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The longest-running West End plays of all time

Sophie Thomas
Sophie Thomas

Most West End plays run for a limited engagement, with stars appearing in the latest production for just a few months. While many of London’s longest-running shows are musicals, there’s stand-out plays that have also become a part of theatre history. Take a look at the West End’s longest-running plays that have been seen by millions of theatregoers through the decades.

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1: The Mousetrap

November 25, 1952 – Current Over 28,000 performances (as of March 14, 2020)

Written for Queen Mary’s 80th birthday, Agatha Christie’s mysterious hotel whodunnit takes the top spot as the longest-running play, but it’s also the world’s longest-running show. Hotel guests are interrogated when there’s a killer on the loose, but when it comes to the murderer’s identity, our lips are sealed. Opening at the Ambassadors Theatre, it later transferred to the St. Martin’s Theatre in 1974, where it’s played ever since.

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2: The Woman in Black

June 7, 1989 – Current 12, 326 performances (as of March 14, 2020)

What was once meant to be just a Christmas ghost story has now become London’s second longest-running play of all time. Just two actors bring the suspense and a bump in the night to the Fortune Theatre, in Susan Hill’s drama where a solicitor hires an actor to relive mysterious events. It’s been in the West End for over 30 years, and Daniel Radcliffe starred in the 2011 film adaptation.

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3: No Sex Please, We’re British

June 3, 1971 – January 16, 1987 6,761 performances

Just like Wicked and Les Miserables, critics were skeptical about the longevity of No Sex Please, We’re British. But, a play about a bank manager whose wife suddenly receives pornography in the mail went on to become a smash hit! Playing at three West End theatres throughout its continuous run, actors including Michael Crawford and David Jason took to the stage in this traditional British comedy.

4: The Complete Works of Shakespeare Abridged

March 7, 1996 – April 3, 2005 3,744 performances

Staging a Shakespeare play is no easy task, but could you remember all of the Bard’s works for one show? First performed at the Edinburgh Fringe, West End theatregoers lapped up this rollicking comedy for over nine years at the Criterion Theatre, in a show that parodies some of Shakespeare’s greatest works. Its 43-second adaptation of Hamlet clocks in as the shortest performance of Hamlet of all time too.

5. The 39 Steps

September 14, 2006 – September 5, 2015 3,731 performances

Inspired by John Buchan’s novel and the subsequent Alfred Hitchcock movie, four cast members played 139 roles between them in this slapstick comedy. For just under nine years, the Criterion Theatre was home to Richard Hannay embarking on his espionage mission around, with plenty of silliness and laughter. The quirky British comedy has been staged around the world, winning Olivier Awards, Tony Awards and a Molière Award.

6. Run For Your Wife

March 29, 1983 – December 14, 1991 Over 3,000 performances

Critics called it “British farce at its best” and it’s no surprise why. A London taxi driver lives a double life in Ray Cooney’s comedy play, where a life of bigamy is no longer given the green right. First playing at the Shaftesbury Theatre, the show was driven all around town to five West End theatres before the engine ran out in December 1991 at the Duchess Theatre. It’s not been performed since, but Danny Dyer starred in a 2012 film adaptation, earning a measly £602 at the box office on its opening weekend.

7. War Horse

April 3, 2009 – March 12, 2016 Over 3,000 performances

Nick Stafford’s adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse first set the stage alight at the National Theatre in 2007. But, just ten days after the production closed at the National, War Horse opened at the New London Theatre (now Gillian Lynne Theatre). The courageous tale of Albert rescuing his horse, Joey in World War One went on to play over 3,000 performances, with the play later adapted for the silver screen in 2011.

8. There’s A Girl In My Soup

1966 – 1973 2,547 performances

Terence Frisby’s 1960s comedy about a glamorous TV chef falling in love took the West End by storm. Transferring from a north London theatre to the Globe Theatre (now Gielgud Theatre), the final curtain came down at the Comedy Theatre (Harold Pinter Theatre) in 1973. A 1970 film adaptation starred Goldie Hawn and Peter Sellers, with Hawn receiving a BAFTA nomination for best actress.

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