The best leading ladies in the West End
International Women's Day is a day to celebrate the power of womanhood in all its glory. From empowering performances to inspiring music, or the incredible female characters portrayed on stage, women in the theatre continue to make strides. Many theatre actresses are given the title of "West End leading lady", as a testamaent to the ways they command a stage.
So, to champion the incredible performances that women have given over the years, here's some of the best leading ladies of all time in the West End. Some of these actresses are even starring in upcoming West End productions, and you won't want to miss them.
After making her West End debut in The Lion King at just 17 years old, Khadime’s theatre career has been full of history-making performances. Notably, she was the first actress of colour to play Elphaba in any global production of Wicked. She also originated the role of Nabulungi in The Book of Mormon, and is currently in the world premiere production of The Prince of Egypt at the Dominion Theatre. Miracles really do come true when you believe, and Khadime definitely kept up hope!
Nicknamed the British Queen of Soul, Beverley Knight’s career didn’t begin in the West End. To date, she’s released nine solo albums, with songs like “Shoulda Woulda Coulda” and “Piece of My Heart” earning Knight lifetime music achievement awards and the title of Best R&B Act at the MOBO Awards.
After two decades of solo performances, Knight took on a new challenge — musical theatre — transforming her career. She made her West End debut as Rachel Marron in The Bodyguard, a role played on film by Whitney Houston. Quickly becoming a bona fide leading lady, she’s since starred in Memphis The Musical, Cats and hip-hop musical Sylvia at the Old Vic. Knight will lead the cast as Faye Treadwell in the world premiere of The Drifters Girl, coming to the Garrick Theatre in 2021.
Few West End stars can list a career quite like Bonnie Langford can. Making her West End debut at just seven years old in Gone With the Wind and a Broadway debut in Gypsy at nine, Langford was clearly destined for a special career.
From Rumpleteazer in Cats to the title role in Sweet Charity, Roxie Hart in Chicago to The Lady of the Lake in Spamalot, Langford has been commanding the stage for over 40 years, and that trend is set to continue. Recently, she’s given show-stealing performances as Dorothy Brock in 42nd Street and Roz in the West End premiere of 9 to 5. We can’t wait to see Bonnie Langford on stage again, whenever and wherever that may be.
A West End leading lady for the younger generation, Carrie Hope Fletcher built up a solid theatre career from an early age. In fact, her theatre CV could list Les Miserables, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Mary Poppins before turning 13. Her adult debut seemed to start off as a repeat of her younger years, playing Eponine in Les Miserables too and Truly Scrumptious in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, but that’s where the similarities end.
Fletcher gained notoriety for her performance as Veronica Sawyer in Heathers, which transferred to the Theatre Royal Haymarket. Then, after dreaming a dream as Fantine in all-star Les Miserables concerts, she’ll now play the title role in Cinderella at the Gillian Lynne Theatre. With over 600,000 YouTube subscribers, as well as being a best-selling author, Fletcher really can do it all.
The Olivier Award-winning actress is highly deserving of her place in our top West End leading ladies list. In a theatre career stretching four decades, she’s showcased her versatility and chameleon-like acting abilities, from stylised musicals like Cabaret, Shakespeare tragedies including Macbeth and soap opera parody Acorn Antiques: The Musical.
In recent years, Imrie’s theatre appearances have been few and fleeting, but she’s recently starred in a gender-swapped adaptation of King Lear starring Glenda Jackson. But, if you’re missing her on stage, then she’s in musical films like Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, a sequel to the Mamma Mia! film.
Hailing from London, this acclaimed actress continues to make waves on the Broadway scene. But, do you know about her early theatre career? Making her musical debut in the gospel show I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky, Erivo began to attract interest from the get-go. Unbelievably, her only West End credit is in I Can’t Sing! The X Factor Musical which ran for just six weeks at the London Palladium.
She quickly followed in the footsteps of Whoopi Goldberg, playing Celie in The Color Purple and Deloris in Sister Act, both roles originated on screen by Goldberg. When The Color Purple transferred to Broadway, she held her own as Celie alongside Jennifer Hudson and Danielle Brooks, winning the Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical. We’d love to see Erivo back on the London stage one day.
Arguably “the” leading lady of 20th century West End musicals, Elaine Paige has truly risen through the ranks to becoming a true theatre icon. In a career spanning five decades, she’s played Eva Peron in Evita, Grizabella in Cats, Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes and Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard — all of these performances being London premieres.
Nowadays, Paige is often heard off stage, with a BBC Radio 2 show dedicated to musical theatre, as well as a 2014 chat show series The Elaine Paige Show. She’s a pantomime regular too, so if you’re seeing a Christmas show at the London Palladium, you can assume Paige will appear.
