See West End shows based on true stories
Discover true stories in the West End.
Sometimes, truth really is stranger than fiction – and it makes for fantastic drama. Just look at Hollywood’s fondness for a biopic, or the plethora of TV series on at the moment about real-life figures such as Anna Delvey, Pamela Anderson, Joe Exotic and Elizabeth Holmes. Even if we’ve seen numerous news reports or documentaries, we can’t resist viewing them again through the lens of fiction.
Of course, there’s a long tradition of translating true stories into theatre too. Shakespeare’s canon is the prime example, teeming with real historical figures like Antony and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, and numerous kings of England whose lives were immortalised in his history plays. Although Shakespeare also illuminates one of the interesting facets of this genre: the dramatist’s bias may well shape our opinion of events.
One of the debates raging around Netflix’s hit series The Crown is whether it represents the royal family accurately, and, related to that, whether it represents them sympathetically. Likewise, James Graham, our great political playwright, perhaps gave us a too-sympathetic portrait of Dominic Cummings in his Brexit drama (it didn’t help that he was played by Benedict Cumberbatch). But then dramatists are always interested in finding the person beyond the public image, and shedding new light on a familiar tale. Perhaps that is why we value their versions.
Here are some of the best London shows based on real stories that you can book for now.
David Hare is no stranger to a true story. His acclaimed film The Hours featured Virginia Woolf (an Oscar-winning turn from Nicole Kidman), and many of his plays are drawn from real events: Pravda is a satirical portrait of Rupert Murdoch, The Judas Kiss explores Oscar Wilde’s downfall, Via Dolorosa is based on his experiences in Israel and Palestine, The Permanent Way recounts the Government’s privatisation of the railways, Stuff Happens relitigates the Iraq War, and The Moderate Soprano shows the founding of Glyndebourne Opera.
Most recently, Ralph Fiennes performed Hare’s Covid monologue Beat the Devil at the Bridge Theatre, and now the pair reunite at the Bridge for his new play Straight Line Crazy. This time, Fiennes plays New York City public official Robert Moses, who, though unelected, had an extraordinary impact on its infrastructure. He was responsible for the building of 13 bridges and 658 playgrounds, among others – but not everyone agreed with his vision, nor his tactics. It will be fascinating to see how Hare and Fiennes characterise him.
The clever premise for this bio-musical about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons is that there isn’t just one story: there are four. That is, each band member gets to tell us their version of events – appropriate for a group eventually torn apart by rivalry, jealousy and in-fighting. It’s thoroughly entertaining, but occasionally poignant too: we come to see how some misunderstandings and false impressions might have been untangled.
But then if that had happened, we wouldn’t have such a great drama. And Jersey Boys really has everything in its rags-to-riches tale, including run-ins with the mob. It also, of course, has an unbeatable rock ‘n’ roll back catalogue to call upon – and that’s the truth! Think “December 1963 (Oh What A Night)”, “Can't Take My Eyes Off You”, “Sherry”, “Walk Like A Man”, “Bye Bye Baby”, “Big Girls Don't Cry”, “Beggin’”, “Working My Way Back to You”, and more.
True stories don’t come more extraordinary than this. Following the terrorist attacks on 9/11, American airspace was closed – meaning that 38 planes were forced to land in the small Newfoundland town of Gander, whose giant airport used to operate as a transatlantic fuelling stop. Incredibly, locals managed to provide shelter, clothing, food, medicine and entertainment for some 7,000 international passengers. Lasting friendships, and romances, were formed, as everyone overcame their differences to help one another – a beautiful riposte to an act of hate and division.
The characters in this gorgeous Canadian musical are based on those real people, and, to underline the point about our common humanity, every actor plays at least one Gander resident and one “come from away”, aka a visitor. The inspiring figures include pioneering pilot Beverley Bass, novice reporter Janice, animal saviour Bonnie, and the local mayor and police chief. It’s a tale that needs to be told and retold, reminding us of the best of humanity in the worst of times.
This new musical about an incredible real person, the trailblazing music manager Faye Treadwell, is a family affair. Key to its development was Faye’s daughter Tina, who, following in her mother’s footsteps, manages the iconic band The Drifters. And Tina herself is now a part of the telling of that story, too: the musical uses a framing device where Faye, as she prepares for a crucial court case, explains the history of The Drifters to her young daughter. She also makes clear that providing for her child is one of her motivations for winning her fight.
That fight is for The Drifters’ name, which was being used by numerous spin-off and copycat groups, and threatening to destroy their legacy. Beverley Knight relishes the chance to play the brilliant, determined Faye, and we also get the great pleasure of hearing Knight and her talented castmates performing The Drifters’ hits – from “Come On Over to My Place” and “Kissin’ in the Back Row of the Movies” to “Sweets for My Sweet” and “Save the Last Dance for Me”.
Could Donald Trump mount a political comeback and win a second term as US President? That’s the nightmarish question in Mike Bartlett’s latest play. Like his acclaimed King Charles III, this is a speculative future-history play written in blank verse, giving it a Shakespearean quality. And certainly American elections take on the operatic, outsized importance to warrant that framing, particularly those featuring larger-than-life characters like Trump.
Bartlett’s play is set in 2024, as America goes to the polls, and examines the very real conflict between the populist and increasingly extreme right wing and the liberal left – a war being fought here in the UK too. Tackling Trump is Bertie Carvel, who previously played Rupert Murdoch in Ink and is portraying Tony Blair in the next season of The Crown. He’s joined by Tamara Tunie as Kamala Harris, Lydia Wilson as Ivanka Trump, Ben Onwukwe as Barack Obama, and Simon Williams as Joe Biden.
This ambitious show doesn’t just give us the amazing songs of the reggae superstar Bob Marley, but also tells his life story and, in particular, digs into his beliefs as an activist – beliefs that still resonant hugely with audiences. Lee Hall’s book begins with Marley’s impoverished childhood, his separation from his mother and strained relationship with his white father, and shows us his origins as a musician and rise to global superstardom.
There are plenty of dramatic events along the way, including an assassination attempt, Marley’s complex love life – involving loyal wife Rita and his mistress, beauty queen Cindy Breakspeare – the singer’s trip to London, his Rastafarian faith, and his thoughts on racial oppression, the latter powering a spine-tingling performance of “Redemption Song”. Throughout the show, Marley’s indelible music is underlined by events in his life and his growing philosophy, while also giving the audience an electrifying Marley concert with the likes of “One Love”, “Exodus”, “No Woman, No Cry”, “Could You Be Loved” and “I Shot the Sheriff”.
Photo credit: Straight Line Crazy (Photo courtesy of production)
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