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Mark Shenton: My top 13 West End playwrights for today

Roy Williams, Polly Stenham and James Graham. Photos: RSA/Critics' Circle/Marc Brenner Roy Williams, Polly Stenham and James Graham. Photos: RSA/Critics' Circle/Marc Brenner
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Every generation has its foremost playwrights, from George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde, to Harley Granville-Barker and Terence Rattigan, John Osborne and Arnold Wesker, Harold Pinter and David Storey, Tom Stoppard and Caryl Churchill, Alan Ayckbourn and Michael Frayn, Alan Bennett and David Hare.

The last six are still very much with us. Better Off Dead, Ayckbourn’s latest and 82nd play, will open at Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph, as usual, in September; while Bennett will premiere his latest play Alleluja! at the Bridge Theatre in London, in July. Hare has The Moderate Soprano at the West End’s Duke of York’s, while his new play I’m Not Running is scheduled for London’s National Theatre in the autumn.

And yes, that roll-call of writers is very much all-white and nearly all-male.

But we’re also in the middle of a cultural shift, as a new generation of younger British writers emerge with their own stake on West End glory – and they’re not one gender or colour, either. A trickle may soon become a flood with shows such as Nine Night and Barber Shop Chronicles proving popular in the National’s Dorfman space.

Here is a selection of my favourites from the new generation of writers who’ve already got their sights firmly on West End the (and increasingly Broadway).

Each has had at least one play produced in a West End theatre, defined as a theatre in full membership of the Society of London Theatre.

1. Jez Butterworth

Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman at the Royal Court, London – review round-up

First bursting on the scene with Mojo in 1995, Butterworth went on to win an Olivier, Evening Standard and Critics’ Circle awards for that play, but it was Jerusalem in 2009 that confirmed his pre-eminent status, a modern masterpiece that went on to Broadway and Tony Awards glory for star Mark Rylance in a career-defining performance. His latest play, The Ferryman has just ended an extended run at the Gielgud Theatre, and could be an even bigger hit, as it now transfers to Broadway in the autumn.

2. Martin McDonagh

Howard Sherman: Will Hangmen be lucky number seven for Martin McDonagh on Broadway?

Another writer to emerge fully-formed from the Royal Court in the 90s, McDonagh’s plays such as The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Cripple of Inishmaan and Hangmen have already had West End and New York runs. Michael Grandage is also to revive The Lieutenant of Inishmore at the Coward, starring Aidan Turner, next month. Since winning his first Oscar for short film Six Shooter in 2006, he’s also established a regular Hollywood presence, most recently of the Oscar-nominated Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

3. James Graham

James Graham: ‘I enjoy being the underdog nobody expects anything from’

The ever-busy Graham had two plays playing side-by-side on St Martin’s Lane last year, when Ink transferred from the Almeida to the Duke of York’s, and the Michael Grandage Company premiered Labour of Love at the Noel Coward. Right now he’s back at the Coward with the transfer of Quiz from Chichester. In-between, he’s also written The Culture for Hull Truck Theatre. He previously scored a major hit with This House, which transferred from the National’s Dorfman to the Olivier and then was revived for a West End run and national tour. He also wrote the book for the Harvey Weinstein-produced Broadway musical version of Finding Neverland.

4. Mike Bartlett

Mike Bartlett on his first stage play, Not Talking: ‘I like that my career has been out of control’

The prolific Bartlett has had plays regularly produced at the Royal Court, National and Almeida, as well as Hampstead and Sheffield’s Crucible. King Charles III, a ‘future historical’ play about the ascension of Prince Charles to the throne, became a West End and Broadway hit after premiering at the Almeida and was subsequently filmed for BBC2. His most recent play Albion premiered at the Almeida last year; it deserves and demands a further life. As Dominic Cavendish’s review for the Daily Telegraph was headlined, it’s “the play that Britain needs right now.” His previously unseen first play Not Talking is just ending its premiere run at the Arcola Theatre on June 2.

5. Jack Thorne

Jack Thorne: ‘I don’t know if I wrote the script for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child or the cast did’

As co-writer of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (with original creator JK Rowling and director John Tiffany), Thorne has helped create the West End’s biggest straight play success of the century so far, and it is now also on Broadway. But he’s prolific elsewhere, including at the Old Vic (where his version of A Christmas Carol will return this year and his version of Woyzeck was premiered last year with John Boyega in the title role), the Donmar Warehouse and Royal Court. He’s also in demand for television, where his credits include This is England and Kiri, broadcast earlier this year.

