Christian vibes – can be left looking a bit old-fashioned. Endlessly adapted long before the current era of sophisticated CGI-driven fantasy, has its time passed now that everything from ‘His Dark Materials’ to ‘The Wheel of Time’ is being adapted for the telly? Truthfully, the answer to that question probably lies with the fate of Netflix's imminent lavish adaptation. But for now, we have a very smart stage version from Sally Cookson, that balances the stiff-upper-lipped charms of the book with a real sense of the encroaching wildness – even madness – of the fantastical kingdom of Narnia. The opening section is jolly hockey sticks à gogo, with the audience cast as wartime child evacuees, spirited away from the Blitz on the same train as Lewis’s young heroes the Pevensies. By the end, it’s become something that feel rapturously wild, as Narnia awakes in a frenzy of colour and feeling from the century-long magical winter placed on it by Laura Elphinstone’s sleekly malevolent White Witch. Yes, Lewis shoved loaded, fairly blatant Christian allegory into his story, chiefly in the death and resurrection of the noble lion Aslan. But it was never as straightforward as ‘The Bible’-but-with-lions, and Cookson’s take feels more indebted to ancient rites of death and
Considering how popular fantasy literature and its adaptations currently are, it feels like a bit of an omission that we see so little of it on stage. But Joel Horwood’s over-twelves version of Neil Gaiman’s 2013 novel ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’ is emphatically The Way To Do It: a heady, dreamlike whirl of story, scary and beautiful in equal parts, that looks phenomenal and makes expert use of the stylised language of theatre to cram in an entire otherworldly epic.It begins as an unnamed man runs away from his father’s wake, drawn to an old duckpond near his former family home. He is haunted by thoughts of a girl, Lettie (Marli Siu), who he met on his twelfth birthday, in the early-’80s. She is gone, but he comes across her elderly grandmother, Old Mrs Hempstock (Josie Walker), who he only dimly recalls. Her presence revives suppressed memories, of Lettie and her family being an ageless coven of immortal spellcasters; of his home being invaded by Ursula (Pippa Nixon), a malevolent entity from outside the walls of reality; of the fightback, and its consequences.Gaiman’s story is hot property: Simon Pegg, of all people, is apparently making a TV version. But it’ll have to go a long way to catch up with Katy Rudd’s thrilling NT production, which is pacy, stylish and also expertly harnesses the inherent ambiguity of theatre to get to the heart of Gaiman’s tale. A television series, presumably, would have to make everything seem ‘real’. But the key to Gaiman’s thesis here
I’m not sure any show ‘deserves’ to be the most successful entertainment event of all time, but I’ll hand it current holder of that title, ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ – it still works hard for its audience. Sure, chunks of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s opus have never left 1986. But whereas describing a musical as ‘stuck in the ’80s’ is usually shorthand for cheap, thin synth orchestration, nothing could be further from the truth here: the portentously swirling keyboards and crunch of hair metal guitar that powers ‘Phantom’s title song have a black hole-like immensity, sucking you in with sheer juggernaut bombast. Mostly, though, ‘Phantom…’ remains strong because its high production values haven’t been allowed to sag. The late Maria Björnson’s design is a heady barrage of ravishing costumes and lavish sets that change frequently, working in everything from pastoral jollity to an ancient Carthaginian theme on the way to the Phantom’s stunning underground lair. It’s totally OTT – in one scene the Phantom zaps at his nemesis Raul with a staff that fires actual fireballs – and anybody who describes the plot (homicidal lunatic grooms girl) as romantic should probably be put on some sort of register. But its blazingly earnest ridiculousness and campy Grand Guignol story are entirely thrilling when realised with the show’s enormous budget. And while Hal Prince’s production may have been hailed as rather gauche back in the day, in 2013 it all comes across as rather more tasteful than the a
A walloping decade after his last play, the great Tony Kushner returns with this adaptation of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1956 tragicomedy about an immensely wealthy woman who returns to her hometown ready to turn its fortunes around – but only if the townspeople are ready to agree to a terrible demand she is making. Quite how much Kushner will put his stamp on it remains to be seen, though we do know that the setting has been changed from a Swiss town called Güllen to one in New York State called Slurry. As you’d expect from such a major new work, Jeremy Herrin’s production has a terrific cast, headed up by Lesley Manville as Claire Zachanassian, and Hugo Weaving as her former lover.
‘Twelve Angry Men’ meets ‘Light Shining in Buckinghamshire’ meets a really out-there Agatha Christie novel in this often brilliant and somewhat frustrating new drama from Lucy Kirkwood. It is rural Suffolk, 1759, and a young woman soaked in blood (the phenomenal Ria Zmitrowicz’s Sally Poppy) has returned home in the dead of night to try and extract some money from the husband she abandoned four months ago. Laughing hoarsely, she casually mentions the fact she’s pregnant with another man’s child. Skip forward a scene, and Elizabeth Luke (Maxine Peake) is churning milk when minor local dignitary Mr Coombes (Philip McGinley) drops by to persuade her to be part of a ‘jury of matrons’ tasked with determining whether the now-convicted Sally is indeed pregnant, something that would commute her sentence from death to exile. These short early scenes – prefigured by a wordless, visually stunning opener in which the 12 future women of the jury go about their work silently within the prison-like grid of Bunnie Christie’s starkly stunning set – are just the warm-up. The meat of the play lies in two extremely lengthy deliberation scenes, in which the women are locked away in a huge stately room with Sally and asked to decide whether she should live or die. These scenes are so stratospherically ambitious and all-encompassing that it’s difficult to know where to begin. For starters, Kirkwood has pulled off the trick of dropping 13 characters on you, all at once. They are, intentionall
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