Learn how London shows explore what it means to be British
These plays and musicals, both old and new make audiences think more deeply about British life, families, famous figures, politics, and more.
Theatre is often bound up in our national identity: how we see ourselves as a country, who leads us and how, what our relations are like with our neighbours, how we view justice and politics, and how we grapple with our history, present and our future. Some plays and musicals can celebrate Britishness, others interrogate it – although we are, of course, always proud of our thriving British theatre sector!
This is a particularly interesting time for theatre to look at these big questions around nationhood and our national systems, as Britain gets a new Prime Minister and tackles huge issues within the country and with international relations. Fortunately, there is a fantastic range of London shows doing just that – from punchy Shakespeare productions to modern history plays and family entertainment.
So, get dressed up in red, white and blue, practise your “God Save the Queen” (or your rebel protest march), and get booking for these great British theatre shows.
When it comes to gauging the national mood, there’s no play more effective than Shakespeare’s 1599 drama Henry V. For example, Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film version had a very specific purpose: it acted as a great heroic rallying cry ahead of the Invasion of Normandy, so was steeped in patriotism.
In contrast, Kenneth Branagh’s movie adaptation in 1989 was much more ambiguous about war, giving us a grim, mud and blood-splattered version of the Battle of Agincourt. It will be fascinating to see where the Globe’s new production in the intimate Sam Wanamaker Playhouse takes us next, as we contend with yet more civil unrest.
Book Henry V tickets on London Theatre.
War also impacts the Pevensie children in CS Lewis’s classic British yarn. They are evacuated during the Second World War, and discover a whole other magical world: Narnia. Lucy, Edmund, Peter and Susan journey into a fantastical realm, meeting creatures like the friendly faun Mr Tumnus, but Lewis’s tale has thoughtful themes too.
After all, Narnia features very different forms of leadership: the dictatorial White Witch, the self-sacrificing lion Aslan, and the children themselves as they learn to fight for what’s right. Sally Cookson’s astonishing production, now playing at the Gillian Lynne Theatre, plunges you into the heart of the action.
Book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe tickets on London Theatre.
What exactly did two of the most powerful women in the 20th century say to one another in private? That’s the fascinating premise of Moira Buffini’s play Handbagged, which premiered in 2010 and is now back during another politically febrile time for an encore run at the Kiln Theatre.
It’s Elizabeth II versus Margaret Thatcher – then Prime Minister – in this witty, taut piece, which also contrasts the younger and older versions of the two women. How will this portrait of two significant female leaders land in 2022, as Liz Truss makes her bid for Prime Minister? It gives a whole new meaning to girl power.
Book Handbagged tickets on London Theatre.
We should always learn from history if we want to do better in future – but it doesn’t have to be a bore. It can be silly, nasty and raucous fun, as proved by the smash-hit stage version of Terry Deary’s popular book series. The Horrible Histories – Terrible Tudors show has all the big figures from Tudor times: Henry VIII, Bloody Mary, Elizabeth I, the Spanish Armada and more.
Book Horrible Histories: Terrible Tudors tickets on London Theatre.
You can also match up British history with the real-life sites and landmarks thanks to the Terrible Thames river cruise, a new outing from Horrible Histories. Sail under London Bridge while hearing about the Viking invasion, or relive Guy Fawkes’ dastardly plot as you pass the Houses of Parliament.
Book Horrible Histories: Terrible Thames tickets on London Theatre.
The Queen of Crime herself, Agatha Christie, is summoning you to jury service. Do you think Leonard Vole really murdered an elderly widow, Emily French, in order to inherit her wealth – and do you believe the surprising testimony of his wife Romaine? This is British justice in action, 1940s style; a taste of our legal heritage.
Even better, this immersive site-specific production takes place in London County Hall, giving you the feel of a real courtroom; you can almost see the hangman’s dangling noose. Guilty or not guilty? Match your wits against this fiendish plot from one of Britain’s greatest ever writers.
Book Witness for the Prosecution tickets on London Theatre.
All of Us
Comedian Francesca Martinez (who has cerebral palsy – or as she puts it, is a “wobbly” girl) tackles big state-of-the-nation subjects in her funny but understandably furious debut play. It looks at how the government’s austerity policies and changes to medical and welfare systems have adversely affected disabled people – exacerbated even further by the pandemic.
Staged at the National Theatre, appropriately, it’s a huge challenge to our established systems, and gives a voice to those who aren’t always heard in debates about Britain’s future. In a time of factionalism and political divide, it also – as the title suggests – argues for more unity: we’re in all this together.
All of Us is at the National Theatre.
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