20 shows that celebrate the last 20 years of theatre

We look back on 20 shows that have transformed the theatrical landscape this century

Lin-Manuel Miranda and the original West End cast of Hamilton
Lin-Manuel Miranda and the original West End cast of Hamilton
© Dan Wooller for WhatsOnStage

Can you believe we are just days away from a new decade? With the 2020s quickly approaching, we looked back over the last 20 years of theatre to remember some truly transformational work that has changed this industry in innovative and unexpected ways. Here are shows that first played during this century and have fundamentally altered the theatre landscape as we know it, from oldest to newest.

1. 4.48 Psychosis

The final work from one of the country's most influential female playwrights premiered at the Royal Court at the turn of the millennium and has been revived in several incarnations since. Sarah Kane's 4.48 Psychosis was seen at the time as highly controversial, highlighting a perspective on clinical depression and written just before the playwright's death from suicide in 1999. What marks this play out as so influential in the theatre canon is its distinct lack of defined characters or stage directions that Kane first implemented in her earlier work Crave, which means that every production can be completely distinctive from its predecessors.

4.48 Psychosis at the New Diorama Theatre in 2019
4.48 Psychosis at the New Diorama Theatre in 2019
© Deafinitely Theatre

2. Jerry Springer: The Opera

Back in 2001, Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas wrote a show that was workshopped at Battersea Arts Centre and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, with a book that reportedly contained 8,000 obscenities in just 120 minutes – some quick maths tells us that's multiple swear words per second! This almost completely sung-through show ran in the West End for two years in the early 00s and instantly created controversy by telling the story of Jerry Springer and his notorious talk show. Just before the end of its run, it was broadcast on BBC and received tens of thousands complaints by Christian Voice which resulted in a private prosecution that went as far as the High Court. Safe to say, this musical upheld the reputation of its namesake talk show (Springer himself saw it in Edinburgh and commented, "I only wish I'd thought of it first") and paved the way for such acclaimed follow-up shows as Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon.

3. Elmina's Kitchen

Kwame Kwei-Armah has been an influential name in the theatre industry for a number of years – the current artistic director of the Young Vic is also an actor, singer and playwright. His tenure at Baltimore's Center Stage theatre made him the only black male artistic director of a major USA theatre at the time. Elmina's Kitchen is his fifth work and the first play to be staged in the West End this century by a black British playwright. It ran in 2003 at the National Theatre and transferred to the Garrick Theatre in 2005.

Elmina's Kitchen playwright, Kwame Kwei-Armah
Elmina's Kitchen playwright, Kwame Kwei-Armah
© Dan Wooller for WhatsOnStage

4. His Dark Materials

The Philip Pullman trilogy is a hot topic of conversation this season, with the likes of James McAvoy, Ruth Wilson, Anne-Marie Duff and Dafne Keen bringing the much-loved series of fantasy books to life on the BBC. But the novels were first adapted for theatre back in 2003 as a two-part play, a format that has more recently become synonymous with The Inheritance and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. What is most amazing about this version however is its casting – a list of emerging artists who are now some of our most recognised celebrity names. Dominic Cooper, Anna Maxwell-Martin, Russell Tovey and Ben Whishaw joined the likes of Timothy Dalton, Patricia Hodge, Cecilia Noble and Niamh Cusack in what would nowadays be considered top billing – some inspired work by the National Theatre's then-artistic director Nicholas Hytner and the entire casting team.

5. The Big Life

This show has earned its place in our list because of its significance rather than its commercial success – it was the first black, British musical to open in the West End. After eight years in the making, The Big Life first played at Theatre Royal Stratford East before transferring to the Apollo Theatre in 2005. A collaboration between Paul Sirett, Paul Joseph, Clint Dyer and Philip Hedley, the ska musical combines the classic Shakespearean tale of Love's Labour's Lost with the story of the Windrush generation, all set to a score of blues, calypso and reggae.

Helen Woolf and Nikki Bentley in Wicked
Helen Woolf and Nikki Bentley in Wicked
© Wicked UK, photographer Matt Crockett

6. Wicked

No one mourns the wicked, but over 10 million viewers have celebrated this swankified show in the West End since it opened in 2006. The Gregory Maguire novel puts the focus on the Wicked Witch of the West, but it was Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman who transformed this tale into a global success, with such genre-defining numbers as "Defying Gravity" and "Popular". And with ten WhatsOnStage Awards to its name, thank goodness this musical has transformed the careers of such singers as Idina Menzel, Kerry Ellis and Rachel Tucker. Let's hope it stays for good! Playing at the Apollo Victoria Theatre and currently booking until 28 November 2020

7. The Lord of the Rings

Not all the shows on this list have been big successes – in fact some make the cut because of how spectacularly they went wrong. Take The Lord of the Rings musical for example – the hype around this show when it came to the West End in 2007 was phenomenal. The books are iconic and the film series won 17 Academy Awards overall, making it one of the most successful trilogies of all time. But this show – clocking in at three hours long and with a reported $25 million budget – is widely considered as one of the biggest commercial flops in West End history, playing for 13 months and mired by injuries and last minute cast changes near the end.

