I love the theatre. I don’t think you understand just how much – understandable, seeing as your average reader has nothing more to base my conviction on than the previous sentence. But it’s true, I promise, and we are blessed to have some of the best theatre in the world on our doorstep in London. As Covid restrictions gradually ease in the UK, our theatres are planning their grand re-openings and I can’t wait.
If you’re like me and have missed the theatre with an intense, melodramatic passion or are simply looking for something to do inside with your friends because it’s such a novelty, below I’ve listed a selection of shows you might be interested in. A combination of productions which are on stage for a limited time only and others which look like they’ll be in London for the foreseeable futures, some I’ve seen and some I really, really want to.
⭐ Shows on for a limited time only ⭐
The Ocean at the End of the Lane
This was probably one of the last things I watched in the theatre before Lockdown. At that time it was on at the National Theatre and it took my breath away.
I had no expectations beyond the fact that I am pretty much down to watch anything at the National and I love Neil Gaiman and magical realism. I’m sort of glad I didn’t know what to expect because it meant I was even more swept up in the imagination of the whole thing.
The description on the National Theatre website sets it up nicely, “Returning to his childhood home, a man finds himself standing beside the pond of the old Sussex farmhouse where he used to play. He’s transported to his 12th birthday when his friend Lettie claimed it wasn’t a pond, but an ocean…
Plunged into a magical world, their survival depends on their ability to reckon with ancient forces that threaten to destroy everything around them.”
What I found amazing about the show was the world it was able to create with very little scenery and a small cast (a sign of any excellent show, I think). Particularly its monsters – terrifying spiders and bat-like “hunger birds”, which you almost want to cower away from.
The show is a beautiful adventure into the imagination we had as children, the intense reality of it, where a pond easily becomes an ocean, and the blurring of the real and the fantastic. It’s also a very insightful exploration into how children deal with real-life issues and insecurities – the struggles of a single parent, feeling isolated, the upheaval of new family members, even suicide. And, most importantly, it reminds us how we could all do to have a bit more magic in our lives as grown-ups.
Notting Hill Carnival is still a bit up in the air at the moment. While Covid restrictions should be over by the end of August, at this stage, who knows? So we still don’t know if Europe’s largest street festival will be able to go ahead.
J’Ouvert is one way I’m going to try and get my carnival fix.
I first learnt about J’Ouvert in 2019 when I was looking for birthday present ideas for my friend. Although the production was over, I started following writer Yasmin Joseph on Twitter in the hopes that one day it would come back. Thankfully my prayers were answered pretty quickly! It’s coming back this summer and I’ve already booked my two tickets – for me and my aforementioned friend (it was meant to be a surprise, but sadly the internet’s cookies and targeted adverts are just too damn good…).
Even though the entire story takes place during a single afternoon and the play itself is just over an hour and a half, Joseph channels the rich heritage of Notting Hill Carnival. The soca music is played by a live DJ and the impression of a thriving, energetic crowd is created by just three actors. The costumes bring the vibrancy and pride of carnival to the London theatre, but Joseph also addresses the darker side of this joyous festival, particularly for Black women. The unwanted advances of men who, if rejected, blame women for dressing too provocatively, and the subtext of gentrification and pervading middle-class white disapproval of carnival within Notting Hill.
On Twitter, Joseph wrote, “I wrote this play out of fierce love for Notting Hill Carnival, for Caribbean people, for Black women.”
If you can’t get tickets, it’s also been filmed for BBC iPlayer so you can watch it whenever you want on demand.
It feels kind of nerdy to have a favourite Shakespeare play, but I do, and it’s Hamlet. Luckily, studying it to death at school didn’t put me off it entirely and irrevocably for the rest of time. I guess I need to thank my excellent English teachers for that. If anything, understanding Hamlet so thoroughly opened my eyes to what a linguistically clever and politically astute play it is. The pervading subtle comparisons to disease and decay, reflecting Hamlet’s personal life but also the political state of Denmark. The ambiguity around Hamlet’s mental state, exploring that delicate line between sanity and madness, performance and reality. The shrewd parallels between the fictional play and the real-life political instability of Shakespeare’s early seventeenth-century England, led by an ailing, heirless Queen Elizabeth I. My love of Hamlet was also helped by the fact that my first experience of watching it on stage was a riveting performance by Michael Sheen (incidentally also at the Young Vic), in which the Shakespearean language and story was transported into the context of a 1950s psychiatric hospital. It was a school trip, so again endless thanks to my English teachers.
