27th March is World Theatre Day; a day to celebrate the wonder and work of the world of theatre, be they musicals, plays, revues, concerts or dance shows. I think it’s also an important year to remember as things have started to return to normality after 2 very difficult years for the performing arts industry. I have been to many a theatre show throughout my life, quite a few of which have still left a visual or musical impact on me to this day and remain as some of my firm favourites.
However, there are also plenty of shows I have not yet seen that I wish I had before they ended, including Cats, Legally Blonde, Mean Girls, Shrek (although I have watched the recorded version) and yes, even the short-lived Spice Girls musical Viva Forever! There are also a huge number that are still on my list to watch in the future, with some of them already in my diary. Booked ones include Beauty and the Beast, Dear Evan Hansen, and The Sound of Music. Ones that have yet to be booked include Chicago, Hamilton, Life of Pi, Mary Poppins, Tina! The Tina Turner Musical, and Waitress. There are also others that I have seen once and would have to watch again to really drink them in and appreciate them properly, such as Hairspray, Only Fools and Horses, Les Miserables, and West Side Story.
But for now, here are my top 10 favourite theatre shows of all time – so far. Unfortunately this final list meant quite a few didn’t make the cut, such as Mamma Mia!, Rent, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, We Will Rock You, and any one of the countless Shakespeare plays I have seen over time. While I have admittedly not watched quite as many non-musicals as musicals, I have included some in this list.
10) Back to the Future: The Musical
Rarely would a brand new show like this not only become a success, especially when it’s based on one the most iconic films of all time, but also make it onto a list like this among some real classic theatre shows. However Back to the Future: The Musical, which I was lucky enough to see on its opening night in Manchester, managed to truly leave me in awe.
There were catchy songs that married the art of musical theatre and 50s and 80s pop and rock, stunning visual effects and clever stage show tricks, and a cast that almost appeared to bring the majority of the original characters and actors with them on stage. Their mannerisms, voices and even looks were pretty much spot on. Obviously the risk with new shows, particularly ones born from films or completely new originals (such as Everybody’s Talking About Jamie), is that they can struggle to build up a good reputation to the level of some classics. But Back to the Future’s future certainly looks bright as its success continues speeding onwards at a steady 88 mph.
9) The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
I first read the award-winning book which spurned this play when it came out in 2003 and it was truly a great mystery novel for young children and teenagers. I then managed to watch it in its first national touring production (c. 2015), and it certainly did the book real justice, despite its changes. Its main beauty lay in bringing the main character of 15-year-old Chris to life, who is on the autism spectrum. The ability to do this with sensitivity and to normalise his behaviour, actions and personality, including all the subtle nuances – whether the actor who plays him also has autism or not – was something they managed to pull off that I and surely many others wondered if they could.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time reworks the original narrative by turning it into a play-within-a-play, which was also no mean feat. Overall, it is was an emotional and well-structured play that I’m sure will continue to delight those who read the book when they were younger and children who are only discovering it’s brilliance now.
8) War Horse
War Horse is one of those very rare pieces of art that has succeeded in being masterpieces in three different ways: a book, a play and a film. The book was a beautiful and emotional story about a young man’s affinity with his horse during World War I, that when I first saw in the cinema upon its release in 2011, I was left even closer to tears thanks to the legendary Steven Spielberg’s reimagining of it as it portrayed both the terror of the war and the love between man and nature.
The play continued that streak. The book’s author Michael Morpurgo himself said and I also thought, “they must be mad” to try and make a play out of it. But boy, did they do it and do it well! Using innovative costumes and puppetry that reminded me of The Lion King but was also used in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe as well as Frozen, War Horse dazzled and impressed throughout. It also had a fantastic, stirring score that enhanced it from start to finish and throughout its many twists and turns, action scenes and emotional parts.
8) Thriller – Live
I managed to get some pretty amazing and cheap seats for this show through an offer with Three which sadly didn’t continue and didn’t have many others available that I could have made use of said offer. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Thriller Live. Was it a musical based on Michael Jackson’s life? No, it was essentially a revue – a dance show spectacular that featured a line-up of extremely talented dancers and some singers, who were there to celebrate the legend’s musical career.
