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See Mike Bartlett plays in the West End and beyond

Find out how Mike Bartlett became a renowned writer and adaptor.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

When it comes to prolific writers, Mike Bartlett is a hard man to beat. The Olivier Award winner is equally at home on screen as he is on stage, turning out work that grips the nation — whether a blank-verse, future-history play about the royal family or a riveting TV tale of deceit, infidelity and vengeance.

Bartlett’s plays have been staged everywhere from the National Theatre and the Royal Court to the West End and Broadway, while his TV dramas often appear on primetime BBC and ITV.

He’s a renowned state-of-the-nation dramatist, offering thoughtful and provocative insight into modern Britain, as well as a skilled adaptor (he brought Olympic movie Chariots of Fire to the stage) and a thrilling entertainer. Astonishingly, given his enormous output, he’s only in his forties.

So, what are some of the highlights of Bartlett’s career, and which of his plays can you see currently? Here’s our essential guide to Mike Bartlett.

Mike Bartlett’s theatre work

Born in Oxford, Bartlett studied English and Theatre at the University of Leeds — and theatre that was his first love. He cut his teeth as part of the Old Vic New Voices’ 24 Hour Plays project, writing a play, Comfort, in a matter of hours which was then produced immediately.

Bartlett considers his first proper stage play to be Not Talking, even though it was performed on radio first and only got its debut theatre outing 13 years later, in 2018. Setting a pattern for Bartlett, it’s a play about relationships and communication, where the form — essentially a series of monologues — reflects the subject. Not Talking also tackles contentious issues: it’s about bullying in the army and conscientious objectors, the latter inspired by Bartlett’s own grandfather.

Bartlett then had his play My Child staged at the Royal Court in 2007, followed by Artefacts at the Bush Theatre in 2008 and Cock at the Court in 2009. Cock was a real breakthrough: the production won the Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre.

Bartlett followed that up with climate change epic Earthquakes in London at the National Theatre in 2010, and then Love, Love, Love at the Royal Court, about the conflict between Baby Boomers and Gen X, which was just as incendiary when it was revived at the Lyric Hammersmith in 2020.

Bartlett took on an astonishing challenge in 2012 – the year of the London Olympics – with his theatrical adaptation of Chariots of Fire. Like the Oscar-winning movie, it followed several British Olympic running hopefuls: designer Miriam Buether built a running track around the Hampstead Theatre audience. He also adapted and directed Euripides’ Medea, starring Rachael Stirling, and won Best New Play from the National Theatre Awards for Bull, a relentless takedown of bullying office culture.

But it was his 2014 play, King Charles III, that made Bartlett a star. The wildly ambitious epic is written in Shakespearean blank verse and set during Prince Charles’s imagined reign. It sees the new monarch locked in battle with Parliament over press freedom, while his family schemes and (prescient!) Prince Harry marries a rebellious commoner. The Almeida production was ecstatically received, and went on to play in the West End, on Broadway and in Australia. The Olivier-winning work was then adapted for both radio and TV.

More recently, Bartlett’s plays include the voyeuristic Game, Edward Snowden-inspired Wild, Gorky adaptation Vassa, and powerful state-of-the-nation drama Albion — the latter playing with timeless country-house drama conventions, while also presaging much of the Brexit debate.

Mike Bartlett’s TV work

Bartlett made his TV debut with drama The Town in 2012, broadcast on ITV. The series starred Andrew Scott as a young man returning home after the death of his parents, and Martin Clunes as the town mayor. He also wrote an episode for Doctor Who’s tenth season, "Knock Knock," which riffed on horror movies by placing the Doctor and Bill in a creepy student house.

However, the show that changed Bartlett’s life was Doctor Foster. Broadcast on BBC from 2015, it was a modern version of the Medea story, in which the titular character, played by Suranne Jones, suspects that her husband (Bertie Carvel) is cheating on her. As she investigates him, several shocking secrets emerge, leading to a dramatic showdown. The series also featured a pre-Killing Eve Jodie Comer. It became appointment viewing, drawing audiences of 10.57 million for its climactic episode, and Suranne Jones won a Bafta for Best Actress.

A second season followed, again scoring huge viewing figures, and then a spin-off, Life, featuring Victoria Hamilton’s Anna and a new cast — including Alison Steadman, Adrian Lester, Rachael Stirling, Adam James, Susannah Fielding and Elaine Paige. Lester also starred in Bartlett’s next series, Trauma, alongside John Simm, about a grieving man who blames the doctor for his loss.

Most recently, Bartlett has tackled the newspaper industry in his drama Press and the toxic workplace in series Sticks and Stones, based on his play Bull.

Mike Bartlett shows on now

In 2022, you can see not one, not two, but three Mike Bartlett plays on in London simultaneously — quite the feat. First up is a super-starry revival of his play COCK at the Ambassadors Theatre in the West End. It’s directed by Marianne Elliott, known for phenomenal productions like her gender-swapped Company, Death of a Salesman, Angels in America, War Horse, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

The COCK cast features Jonathan Bailey, who won an Olivier for playing Jamie in Elliott’s Company and who stars as Viscount Anthony Bridgerton in the Netflix hit Bridgerton. He’s joined by Taron Egerton (Rocketman, the Kingsman movies), Jade Anouka (His Dark Materials, the Donmar’s all-female Shakespeare Trilogy), and Phil Daniels (Quadrophrenia, EastEnders, Parklife). They’re tackling Bartlett’s challenging play, in which a gay man in a long-term relationship becomes attracted to a woman. How will this questioning of sexuality, identity and labels be perceived by a contemporary audience? Read our COCK review.

This spring also sees the premiere of Bartlett’s hotly anticipated play The 47th at the Old Vic, directed by Rupert Goold. Set in 2024 amidst another polarising American Presidential race, it features Bertie Carvel as Donald Trump, Lydia Wilson as Ivanka Trump, Tamara Tunie as Kamala Harris, Ben Onwukwe as Barack Obama, and Simon Williams as Joe Biden.

And finally, Bartlett's modern version of a restoration comedy. Scandaltown, premieres at the Lyric Hammersmith, sees a virtuous heroine heading to post-pandemic London in order to stop her twin brother from endangering his reputation. Political hypocrisy and a fame-obsessed elite feature in Bartlett’s stinging satire, directed by Rachel O’Riordan and starring frequent Bartlett collaborator Rachael Stirling.

Book COCK tickets on London Theatre.

Book The 47th tickets on London Theatre.

Book Scandaltown tickets on London Theatre.

Photo credit: Mike Bartlett (Photo courtesy of Mike Bartlett)

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