But I’m here to talk about another Hamlet – this time with the leading role played by Cush Jumbo. There’s not much more I can say about it right now because there are no reviews to go off, but I am confident in the consistent high quality of Young Vic productions and in Jumbo as the lead role. She already has a number of successful Shakespearean performances under her belt (As You Like It, Julius Caesar), which have earned her both award nominations and outright wins. A review in The Guardian for As You Like It puts it well, “If these performances truly reflect her talent, Jumbo looks set to become one of the best actresses of her generation.”
In anticipation for how good it’s going to be, tickets are already sold out, but you can join the mailing list to hear about new ticket releases. Thankfully, I have a friend who is far more organised than I am, who has already booked me a ticket and invited me to go with her without me even realising…
⭐ Shows in London indefinitely ⭐
(I mean, obviously we know that they can’t go on forever, but the following shows won’t be leaving London’s theatres any time soon.)
The Lion King
The Lion King will be at the top of my list of favourite things, for ever and for always. I haven’t actually seen it for years, but it is one of the first “big shows” I remember watching as a child and it absolutely captured my imagination. We all know the songs – Hakuna Matata, I Just Can’t Wait to be King – but combine that with exquisite scenery and the most beautiful puppetry I’ve ever seen and you have a match made in heaven. As a child sitting in the Lyceum Theatre, I remember being especially taken by the giraffes and the cheetahs. The way you could see the actor if you concentrated on them, but you so easily lost the human form in the movement and design of the puppets. They don’t go halves on the puppets either – 232 in all, which bring The Lion King to life.
Based on the well-known and much-loved Disney film of the same name, The Lion King opened on Broadway in 1997, and on the West End in London just a couple of years later. Apparently, since then, 100 million people have watched The Lion King worldwide, in twenty countries and on every single continent except Antarctica. Isn’t that incredible?
(I’m now imagining the debut show of The Lion King at the South Pole, performed to an audience consisting exclusively of penguins.)
C’mon, I think we all know it’s time to take a trip to Pride Rock.
This one is great if you want a bit of fun, whether you’re a history nerd or not. Six is more like a concert than a play, the voices of King Henry VIII’s six wives retold in a modern way to a modern audience. “Welcome to the show, to the histo-remix” – see what they did there??
I first watched Six a couple of years ago and I’ve been itching to go back since – in fact, I’m listening to the soundtrack as I write this – and I’m proud to have seen it go from strength to strength since then. They’ve continued on the West End, and travelled to Broadway, Australia and New Zealand, been nominated for Olivier Awards, the list goes on! The show is a light-hearted romp from 1509 to 1547, Catherine of Aragon to Katherine Parr. Each Queen gets a song, a story, a voice – more than they get in many history books.
The lyrics are genius, absolutely hilarious. Some of the best are in ‘Get Down’, sung by none other than Anne of Cleves. The fourth wife of Henry VIII who arguably got one of the best deals of the lot. Despite being accused of being ugly and smelly by her husband-to-be (ironic for a man who had festering ulcers on both legs), she only had to be married to him for six months and she didn’t lose her head at the end of it. Instead, she got to live in luxury on a generous settlement until she died seventeen years later.
In the song, she’s chilling in her palaces, going hunting, flirting with footmen, and boasting her horses which “trot up to twelve miles an hour”. In a nod to both Beyonce and the German Reformation (two of my favourite things), “Come on ladies, let’s get in Reformation”. Yes, I’m a nerd. And yes, Anne of Cleves, I’m coming!
It does feel a bit too romanticised at points, including giving each of the women their idealised futures had they not had the misfortune of crossing paths with Henry VIII (cue Anne Boleyn getting signed and writing music for Shakespeare and Jane Seymour and her many children forming singing sensation, the Royal-ling Stones). Despite that, it’s great fun and the lyrics will be stuck in your head for days – they even encourage you to get up and dance at the end! It’s a novel way to shine light on a history most of us only remember from school as, “Divorced, beheaded, died. Divorced, beheaded, survived”.
I’ve been waiting years to watch Hamilton so I was very excited when it finally dropped on Disney+ last summer. We’ve already seen from Six that I get excited when the worlds of History and Musicals combine.
So I haven’t seen this one on stage yet, but from what I’ve heard about it and from how much I enjoyed watching it on TV, I can’t wait to see it how it’s meant to be enjoyed – in the theatre.
Hamilton takes you on a journey from 1776 to 1804, the formative years of the United States of America, and the protagonist is Founding Father, Alexander Hamilton. It is a sung-through musical, so there is minimal spoken dialogue. Almost the entire thing is sung or rapped. Successfully conveying characters, emotion, a complex storyline, while also producing a score of popular, captivating hits is no easy feat, but Lin-Manuel Miranda was definitely up for the task. If you were also obsessed with the soundtrack for Moana then, again, you have Lin-Manuel Miranda to thank.
