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Mark Shenton’s top 6 long-running West End shows

A scene from Les Miserables. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Mark Shenton
Mark is associate editor of The Stage, as well as joint lead critic. He has written regularly for The Stage since 2005, including a daily online column.
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The news this week that Stomp is finally to stop banging its drum (and other random objects) after a 15-year West End run at the Ambassadors in January takes the 12th longest-running show in London's theatrical history off the boards.

But already its creators are promising a fresh return. Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas issued a statement commenting: "We want to emphasise that we don't consider this the end of Stomp here; we actually feel it's going to be good for the show to take a break, reconfigure, reinvent and return at some point in the future in a different London venue, where we can present the show in a way that is more in keeping with its original ethos."

More than half of the current shows in the West End have been playing for two or more years. It creates a definite sense of gridlock, since we have a finite inventory of theatres 'in play' numbering about 40. If more than half of these are blocked off, that means fewer opportunities for new shows to come in.

It’s not so very long ago that Jesus Christ Superstar set the then record for the longest-running musical of all time with a run that saw it close in 1980 after eight years; now, there are five musicals in London that have all been playing for more than a decade.

But here are the half-dozen shows that have earned their place in the West End – and could well outlive us all.

1. Les Miserables

Les Miserables in the West End. Photo: SOLT

The longest-running musical in West End history, Les Miserables is in its 33rd year. It is running at the Queen's, its third London home. After initially premiering at the Barbican, it subsequently transferred to the Palace (running there from 1985 to 2004) and then the Queen's (in 2004). In its 25th-anniversary year, it briefly had two versions running simultaneously in London when an entirely revised touring production played at the Barbican. I recently saw it again in London (specifically so I could see Killian Donnelly playing Jean Valjean), and was impressed afresh at what a landmark it remains. Trevor Nunn and John Caird's original staging has a majestic, iconic grandeur and cinematic flow that subsequent restagings have missed. And Donnelly confirms, if it were needed, that I was right to put him at the very top of my list of leading men in British musicals for this year.

2. The Phantom of the Opera

Nadim Naaman (centre) in The Phantom of the Oper
A scene from The Phantom of the Opera

Just a year younger than Les Mis, Phantom celebrated its 30th birthday last year at its original home, Her Majesty's. The theatre's name is likely to be rolled over to His Majesty's before Phantom vacates it. Meanwhile, the original New York production is the longest-running Broadway musical in history.

3. The Lion King

The Lion King (left) has made global profits of £6.2 billion,. Photo: Johan Persson
A scene from The Lion King. Photo: Johan Persson

Disney created a true theatrical phenomenon when it transferred its 1994 animated film title to the Broadway stage, where it first opened in 1997. The London edition has been running at the Lyceum since 1999, while another Disney title, Aladdin, also simultaneously plays in New York and the West End. Next year The Lion King will be joined on Broadway by a stage version of Frozen, with the West End a certainty thereafter. But The Lion King – which has now earned more than $7 billion worldwide to make it the single most profitable entertainment in any genre ever – remains the one to beat.

4. Mamma Mia!

Emma Clifford, Sara Poyzer and Jacqueline Braun in Mamma-Mia! at Bristol Hippodrome. Photo: Brinkhoff Mogenburg
Emma Clifford, Sara Poyzer and Jacqueline Braun in Mamma-Mia! at Bristol Hippodrome. Photo: Brinkhoff Mogenburg

A movie sequel to the 2008 film version of Mamma Mia! is currently in the works – with Cher announced this week to be part of the cast – but the stage original, which first opened at the Prince Edward Theatre in 1999, is now on to its third London address and still a feel-good classic, currently running at the Novello. Meanwhile, a UK national tour is also running simultaneously (it is currently in Sunderland to November 11, then moving to Oxford and Glasgow).

5. Wicked

The cast of Wicked at the Apollo Victoria Theatre celebrate the 8 millionth theatregoer to the show. Photo: Troy Johnston.

Stephen Schwartz's inspiring, anthemic score to Wicked is a modern classic, and one of the great shows about female empowerment to be playing in London. It has been at the Apollo Victoria since 2006, and will embark on a new UK tour in January, kicking off in Bristol.

6. The Mousetrap

The cast of the 60th-anniversary tour of her 1952 play The Mousetrap. Photo: Liza Maria Dawson

Now (and likely forever) the longest-running play in West End history is Agatha Christie's thriller The Mousetrap, now in its 65th year and at the St Martin's Theatre, where it has played since 1974. It is kept in fresh condition these days by director Hugh Ross, and changes its entire cast every October.

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