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See these London shows that compassionately explore physical and mental health

These acclaimed plays and musicals empathetically explore characters' struggles and journeys to healing, reminding their audiences that no one is alone.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

One of the most striking elements in Rebecca Frecknall’s outstanding recent revival of A Streetcar Named Desire, starring Paul Mescal and Patsy Ferran, was how sensitively it dealt with Blanche DuBois's troubled mental state. The production placed us inside her mind as it cracks and finally shatters like glass.

That’s just one in a wave of London shows offering thoughtful and empathetic explorations of physical and mental health – and there are several more powerful examples coming into the West End and other London theatres soon. They range from American musicals to hit British plays, from ever-resonant period pieces to bold contemporary works.

Of course, theatre itself plays a big part in mental health, as we came to appreciate when it was temporarily lost to us during the pandemic. Experiencing a live show is cathartic, and seeing stories of characters' health journeys on stage may remind audiences that they're not alone. It’s also heartening to see more venues and companies offering resources to performers and creatives. Heather Agyepong shared how the Lyric Hammersmith provided a drama therapist to help the cast handle the triggering themes of the brilliant School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play.

Here’s our guide to some of the amazing productions dealing with health and mental health. Read on, and then book your tickets to these London shows now.

A Strange Loop

Michael R. Jackson’s Tony- and Pulitzer-winning musical transfers from Broadway, making its U.K. premiere at the Barbican this summer. The groundbreaking show features a Black, queer man writing a show about a Black, queer man… but he’s constantly plagued by doubts, which become characters themselves.

Jackson tackles big themes with blistering humour and inventive staging so that in between laughs and entertaining songs, you’ll be thinking about prejudice, self-loathing, and the enormous power of self-love and acceptance to overcome these. Kyle Ramar Freeman, who understudied the lead role on Broadway, stars as Usher in the London run.

Book A Strange Loop tickets on London Theatre.

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A Little Life

Can we ever escape our early trauma? That’s the haunting question in Hanya Yanagihara’s bestselling novel, now a titanic West End play adapted and directed by Ivo van Hove. The tale centres around Jude, who is surrounded by loving friends, but is both physically and psychologically scarred by his horrendous life experiences.

James Norton (Happy Valley) gives a tour-de-force, utterly committed turn in the harrowing role of Jude, alongside Luke Thompson (Bridgerton), Omari Douglas (It’s a Sin), and Zach Wyatt (The Witcher) as his group of friends. This is an epic deep dive into suffering with unmissable performances.

Book A Little Life tickets on London Theatre.

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Groundhog Day

Tim Minchin’s extraordinary musical is back… again! This is a simply magnificent screen-to-stage transfer, with Minchin’s score deepening both the characters and the themes of the brilliant Bill Murray-starring movie about a weatherman, Phil Connors, who gets trapped in a small town, reliving the same day over and over.

Most notably, there’s some spiky satire about Phil seeking alternative therapeutic help and getting fleeced by charlatans, as well as a visceral portrait of his subsequent depression – the latter reaching far beyond the supernatural premise. Balanced by gloriously inventive staging, fizzing humour, and a rich score, it’s a sneakily profound exploration of mental health.

Book Groundhog Day tickets on London Theatre.

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The Little Big Things

Keen athlete Henry Fraser was just 17 years old when his life changed forever. A tragic diving accident crushed his spinal cord, leaving him paralysed from the shoulders down. But, as he recounts in his bestselling memoir, his journey through adversity turned out to be an extraordinary one.

Now that memoir is being turned into a new British musical by Nick Butcher, Tom Ling, and Joe White. The musical will star Ed Larkin and Jonny Amies, and Luke Sheppard (& Juliet) will direct at Soho Place. It will be fascinating to see how this story of physical challenges and mental resilience is reborn as musical theatre.

Book The Little Big Things tickets on London Theatre.

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Next to Normal

London finally gets to see Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s highly acclaimed rock musical about a suburban mother who has bipolar disorder. The show has won praise (plus three Tonys and a Pulitzer) for its powerful study of mental illness, depression, grief, suicide, addiction, and psychiatry.

Now the show gets its U.K. premiere at the Donmar Warehouse, with Caissie Levy (who originated the roles of Molly in Ghost: The Musical and Elsa in Frozen) starring as Diana Goodman, alongside Trevor Dion Nicholas (the Genie in Aladdin, George Washington in Hamilton) as Dr. Madden and Dr. Fine.

Dr. Semmelweis

The Hungarian doctor of the title was considered a strange maverick in 19th-century Vienna for arguing that antiseptic procedures could save countless lives – including those of the mothers in the maternity ward where he worked. But the establishment was slow to believe.

Stephen Brown’s play Dr Semmelweis comes to the West End after a successful run in Bristol, which particularly hit home in the wake of the pandemic. Once again, the great Mark Rylance stars as this fascinating historical figure – the ultimate outsider who battled his colleagues and death itself.

The Effect

The talented playwright and screenwriter Lucy Prebble, who most recently worked on the must-see TV series Succession, had a hit back in 2012 at the National Theatre with her deeply moving play The Effect. It follows two volunteers in a clinical drug trial who fall in love – but are their feelings real or medically induced?

This summer, Jamie Lloyd revives Prebble’s play at the National with Paapa Essiedu and Taylor Russell starring as the confused, lovestruck pair. The production throws up fascinating questions around depression, medical ethics, and the chemical makeup of love itself.

Photo credit: A Little Life.

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