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The National Theatre’s War Horse on tour (Photo: Brikhoff & Moegenburg)

The National Theatre's War Horse on tour (Photo: Brikhoff & Moegenburg)

10 London plays inspired by true stories

Robin Johnson

By Robin Johnson First Published 30 May 2019, Last Updated 31 May 2019

If somebody wrote a play about our lives, we’re not sure it’d go down so well. Don’t get us wrong – we have a lot of fun – but the story itself wouldn’t necessarily have that dramatic tension that’s key to every brilliant London play.

Take, for example, Act One in The Story Of Our Lives (now playing in an imaginary West End theatre near you). After an alarm clock-blaring opening, events would include waking up, heating a breakfast panini… and… err… padding with a couple of monologues about the existential nature of paninis, the perfect panini toppings, at what point do paninis become paninis and stop being brea-… well, you get the idea. 

Sometimes, though, it works the other way around. Sometimes, a true story can be so remarkable, you need the stage to do it justice. So, in between quiet periods reflecting on the transient nature of foodstuffs, we’ve rounded up some incredible plays on the London stage, based on true stories.  

Emilia

The cast of Emilia at the Vaudeville Theatre. Photo credit Helen Murray.

Playing until 1 June; Vaudeville Theatre

This play centres on the untold story of Emilia Lanier, née Bassano – one of the first published female poets, and the woman whom many believe to be ‘The Dark Lady’ who inspired Shakespeare’s sonnets, maybe even forming the basis of the Bard’s.

Historians haven’t nailed down many of the facts about Emilia’s life, so some would argue the story is occasionally embellished by artistic licence. But Emilia is a play which ultimately inspires with her life, strength, drive – and ability to empower.

Sweat

Leanne Best (Jessie), Martha Plimpton (Tracey), Clare Perkins (Cynthia) in Sweat at the Donmar Warehouse. Photo Johan Persson

Playing from 7 June until 20 July at the Gielgud Theatre

This Pulitzer Prize-winning play comes straight from the source’s mouth, so to speak, as it’s based on playwright Lynn Nottage’s two-and-a-half year residency in Reading, Pennsylvania – officially one of the poorest cities in the United States.

There, she got to know residents of a rapidly decaying community, getting to know the fears, resentments and even friendships which arise from economic turmoil. The result of those encounters formed Sweat, a play which puts on stage a real life story… with devastating consequences.

Nigel Slater’s Toast

The London cast of Nigel Slater's Toast (Photo: Target Live)

Playing until 3 August; The Other Palace

We’ve all got sights and sounds lingering in our minds from our childhoods. And for cookery writer Nigel Slater, that also includes tastes – like Toast, for example!

This show is based on the book of the same name, which went on to win Biography of the Year at the British Book Awards, and subsequent film adaptation (which starred Helena Bonham Carter, amongst others!). It’s a story of growing up in suburban England in the 1960s, and the myriad of flavours which lie there within. And yes, you do get samples of the dishes to taste throughout!

Present Laughter

Present Laughter at The Old Vic

Playing from 17 June until 10 August at The Old Vic

It takes some performer to step into the board-treading shoes of Sir Noël Coward. Fortunately for The Old Vic, they’ve got the talented Andrew Scott, set to star in Coward’s semi-autobiographical farce about a comedy actor facing up to an impending mid-life crisis.

Present Laughter follows Garry Finch, a performer set to embark on a touring commitment to Africa, but struggling to placate a crazed young playwright, his long-suffering secretary, his wife, and numerous other members of his entourage. Coward himself played the role in the play’s premiere, touring the UK to cheer up the country during the Second World War.

The Lehman Trilogy

Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley in The Lehman Trilogy at the National Theatre (Photo: Mark Douet)

Playing until 31 August; Piccadilly Theatre

An epic on stage, an epic in reality. You might not have heard of The Lehman Trilogy before, but you’ll certainly have been affected, in one way or another, by its events, as the show tells the story of the rise – and subsequent fall – of financial titans, Lehman Brothers.

Charting the company’s course from mere dreams in 1844 New York to a worldwide crisis caused by its collapse 163 years later, The Lehman Trilogy is remarkable evening of three parts in a single performance, with Olivier Award-nominated trio Adam Godley, Ben Miles and Simon Russell Beale playing the Lehmans, their sons and grandsons, and their accomplices throughout history.

Equus

Ethan Kai as Alan Strang in Equus

Playing from 6 July until 7 September; Trafalgar Studios

Thankfully for people who know Peter Shaffer’s modern, harrowing classic, this one took inspiration from rumour than fact. Equus came to fruition at the start of the 1970s. Shaffer, while in the English countryside, heard a story from his friend about a young boy who had purportedly committed a horrendous crime: blinding 26 horses with a spike, all in the same night.

Not equipped to verify the crime, but equally unable to shake the thought, Shaffer penned Equus –  a disturbing imagining of circumstances which could have motivated that terrible act – and the thought-provoking show was born. It’s the kind of play that’s sure to stay with you as long as it did Shaffer.

Bitter Wheat

Bitter Wheat tickets at the Garrick Theatre

Playing from 7 June until 21 September at the Garrick Theatre

If there’s one word to sum up Bitter Wheat, it’s “timely”. Last year, David Mamet – the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright behind Glengarry Glen Ross – mentioned in an interview he was writing a play inspired by the Harvey Weinstein revelations.

But John Malkovich – who plays a Hollywood producer with a history to hide in the show – recently spoke of how the idea morphed from there into something even more cutting. If Mamet’s track record is anything to go by, expect dark humour, tragedy – and more than a little gristle to Bitter Wheat’s bones.

A Very Expensive Poison

A Very Expensive Poison tickets at The Old Vic

Playing from 19 August until 28 September; The Old Vic

Pertinent politics come to the fore at The Old Vic in A Very Expensive Poison, a new play by Lucy Prebble which reimagines the events surrounding the notorious death of Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006.

Promising an enthralling exposé of espionage, A Very Expensive Poison is based on Luke Harding’s incredible investigation into the infamous case, revealing everything we know about the well-publicised case – and suggesting more than a few things we didn’t.

War Horse

The National Theatre's War Horse on tour (Photo: Brikhoff & Moegenburg)

Playing from 18 October until 23 November; Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre

It’s a true classic in London and the West End. But it’s perhaps not well-known that Michael Morpurgo’s enchanting World War One story is based on real-life accounts which formed the basis of his award-winning novel and subsequent play.

While Morpurgo based many of the battlefield events of War Horse on the stories of veterans, the steed’s faithful first owner, Joey, was reputedly inspired by a young boy with a stammer, but who talked fluently to a horse, at a farm run by Morpurgo’s Farms for City Children charity. This – and numerous other – touching tales are told in the now-beloved play.

Touching The Void

Touching The Void is coming to the West End for a limited run.

Playing from 9 November until 29 February 2020; Duke of York’s Theatre

If you’re scared of heights, look away now. Touching The Void is a remarkable mountaintop struggle for survival, based on Joe Simpson’s best-selling memoir.

What do you do when you’re faced with an unimaginable situation? That’s the premise of this smash-hit play, which follows Simpson and his climbing partner, Simon Yates, atop the perilous Siula Grande mountain in the Peruvian Andes – where Simon, unable to see nor recover the injured Joe from the void below, begins to wonder whether he should cut the rope that binds them.

Ready your fingernails – it’s set to be a fraught experience.

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a very expensive poison bitter wheat emilia equus present laughter sweat the lehman trilogy Toast touching the void war horse

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