12 West End plays based on real events
Sometimes, great stories are staring writers in the face. Many of the great plays are based on true, historical events which are adapted and dramatised for the stage. With The Lehman Trilogy - Stefano Massini's play about US financial firm The Lehman Brothers - set to transfer to the West End, we look at 12 memorable plays based on real life events.
Stefano Massini’s play charts the formation, rise and eventual collapse of the US financial firm Lehman Brothers. Three actors played the company’s founders, who set up a dry goods store which accepted cotton in return for merchandise. The play fast-forwards through the decades as we meet the brother’s sons, and finally the son’s sons in an epic piece of theatre. It was first seen in the UK in 2018 when Ben Power’s adaptation opened at the National Theatre, and subsequently transferred to the Piccadilly.
James Graham has a knack for writing entertaining plays about unlikely subjects. With Ink, he dramatised Rupert Murdoch’s takeover and revitalisation of The Sun newspaper in the 1960s. It told the story of how Murdoch captured the general public’s imagination by, with the help of editor Larry Lamb, giving the readers what they wanted from a paper. Starring Bertie Carvel and Richard Coyle, the play opened at the Almeida Theatre in London before transferring to the West End’s Duke of York’s Theatre.
JT Rogers’ Oslo went behind the secret meetings set up by a married couple of Norwegian diplomats which eventually led to the Oslo Accords, which set to bring peace between Israel and Palestine. Terje Rød-Larsen and Mona Juul were responsible for bringing together members of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Government of Israel to facilitate the talks no one thought were possible. Rogers showed the volatile nature of the negotiations, as well as what happened when the two sides were forced to socialise civilly. After a Tony Award-winning premiere in New York, it opened at the National and transferred straight to the Harold Pinter Theatre.
Adapted from his own film, Tim Firth brought Calendar Girls to the stage after the success of the 2003 blockbuster starring Helen Mirren and Julie Walters. In 1999, a Yorkshire-based Women’s Institute group raised money for Leukaemia research by stripping off and shooting a nude calendar for charity. Firth’s film, play and subsequent musical The Girls, which he wrote with Gary Barlow, were a frank and funny retellings of their story. The play toured the UK before opening in the West End in 2009.
The King’s Speech
David Seidler’s reworked his Oscar-winning film, which saw Colin Firth star as King George VI struggling to overcome his stammer, for the stage in 2012. Seidler began researching the film in the 70s and tracked down the son of Australian dialect coach Lionel Logue. Valentine Logue offered to share his father’s notebooks with the writer, but only with written permission from the Queen Mother, though Seidler received a reply requesting he didn’t embark on the project during her lifetime. After her death in 2002, he picked the project up again, it became a box office smash, and adapted for the stage in 2012, running at the Wyndham’s Theatre.
The Wipers Times
Private Eye editor Ian Hislop and cartoonist Nick Newman’s play was a homage to those that created the first satirical newspaper that paved the way for publications like their own. Set in Ypres, Belgium, a group of soldiers find an old printing press and decide to put it to good use by producing a newspaper full of sketches and parodies to keep morale high on the front line. It first played the Watermill Theatre in Newbury, but has since enjoyed a number of national tours and West End runs.
We told you he had a knack for this sort of thing… James Graham returned to the Noel Coward Theatre in 2018 with Quiz, a unique play that examined the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? scandal of 2001. Army major Charles Ingram was accused of cheating his way to the top prize with the help of his wife and a fellow contestant, who would cough to indicate correct answers. Each act of the play replayed the events from the point of view of his defence, and the prosecution. In a further twist, audiences were asked to vote whether they believed he was innocent or guilty both before the interval and at the end of each play, with fascinating results every time that highlighted the intricaties and contention of the case.
Meteorologists may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of war heroes, but that’s exactly what James Stagg was. David Haig starred in his own play which centred on the world-changing decision to go forward with the D-Day Landings. Based on the weather forecasting of Stagg, General Eisenhower pressed forward with the operation that culminated in Allies winning the war. Pressure played the Park Theatre in Finsbury Park before transferring to the West End.
David Frost’s series of interviews with Richard Nixon were a landmark for journalism, with the British broadcaster posing tough questions to the former US president about the Watergate scandal. Peter Morgan wrote a play based on the meetings in 2006 starring Michael Sheen and Frank Langella. The pair reprised their roles on Broadway, and in a film adaptation directed by Ron Howard in 2006.
ENRON was an energy company doomed by its complex financial models and unethical practices, leading to one of the biggest bankruptcy disorganisations ever in America. Lucy Prebble’s play put CEO and chairman Kenneth Lay, executive Jeffrey Skilling and chief financial officer Andy Fastow on stage and under scrutiny. Starring Tim Pigott-Smith, Samuel West and Tom Goodman-Hill, the play ran at the Royal Court in 2009 and Noel Coward in 2010.
Henry VI, Part Two
One of Shakespeare’s earliest works, Henry VI, Part Two is believed to be his first play based on English history. Forming a trilogy, Part One deals with England’s loss of French territories, and Part Three looks at the bloody horror of the War of the Roses, but Part Two focuses on how the King is unable to control his nobles.
Established artist Mark Rothko was commissioned to create a number of murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York, but later retracted the paintings, when he realised the kinds of people who would be frequenting the upper class restaurant. John Logan’s play imagines Rothko creating his art, with help from his younger, fresher-minded assistant. The two embark on a war of words as their ideologies clash in this artistic, fast-paced play.