From the silver screen to the stage, Imelda Staunton always gives a captivating performance. Sadly, her upcoming performance in Hello, Dolly! at the Adelphi Theatre is postponed for a while yet. But we can still reminisce on her unforgettable turns as Sally Plummer in Follies, Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd and Mama Rose in Gypsy. Did you know she’s the current record-holder for the most Olivier Awards in the Best Actress in a Musical category? That makes her an incredible leading lady in our books.
The two-time Olivier Award-winning actress has a stage presence like no other. Don’t just take our word for it though, let her performances do the talking. During her West End debut in Cabaret, she was spotted by choreographers and dramatists alike for future works, eventually winning her first Olivier Award for Carrie Pipperidge in Carousel. More recently, Dee has starred in Follies at the National Theatre and The Boy Friend at the Menier Chocolate Factory. She’s also keen on supporting sustainability in the theatre, so we have to applaud her for that too.
After years of understudying roles, Russell finally stepped into the spotlight as Sarah Brown in Guys and Dolls, receiving an Olivier Award nomination. Her luck changed when cast as Dot in Sunday in the Park with George, winning her first Olivier and subsequently making her Broadway debut. Since then, Russell has been one of the West End’s most reliable leading ladies, recently in Merrily We Roll Along and The Bridges of Madison County. Russell was due to star in Hello, Dolly! at the Adelphi Theatre, which is postponed until at least 2022.
The two-time Olivier Award-winning actress is perhaps best known for her acclaimed performances in Carousel and My Fair Lady. But, in more recent years, she’s typically starred in West End premieres, rather than Golden Age musicals. In 2013, she played Valerie Hobson in Stephen Ward, giving a characterisation that’s “played with more depth than they are written”. She then led The Girls cast at the Phoenix Theatre, nominated with five of her fellow cast members in a group Olivier Award nomination.
Kerry Ellis gives West End performances that rockstars on arena tours could only wish for. As well as being the first British actress to play Elphaba in Wicked, she’s also been in classic musicals like Oliver! and Cats. We Will Rock You was her career-changing show though, playing Meat in the show’s original cast. After her time in We Will Rock You, she’s often collaborated with Queen lead singer Brian May, and they’ve released three albums together.
Entertaining West End audiences for over 25 years, Maria Friedman has cemented her status as a musical theatre leading lady. During her career, she’s won three Olivier Awards for Passion, Ragtime and By Special Arrangement, the latter being her one-woman cabaret. We love Friedman for her role as the Narrator in the Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat film, but she continues to dominate the stage today, having played Golde in Fiddler on the Roof at the Playhouse Theatre.
From being the “Killer Queen” to rocking the cells in Chicago, Mazz Murray is in every essence a leading lady. When she starred in We Will Rock You, she broke records as the longest-running cast member. Now back in Mamma Mia!, she’s now playing the lead role Donna Sheridan at the Novello Theatre. You can also hear her vocals in her girl band, aptly called Woman.
Okay, so Phoebe Waller-Bridge is the Fleabag. Her one-woman show sold out the Wyndham’s Theatre in hours. She’s a three-time Olivier Award-nominated actress. She’s also a writing mastermind behind Killing Eve and Drifters. Waller-Bridge has also been listed by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2020. Waller-Bridge is a cultural leading lady for a new generation.
Playing Bobbie in the first gender-swapped adaptation of Company, Rosalie Craig has rightfully earned her place on this list. She’s been in West End shows for over a decade, with credits including Lord of the Rings and The Ferryman. Craig was starring in City of Angels before theatres were closed for the first time. Unbelievably, she’s never won a solo Olivier Award, but we can’t imagine that’ll be the case for too much longer.
With five Olivier Award nominations under her belt, we'd be remiss to have a West End leading lady list without Ruthie Henshall. She first tapped her way into our hearts in Crazy For You, but her theatre credits read like an anthology of theatre: Cats, A Chorus Line, Les Miserables, Oliver, Chicago and Billy Elliot. In 2019, Henshall starred in workshop productions of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella, alongside Carrie Hope Fletcher.
Soon to play Elsa in the West End premiere of Frozen, Samantha Barks will continue her global prowess as a theatrical leading lady. Since competing for the chance to play Nancy in Oliver!, she’s been in Les Miserables and City of Angels. In 2018, she made her Broadway debut as Vivian Ward in Pretty Woman: The Musical, which is now at the Piccadilly Theatre.
Winning solo Olivier Awards in consecutive years, Sharon D. Clarke is simply an incredible actress. Her recent credits include Death of a Salesman, Caroline, or Change and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. But, with early credits like Rent and Fame, she’s really had an incredible career.
In 2011, Sheridan Smith won an Olivier Award for her performance as Elle Woods in Legally Blonde. The year after, she won an Olivier Award for playing Doris in Terrence Rattigan’s Flare Path. Smith defines versatility. More recently, she was the Narrator in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the London Palladium.