Throughout this theatre show, they took you on a journey to relive some of MJ’s best-loved tracks from his early years as part of The Jackson 5/The Jacksons in the 60s and 70s to his massive success as a groundbreaking and record-breaking solo artist in the 70s and 80s, and to his continuously iconic but also slightly troubled career and life in the 90s and early 00s. The dancers were phenomenal, having clearly not only studied the King of Pop’s moves to an absolute tee but managed to exude attitude, confidence and energy by the bucketloads. A show-stopping show by all accounts.
7) The Bodyguard
From one one in a million, embattled artist’s legacy to another, The Bodyguard was a stage show retelling of the film starring Whitney Houston. Like MJ’s stage presence and inimitable talents cannot ever be fully duplicated, neither can Whitney’s. But when I watched the queen of British soul Beverley Knight – for whom it was her debut theatre show (she hadn’t even acted before, apparently) – I thought if there’s anyone anybody could ever choose to do Whitney proud, it would be her.
The Bodyguard cleverly incorporated many of Whitney’s greatest hits beyond the songs on the best-selling soundtrack throughout, often reworked as musical theatre style numbers and even duets. The plot is changed very slightly to the film but I have now watched it twice (thankfully the second time was not with Alexandra “in every theatre show under the sun” Burke) and do believe minor changes are sometimes made, including the insertion of new songs or changes in arrangements to others. Nevertheless, while The Bodyguard has sadly ended its original runs and tours for now and we might never get a proper Whitney musical (the other closest being revue show Whitney: Queen of the Night), it still stands as a delightful ode to The Voice.
A show that deals with themes of sisterhood, friendship, racial inequality, body image and mental health, and is made complete with a list of musical numbers that is catchy, emotional, sassy, and jaw-dropping from start to finish, Dreamgirls is a must-see. I first watched it at the Savoy Theatre a few years back after originally being a fan of the film, and am scheduled to watch it again in Manchester in September. Throughout it you are itching to get up and dance and sing along but are also stuck to your seat, engrossed in the characters’ many different dynamics at play and of course left out of breath just by watching whoever was big-voiced and brave enough to tackle the role of Effie White without being out of breath doing so.
Following on from the film’s success, the theatre show was amended slightly to include a new version of Listen that was originally performed by Deena and recorded by Beyoncé but is turned into a soaring reunion duet between Effie and Deena. Sadly, Effie’s new solo song Love You I Do sung by Jennifer Hudson does not make it onto the stage. However, Dreamgirls is a dream of a musical that should definitely be caught if the chance were to ever arise, even if for One Night Only…
A phenomenon that rocked the world and indeed rocked around the world, Riverdance reinvented the tradition of Irish dancing that truly became a global hobby and even career, including birthing dance troupes in China to perform it. I remember being taken to watch it in the mid 90s (sadly after Flatley left) when the “craze” first became popular after the Eurovision show took off in 1994 and being hooked from then on. It sparked an interest in me to follow in their feet-tapping footsteps, and being at an RC primary school with a large count of Irish-bred pupils, some of whom also did Irish dancing, I was compelled to join the local Irish centre’s dance classes.
Of course, Michael Flatley’s innovative moves and vision that made him the Michael Jackson of the Irish dancing world kept going as he soon headed on a new path to create other shows, including Lord of the Dance and Feet of Flames, the former of which I also saw. However, while those are also amazing theatre shows, Riverdance is the gold star standard and its legacy continues as it brings back national and international productions time and time again to wow new generations.
2) Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
1) The Lion King
A complete masterpiece through and through, very rarely does another art from of a piece of work outshine the original. But The Lion King musical does just that. One of the first and most prominent productions to use animal puppetry to bring the animals to life on stage and one of the biggest and most famous musicals to feature all-Black casts, The Lion King musical heralded a new age of theatre shows never seen before.
I’m sad to say I’ve only ever watched this amazing show once when I was younger, with thankfully seats right by the aisle (if you’ve seen it before you know why those are the best seats) and the fact this still remains at the top of my list of favourite theatre shows of all time is testament to its brilliance and legacy. And I am very excited to be going to watch it again in December this year, to relive the magic of Pride Rock and the peak of Disney theatre productions.
So there you have it, my top 10 favourite theatre shows! Do you agree with my list? Which ones would you have on yours?
As well as obviously buying tickets to see theatre shows (however expensive you might think they are), you can help support theatres, theatre shows and casts and crews through various websites, including Theatre Support Fund, Theatre Support, The Theatre Artists Fund, and Theatres Trust.