I have to say though, a friend recommended that I should listen to the Hamilton soundtrack a few times before watching the show, and I understand with hindsight what she meant. While the general pace and events of the story are easy to keep up with, because there’s so much music, and it’s sometimes sung or rapped quite quickly, you can miss some of the intricacies of the lyrics. Being semi-familiar with the music helps you appreciate just how great it is. For example, the quick quips in the rap “Cabinet Battles” between Thomas Jefferson and Hamilton. Hamilton says to Jefferson, “A civics lesson from a slaver. Hey neighbour, your debts are paid ’cause you don’t pay for labour”. Throughout the musical, there are also a number of references to Miranda’s musical inspirations, like Notorious B.I.G. and Mobb Deep.
Hamilton is a fresh, exciting presence on the West End, not only for the way it merges hip hop and R&B with more traditional show tunes, but also for the decision to have all of the Founding Fathers and other major historical figures played by Black, Latino, and Asian actors. As Miranda said in an interview, “We’re telling the story of old, dead white men but we’re using actors of colour, and that makes the story more immediate and more accessible to a contemporary audience.”
Come From Away
Come From Away doesn’t sound like it should work – a musical set during 9/11 – but apparently it absolutely does.
The play follows the literal and emotional journey of the air passengers grounded on the small island of Newfoundland in Canada after the U.S. closed its airspace during the horrific events of 9/11. So it’s based on a real story and real people. 38 flights, containing 7,000 people were grounded at Gander International Airport (baring in mind that the town of Gander itself only has a population of less than 12,000)! The story follows the incredible relationships formed between the new arrivals and the community of Newfoundland.
The play is based on interviews with the people who lived the story. In 2011, on the 10th anniversary of the attacks, the future writers of Come From Away, Irene Sankoff and David Hein, visited Gander where they heard from both the locals and also some of the grounded passengers who’d returned to the island for this important anniversary. Thus, Come From Away was born! Some of the stories and characters are direct transferrals from real life and others are combinations, but there’s a vein of truth throughout the whole thing.
The New York Times described it as a cathartic reminder of “heroic hospitality” in even the darkest of times – isn’t that what we all need right now? And can you really argue with four Olivier awards, including Best New Musical?
I am unashamed to say that I am excited for Frozen. I’m also not embarrassed to say that I was in the cinema to watch the film almost as soon as it came out. I loved Frozen before it was cool and then subsequently drove everyone nuts, all right?! So yes, I want to see Elsa build her castle and Olaf discover summer in front of my very eyes. For those of you who somehow don’t know Frozen, it is the Disney reimagining of the classic Snow Queen fairytale, following the relationship of sisters Anna and Elsa, as well as Elsa’s personal journey as she struggles to come to terms with her magical icy powers.
I might already know the story, but the theatre is a completely different experience, and there are several brand new songs to look forward to, courtesy of song-writing powerhouse duo Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez (the same people who had Let it Go and Agatha All Along – for the Wandavision fans – on loop in our heads for months). I will, however, be realistic that the reviews haven’t been all good – with some critics claiming it’s a bit touch-and-go with the special effects and others arguing that the show suffers from moments of being dull or feeling padded out. Despite that, apparently the heart of the story has transferred well from screen to stage, it’s enchanting with its puppetry, and the songs continue to be triumphant.
I guess the only conclusion is to book a ticket and go and decide for myself.
We all know the story of Cinderella: orphaned young woman working for evil stepmother and stepsisters, Disney’s talking mice, Fairy Godmother, dashing Prince Charming, a kingdom where foot-size is as unique as your fingerprint, and, of course, a Happily Every After. This summer, however, a brand new retelling of this timeless fairytale will be arriving on the West End, courtesy of Andrew Lloyd Webber. This time, it’s Cinderella living in sickly-sweet Belleville – “Voted the most attractive town in France 49 years in a row” – home to the Field of Abundant Blooms and the Convent for Unsightly Women. Fairy Godmother is now a plastic surgeon / couturier and it’s not Prince Charming, but Charming’s younger brother. The core of the fairytale is still there, however.
I’m also excited to see Carrie Hope Fletcher in the lead role, who I’ve been following since she started out on YouTube! She has an amazing voice and I was lucky enough to see her in her dream role of Éponine in Les Misérables – a role she’d been aiming for since she was 8 years old. So even though we don’t know too much about this new Cinderella yet, I can imagine Fletcher in the role. You can see her performing one of the songs here.
There are so, so many more shows I could have mentioned. Productions which I’ve seen and absolutely adored, like Les Mis, & Juliet, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Wicked, but I had to draw the line somewhere! We’re absolutely spoiled for choice for theatre in London and I would hazard a guess that there is genuinely something for everyone.
What are you most excited to watch on stage in London?