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Since it's Back to the Future day – what was happening in the theatre world in 1985?

Indulge us in a bit of time travel!

Cedric Neal and the cast of Back to the Future
© Sean Ebsworth Barnes

For those who have lost track of the concept of time thanks to a steady lockdown, today is 21 October 2020. Which might seem relatively unremarkable, but for the last five years has been labelled "Back to the Future Day" – in effect, the day (in 2015) that intrepid teen Marty McFly hopped forwards to in the second Back to the Future film.

With the London premiere of the Back to the Future musical imminent, we thought we'd take a leaf out of McFly's book and travel back to October 1985 to see what was going on in the theatre world back then.

Oh and, for the rest of the week, we have exclusive access to more Back to the Future West End tickets – get them from £19.55 while you can!




Les Misérables had just kicked off its run at the Barbican

The 25th anniversary celebrations at Les Misérables
© Dan Wooller for WhatsOnStage

Let's just get this one out of the way – on 21 October Les Misérables was having its first-ever run at the Barbican in London! Despite opening to slightly wobbly reviews (the critics were described as "pissy aisle scribblers" in one '80s biography mentioned below), the show was a blockbuster smash (and still very much is!). Patti LuPone went on to win an Olivier for her turn as Fantine.

The musical lost out on a bulk of Oliviers to the new version of Me and My Girl (with edits by one Stephen Fry), which was led by Robert Lindsay and Emma Thompson at the Adelphi.


Ian McKellen was wowing at the National

Ian McKellen
© Dan Wooller for WhatsOnStage

The inimitable Ian McKellen was starring in the titular role in a production of Tom Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound (the show is being revived for a new virtual reading later this week) and was gearing up to appear in The Cherry Orchard (both of these at the National Theatre) later that year. McKellen was not alone – alongside him in the show were the likes of Selina Cadell, Greg Hicks, Claire Moore, Jonathan Hyde and Sheila Hancock. Funnily enough, McKellen is planning on returning to The Cherry Orchard in the not-too-distant future, with a revival planned for Theatre Royal Windsor.


Cheek by Jowl were new kids on the block

The hit theatre company Cheek by Jowl was causing a bit of a stir in the West End with their fresh takes on classic texts. Installed at the Donmar Warehouse (where they performed 13 productions until 1993), the company led by director Declan Donnellan and designer Nick Ormerod won the Best Newcomer Award at the 1985 Olivier Awards. Since then they have firmly become stage legends.


A soon-to-be star was born

Nicola Roberts
© Dan Wooller for WhatsOnStage

Speaking of new kids on the block, performer Nicola Roberts, who made her fleeting West End debut in City of Angels at the Garrick before the venue closed due to Covid, was born in October 1985. God, we loved that show from the preview we saw. Let's keep every finger crossed that it'll make a much-needed return.


Phantom was a twinkle in ALW's eye

Andrew Lloyd Webber
© Dan Wooller for WhatsOnStage

Well, not quite – but the show had yet to be completely created by this point. A workshop performance of the first half at Sydmonton Festival in the summer of 1985 was, according to Andrew Lloyd Webber, not a "runaway hit" but he knew he'd struck something. Funnily enough, Lloyd Webber admits in his biography that he "pillaged" the cast of Les Misérables for the read-through, with Colm Wilkinson and Clive Carter appearing. Both are, of course, now theatre legends in their own rights.

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