War Horse on stage
War Horse on stage
© Brinkhoff/ Mögenberg

8. War Horse

Who'd have thought that puppets could look, move and astound an audience like this?! Enter the Handspring Puppet Company, whose work is a key reason that War Horse has proved so popular over the last ten years. Michael Morpurgo's novel, written in 1982, tugs at the heartstrings as it depicts a friendship between Ned and Joey just before World War One breaks out across the world. War Horse marks Marianne Elliott's other major commercial success while associate director at the National Theatre, first running in 2007 at the National Theatre and then transferring to the New London Theatre in the West End for seven years and over 3,000 performances. Fun fact – the stage show marked the professional theatre debut for Kit Harington, who then went on to play in Laura Wade's Posh before becoming world famous as Jon Snow in Game of Thrones.

9. Jerusalem

Jez Butterworth has had a number of huge theatrical hits – Mojo, The Ferryman and The River immediately spring to mind. But we had to pick just one and we plumped for his production of Jerusalem, which played at the Royal Court in 2009 before transferring to the West End in 2010 with Mark Rylance and Mackenzie Crook. Directed by Ian Rickson, the show earned Rylance an Olivier Award and marked Butterworth's first play to transfer to Broadway. The Ferryman followed five years later and certainly built on the success of this transformative work.

Tyger Drew-Honey in the 2019 UK tour of Posh
Tyger Drew-Honey in the 2019 UK tour of Posh
© Photographic Techniques

10. Posh

The stories of Oxford's Bullingdon Club have been high-profile and wide-reaching over the years. This private dining club is noted for its wealthy patronage and seemingly elitist membership, with the current Prime Minister Boris Johnson and previous leader of the cabinet David Cameron among its alumni. And it was the subject of Wade's 2010 play Posh, which first ran at the Royal Court and then came to the West End Duke of York's Theatre under director Lyndsey Turner. It has also inspired a gender-swapped revival, with Cassie Bradley leading the all-female cast at The Pleasance in 2017. Wade's work has since included Home, I'm Darling – which won the Olivier Award for Best New Comedy this year, after its transfer from Theatr Clwyd to the National Theatre and then the Duke of York's Theatre – and The Watsons, which recently announced its West End transfer after playing at Chichester Festival Theatre and the Menier Chocolate Factory.

11. Matilda

This story is a Roald Dahl favourite, an author who has framed the lives of generations of children. And Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin's stage adaptation is the certainly the most iconic musical that has come from the RSC in the last two decades, giving a much-deserved platform for the next wave of child stars. Matilda has been a staple of the West End scene for the last eight years – after a twelve-week run in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2010/2011 – and the story of a determined girl who overcomes obstacles with her telekinetic powers is a delight for all ages. Playing at the Cambridge Theatre and currently booking until 20 December 2020

The September 2019 cast of Matilda
The September 2019 cast of Matilda

12. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Fun fact – Simon Stephens is one of the most-performed English language writers in Germany! A well-known and much-loved creative, his work includes Sea Wall and Bluebird as well as adaptations of A Doll's House, The Cherry Orchard and The Seagull. But his biggest commercial success is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a stage adaptation of the Mark Haddon novel which won seven Olivier Awards and ran for five years in London. Only a show of this calibre could withstand the controversy of the Apollo Theatre ceiling falling in during a performance and still run for a further three years, after transferring to the Gielgud Theatre. It's also one of Elliott's biggest successes during her time as associate director at the National Theatre.

13. Chimerica

Another era-defining play to be directed by Turner, Lucy Kirkwood's Chimerica was a co-production with theatre company Headlong – also involved in such hits as People, Places and Things, 1984 and The Nether. Chimerica opened at the Almeida Theatre in 2013 before transferring to the Harold Pinter Theatre that year and winning five Olivier Awards in 2014. Another work to make it to the silver screen, it inspired a miniseries which ran on Channel 4 this year and starred Sophie Okonedo and Cherry Jones. The story revolves around one of the most famous photos of the 20th century – the 1989 Tank Man during the Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing.

