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Photo credit: Witness for the Prosecution (Photo by Ellie Kurttz)

Seek justice at the theatre at these West End courtroom dramas

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

We can't resist a courtroom drama. It's a setting with such natural theatrical elements: two opposing sides, lofty speeches, shocking reveals with surprise witnesses and new pieces of evidence, the conflict of cross-examination, passions running high, and, in some cases, a shocking final decision.

No wonder, then, that plays with courtroom or judicial elements continue to remain hugely popular, from Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice to Twelve Angry Men, The Crucible, and Inherit the Wind. There are also great musicals based around justice, like Chicago, The Scottsboro Boys, and Les Misérables. Court-based shows fire up audiences and raises the stakes for the characters involved.

That's why there's so much excitement about To Kill a Mockingbird coming to the West End, as well as continued enthusiasm for fantastic long-running courtroom dramas like Witness for the Prosecution, and those with crime thriller elements like The Mousetrap. We love to be given the chance to play detective, judge and jury: to make up our own minds about who has done wrong and whether they deserve punishment or mercy.

So, check out our guide to some of the best courtroom dramas and criminal justice plays in London that you can book tickets for right now.

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To Kill a Mockingbird

Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird centres on six-year-old Scout and her lawyer father, Atticus Finch. The latter agrees to defend a Black man, Tom Robinson, who is falsely accused of raping a white woman. The Alabama-set tale was partly inspired by Lee's own childhood experiences, and is a sobering lesson in how racism warps justice, as well as, conversely, offering an inspiring figure of goodness and decency.

The West Wing's creator Aaron Sorkin — the creative mastermind behind gripping legal dramas like A Few Good Men — supplies a new adaptation of Lee's novel which puts the courtroom drama action front and centre. Jeff Daniels starred as Atticus Finch in Bartlett Sher's acclaimed Broadway production, which now comes to the West End. Rafe Spall leads the cast as Atticus Finch, joined by Gwyneth Keyworth as Scout, Jude Owusu as Tom Robinson, Harry Redding as Jem, David Moorst as Dill, and Pamela Nomvete as Calpurnia.

Book To Kill a Mockingbird tickets on London Theatre.

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Witness for the Prosecution

This atmospheric production is unique in that it places the audience right in the courtroom. Witness for the Prosecution is staged in London County Hall, a former debating chamber that matches the look and ambience of an actual court — one where the audience is sat on formal leather seats, in majestic surroundings, essentially acting as the jury.

The venue provides a thrilling, immersive setting for Agatha Christie's gripping tale, in which Leonard Vole is accused of murdering a wealthy older woman. The titular witness for the prosecution is Vole's wife, whose motives remain murky throughout the show. Is she trying to save or doom her husband? And will Vole manage to escape the hangman's noose?

Each audience member can form their own view as they watch the action play out right in front of them, including the sparring between the defence and prosecution barristers, the police giving evidence, and, crucially, the conflicting accounts from the accused and the witnesses. Whose testimony will you believe — and will justice be done?

Book Witness for the Prosecution tickets on London Theatre.

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The Merchant of Venice

Shakespeare's great play features one of the most famous courtroom speeches in theatre history. The story, set in Venice, sees the Jewish moneylender Shylock taking Bassanio and Antonio to court because they've failed to repay a loan in time. He demands, in recompense, a pound of Antonio's flesh. It's down to Bassanio's fiance Portia, disguised as a lawyer, to appeal to the court with the oration that begins "The quality of mercy is not strained" — and then to outsmart Shylock on a legal technicality.

It's a gripping set-piece where the power shifts back and forth between the various players. Shylock is ultimately undone not just through legal argument, but because of the prevailing antisemitism. Yet Portia's quick thinking and impassioned address are deeply stirring, and a rare example in period drama of a woman saving a man.

This revival in the Globe's spellbinding, candlelit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, directed by Abigail Graham, examines the play afresh in a contemporary context, illuminating parallels with our own society.

Book The Merchant of Venice tickets on London Theatre.

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The Mousetrap

The Queen of Crime continues to rule the West End with this iconic whodunnit. Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap is, in fact, the world's longest-running theatre production — it's celebrating its 70th anniversary in 2022 — and audiences still flock to this twisty mystery.

Can you play detective, judge, and jury, and outsmart the brilliant Christie? Your suspects are a group of strangers stranded at a guesthouse, Monkswell Manor, during a snowstorm. There has already been one murder: Maureen Lyon, known for mistreating her foster children, was found strangled just after her release from prison. Sergeant Trotter is in a race against time to identify the killer before they strike again.

As with all the best Christies, there's great satisfaction in uncovering everyone's secrets and eventually getting the grand denouement, but also in forming your own view about who deserves what, and what drives all these characters. It's the psychological aspect that makes this drama so engrossing, 70 years on.

Book The Mousetrap tickets on London Theatre.

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The Drifters Girl

This fascinating bio-musical tells the story of trailblazer Faye Treadwell, all shaped around a major court case that she fought. Treadwell was the manager of The Drifters, and at one point it looked as though their reputation would be completely trashed and their future uncertain because there were so many copycat and spin-off versions of the band using their name.

That also spelled doom for Treadwell, who was also constantly dismissed by a sexist and racist industry, and needed to support her daughter after her husband's death. Beverley Knight plays this firecracker, showing her wily determination as she navigates this legal quagmire.

Whether Treadwell can win her copyright case and secure The Drifters' future is the framing force for the show, which illustrates what's at stake by gifting us their gorgeous back catalogue — songs like "Come On Over to My Place," "Kissin' in the Back Row of the Movies," "Sweets for My Sweet," "Save the Last Dance for Me," and "There Goes My Baby."

Book The Drifters Girl tickets on London Theatre.

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Les Misérables

Justice is a central theme of Victor Hugo's seminal novel, and also of the stirring West End musical. Jean Valjean serves 19 years in prison after stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. Upon release, he finds it impossible to get work as an ex-convict, and is dogged by the prison guard-turned-police officer Javert, who refuses to believe that any man can change.

Valjean breaks parole and has the chance to escape for good when someone else is arrested in his place. However, as he was once saved by a generous bishop, his conscience won't allow him to condemn an innocent, so he confesses his true identity to the court. But Hugo asks us to consider whether this is a fair system, or if this is justice taken to a cruel extreme.

Those big ideas are given appropriately epic treatment in this spectacular long-running production, and given voice through incredible songs like "Who Am I?," "Bring Him Home," "The Confrontation," and "One Day More." Find out more about Les Misérables in London.

Book Les Misérables tickets on London Theatre. 

Photo credit: Witness for the Prosecution (Photo by Ellie Kurttz)

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