Experience London shows in a new light at these West End revivals
See which award-winning shows are returning to London's theatres.
The London theatre scene is renowned not just for its influx of new work, but for thrilling revivals of established plays and musicals — revivals which are, at their best, truly revelatory. Over the past few years, we’ve seen landmark productions like a Sondheim classic completely transformed in Marianne Elliott’s gender-swapped Company, Jamie Lloyd’s bold modern take on Cyrano de Bergerac, and Michael Longhurst — with a major assist from star Sharon D Clarke — proving that musical Caroline, or Change is an astounding piece of art, and one with plenty to say about modern times.
A great revival can signal the arrival of an exciting new talent, too. Rebecca Frecknall, who is currently winning raves for her inspired version of Cabaret, burst onto the scene with a luminous production of Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke at the Almeida Theatre in 2018. The Belgian auteur Ivo van Hove made his name with sleek, incisive new versions of established works, from Arthur Miller plays to West Side Story, and now returns with his take on a Cocteau monologue.
The best revivals interrogate the work afresh, perhaps stripping away period trappings or making a significant departure from previous productions in terms of staging, casting or interpretation. They can create a bridge from past to present, finding parallels with our contemporary world or showing how we’re still grappling with the same ideas and issues. They honour the term “revive”: far from museum pieces, they feel alive.
Here are some of the most eye-catching revivals on London stages in 2022.
Mike Bartlett’s provocative play caused a stir on its premiere at the Royal Court back in 2009, but won plenty of fans too: it picked up the Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre. The thorny premise is that John, who has always thought of himself as gay and who’s been with his boyfriend for seven years, becomes attracted to a woman. That challenges all of John’s ideas about who he is, and the play digs into how we balance desire and love, self and relationships, alongside decisions about marriage and children. It’s a fascinating time to revisit Bartlett’s work, while we’re in the midst of very different discussions around identity, sexuality and gender. How will audiences respond now, and what debates will it spark?
Marianne Elliot directs a cracking all-star cast: Jonathan Bailey (now of Bridgerton fame, but also a wonderful Jamie in her Company), Taron Egerton (Rocketman, Kingsman), Phil Daniels (Quadrophenia, EastEnders), and Jade Anouka (His Dark Materials, the Donmar’s All-Female Shakespeare Trilogy). Expect fireworks.
My most memorably uncomfortable night in a theatre was Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park at the Royal Court — a play that gets under your skin for all the best reasons. This Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winner is a loose spin-off of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, looking at neighbourhood tensions in Chicago in two eras: 1959 and 2009.
In both cases, race relations and housing intersect to explosive effect — whether it’s white characters’ fears about integration or arguments around aspiration and gentrification. Norris’s incisive work is also surprisingly funny, though when and why we should laugh is another way in which the audience is kept on the edge, in particular with one deliberately placed shocking joke.
The play’s themes are all still hugely, just over a decade on from its first outing, although the context has also shifted enough to make this revival a very intriguing prospect. The excellent Park Theatre cast includes Imogen Stubbs, Richard Lintern, Andrew Langtree, Michael Fox and Eric Underwood.
It was this tender 1944 memory play that put Tennessee Williams on the map. After rave reviews in Chicago, The Glass Menagerie went on to Broadway where it ran for a year and won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best American Play.
The Glass Menagerie remains a favourite on stages around the world ever since. In particular, the plum role of overbearing mother Amanda Wingfield — the faded Southern belle who obsessively hunts for a “gentleman caller” for her fragile daughter — has proved a real gift to actresses. Following on from Laurette Taylor, we’ve seen the likes of Jessica Tandy, Jessica Lange, Brenda Blethyn, Cherry Jones and Sally Field take on the challenge.
Now Hollywood star and six-time Oscar nominee Amy Adams makes her West End debut as Amanda in Jeremy Herrin’s revival. Interestingly, the role of Tom — also the play’s narrator — will be split between Paul Hilton and Tom Glynn-Carney. Expect more innovations from the always inventive Herrin, along with the rare treat of seeing Adams on a London stage.
Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s loverly musical take on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion was adored right from the start. It premiered on Broadway in March 1956 and continued until September 1962 (a record run for the time), scoring six Tony Awards, while the original West End production ran for five and a half years.
A big-screen transfer was inevitable — although, famously, it was Audrey Hepburn who played Eliza Doolittle instead of original star Julie Andrews. Still, the film adaptation cemented the show in musical history, and the stage version is regularly revived, albeit with more frequent discussions around the story’s gender politics in recent times.
Bartlett Sher’s acclaimed Broadway production answered many of those criticisms with panache, and now British audiences get a chance to see it in action at the Coliseum: the first significant West End revival of the show in over 20 years. Harry Hadden-Paton reprises his Henry Higgins, alongside exciting new castmates Amara Okereke as Eliza and Vanessa Redgrave as Mrs Higgins.
Nowadays, teenagers are likely to make up TikTok dances. But back in the 1950s, teenagers would impress one another at high school dances. Get ready to shake it at the high school hop as Grease returns to the West End, newly kitted out with extra verve, grit and gusto.
The Grease musical storyline remains the same — and it's timeless. One summer, boy meets girl but they have to say goodbye to one another. Then, as if by coincidence, the pair find themselves at the same high school. Cue teen heartache, teenage love and silliness galore and the end result is a high school dream that really does feel "like the movies."
This Grease production promises more leather and darker undertones to older, traditional tellings. Plus Peter Andre and Jason Donovan will star in Grease, making it the ideal musical for theatregoers of all ages.
In here, life is beautiful. But where is the mystical "Here"? in London. For West End thrillseekers looking for the latest entertainment, say Wilkommen to Cabaret. The seven-time Olivier-winning revival is currently transforming the Playhouse Theatre into a decadent Kit Kat Club, complete with table seating and in-the-round performances.
From the moment you enter the Kit Kat Club, you're plunged into a Weimar-era jazz club complete with dancing and frivolity. Then, as the Emcee steps on stage, get ready to see Cabaret in a new light. Fra Fee and Amy Lennox star as the Emcee and Sally Bowles.
Jez Butterworth’s 2010 play became not just a beloved work of theatre, but an event: you simply had to see Mark Rylance as Johnny “Rooster” Byron in this extraordinary production. Its stature has only grown since, as it stormed the West End and Broadway and made endless “best of” lists, while Rylance has been snapped up by Hollywood, winning an Oscar for Bridge of Spies, and Butterworth struck gold again with The Ferryman.
So, what will it look like when the gang’s back together in this year’s feverishly anticipated revival? Rylance reprises his role alongside fellow original cast member Mackenzie Crook, once again directed by Ian Rickson. That creative grouping will surely want to find new discoveries, not just replicate.
The nature of the play should encourage that, too. Butterworth’s rich portrait of rural England will necessarily feel different in the post-Brexit era, particularly its musing on national identity, myth-making, social structures and the generational divide. But beyond all of that, Jerusalem will hopefully retain its utterly beguiling theatrical magic.
Photo credit: Jerusalem at the Apollo Theatre (Photo courtesy of Jerusalem)
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