Nancy Crane and Sean Gilder in Chimerica at the Almeida Theatre
Nancy Crane and Sean Gilder in Chimerica at the Almeida Theatre
© Johan Persson

14. The Drowned Man

It only makes sense to include immersive theatre in our top 20 – this form of theatrical experience has exploded in popularity these last decades. And if we think of influential immersive companies, we need look no further than the ground-breaking Punchdrunk. This company was formed in 2000 and has produced several experiences including Sleep No More, Faust and The Masque of the Red Death. But it's The Drowned Man that has proven transformational, expanding on the scale that immersive theatre can occupy and proving that there is a true appetite for this kind of experience. In collaboration with the National Theatre, the show came to a disused building in Paddington – over 200,000 square feet – and allowed its audience of almost 600 people per show completely free reign to wander through the spectacularly constructed world.

15. Fleabag

This juggernaut by Phoebe Waller-Bridge started life as a one-woman show at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and then at the Soho Theatre. Fleabag has had spectacular success since, winning four Emmy Awards for its second TV series and playing a sold-out show in the West End with Waller-Bridge reprising her role on stage. Acting royalty Andrew Scott as the hot priest and Olivia Colman as the godmother? Sold.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag
Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag
© Joan Marcus

16. The Encounter

Complicité have been going strong on the theatre scene for over 25 years, and Simon McBurney's The Encounter is a classic example of this company pushing the boundaries of traditional performance. It may be a one-man show – with McBurney both performing and co-directing alongside Kirsty Housley – but the other star in this show is Gareth Fry and Pete Malkin's sound design. The Encounter is inspired by the book Amazon Beaming by Petru Popescu and charts a photographer's journey lost among the indigenous people of Brazil's Javari Valley. The use of binaural sound – a 360-degree soundscape that the audience experiences through headphones – in this production brought new, innovative technology squarely into the theatre mainstream.

17. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

If you haven't heard of Harry Potter, then you have probably been hibernating for the last 25 years. The millennium's most well-known series of children's books has spawned eight original films, five spin-offs, a studio tour, theme park attractions and even an entire online fantasy world and community. Oh, and also a play in two parts, which won a record-breaking nine Olivier Awards and eight WhatsOnStage Awards. Needless to say it has brought a whole new audience to the theatre – where it has played for three and a half years in the West End and one and a half years on Broadway – and has proven that bringing a major franchise to the stage is possible.

The 2019 cast of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
The 2019 cast of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
© Manuel Harlan

18. Cinderella at The London Palladium

Pantomimes are a staple of the British festive season, a tradition that goes back to the commedia dell'arte, music hall and harlequinade work of the 18th and 19th centuries. But despite being the most-performed genre of Christmas, it had been absent in the West End for 30 years until The London Palladium returned to its variety roots with Cinderella in 2016. With a celebrity line-up of Paul O'Grady, Julian Clary, Amanda Holden, Nigel Havers, Paul Zerdin and Lee Mead, the tradition is alive once more. This year's show – Goldilocks and the Three Bears – has become bigger then ever before, with a wall of death, puppet elephant and costumes bright enough to rival Strictly Come Dancing. The Palladium's latest pantomime, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, is playing until 12 January

19. Hamilton

It's hard to think that this juggernaut has only been running in the West End for two years. 11 Tony Awards on Broadway, seven Olivier Awards and five WhatsOnStage Awards are why Hamilton has earned its place in the top 20. The musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton – one of the USA's founding fathers – has left its audiences satisfied, helpless and dying to be in the room where it happens. The only question left for its creator Lin-Manuel Miranda is, what comes next? Playing at the Victoria Palace Theatre and currently booking until 23 May 2020

Ricky Fearon and Cecilia Noble in Nine Night at the National Theatre
Ricky Fearon and Cecilia Noble in Nine Night at the National Theatre
© Helen Murray

20. Nine Night

Natasha Gordon's five-star show Nine Night, which first ran at the National Theatre before transferring into the West End, was the actor's debut play. But more importantly, it was the first work by a black British female playwright to run in the West End – and it opened in December 2018. The show focusses on the Caribbean funereal tradition, an event that lasts several days and celebrates the life of the deceased. Gordon's work was directed by Roy Alexander Weise, the current co-artistic director at the Royal Exchange, Manchester.

Honourable Mentions

Picking just 20 shows that reflect the last two decades is a near-impossible task. Special mention must go to recent productions that have helped redefine the current performance scene:

Tim Pigott-Smith's reign as a future monarch in Mike Bartlett's King Charles III, marking an incredible career-to-date for this star playwright.

Arinzé Kene's Misty, bringing the Bush Theatre back into the West End.

Michaela Coel's firecracker of a monologue Chewing Gum, which started at the Yard Theatre before moving to the National Theatre and spawning two award-winning TV series.

Morgan Lloyd-Malcolm's Emilia, which put women at the centre of classical drama.

The powerhouse that highlighted the mighty potential of Edinburgh Festival FringeSix.

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