6. Simon Stephens

One Minute review at the Barn Theatre, Cirencester – ‘a slick revival’

A school teacher turned playwright, Stephens turns out a new play (or two or three) pretty much every year. His biggest commercial success to date was undoubtedly his adaptation of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. It transferred from the National to the West End and Broadway, earning it the Olivier and Tony Awards respectively for best play. His plays Port and On the Shore of the Wide World were both seen first at Manchester’s Royal Exchange before subsequently being staged at the National. His short play Sea Wall, written for actor Andrew Scott, is to have a run at the Old Vic this month, while his 2003 play One Minute is currently being revived at Cirencester’s new Barn Theatre.

7. Nina Raine

Consent review at the Dorfman, National Theatre, London – ‘witty and bitter’

With the transfer earlier this week of a mostly re-cast version of her 2017 National Theatre play Consent, Raine has entered the pantheon of West End playwrights after earlier plays were produced at the Royal Court (Tribes, which subsequently was also staged off-Broadway) and Hampstead (Tiger Country). In his review for Variety of the original run of Consent at the NT’s Dorfman Theatre, Matt Trueman wrote: “Modern classics don’t come along very often. Consent is, without a shadow of a doubt, just that.”

8. Lucy Kirkwood

Mosquitoes starring Olivia Colman – review at the National Theatre, London – ‘idea-stuffed’

Though The Children – Kirkwood’s 2016 Royal Court play never made it to the West End, its Broadway transfer with the original London cast is up for a Tony Award for Best Play next weekend. Last year, Rufus Norris directed her latest play Mosquitoes at the National, and Chimerica, which premiered at the Almeida in 2013, also transferred to the West End, where it was a big hit and won both Olivier and Evening Standard Awards.

9. Polly Stenham

Polly Stenham. Photo: Marc Brenner
Polly Stenham. Photo: Marc Brenner

That Face, Stenham’s debut play that premiered at the Royal Court in 2007 when she was just 19, transferred to the West End, and she’s since had more plays at the Royal Court  (Tusk Tusk and No Quarter). Now she is about to return to the National – where Hotel was premiered in 2014 – with a new version of Strindberg’s Miss Julie called simply Julie and relocated to contemporary London. As she’s commented in a Guardian interview: “I wanted to show the dark heart of liberalism, especially in this building which is populated by the liberal elite, and to go for the jugular. I’m part of it: Julie is not a million miles off me as a character.”

10. Roy Williams

Roy Williams, actor Jo Melville and cast member Mark Monero at the press night of Antigone, which Williams adapted for Theatre Royal Stratford East in 2015

With plays that include Sing Yer Heart out for the Lads (premiered at the National in 2002), Days of Significance (RSC, 2007) and Sucker Punch (Royal Court 2010, where it marked the break-out appearance of Daniel Kaluuya, who has since gone on be Oscar nominated), the London-born Roy Williams is a regular name in theatre listings across the country.

11. Lee Hall

Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour review at Duke of York’s Theatre, London – ‘riotous and raucous’

Recently represented at the National by his adaptation of Network and by the transfer of National Theatre of Scotland’s Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour (that subsequently transferred to the West End), Hall’s other West End hits have included the book for the musical Billy Elliot (based on his own screenplay to the film) and The Pitmen Painters (that transferred from the Newcastle and the National to the Duchess).

12. Laura Wade

Laura Wade: ‘I enjoy work that has truth and muscularity’

Posh, set in a fictionalised version of Oxford’s Bullingdon Club, was premiered at the Royal Court in 2010, then revived in the West End in 2012, before being made into a feature film (when it was renamed The Riot Club). She has two new plays on the imminent horizon: first, Home I’m Darling will receive its world premiere this month at Theatr Clwyd in a co-production with the National where it will transfer in July; and, in November, Chichester Festival Theatre are premiering her new play The Watsons, adapted from Jane Austen’s unfinished novel.

13. Nick Payne

Payne’s window on the soul

Constellations, which originated at the Royal Court’s Theatre Upstairs, went on to become a West End and Broadway hit (winning an Evening Standard Award), while If There is I Haven’t Found it Yet, first seen at the Bush, was subsequently presented in a new production at Off-Broadway’s Roundabout Theatre Company, with a cast that was led by Jake Gyllenhaal. Elegy, seen at the Donmar Warehouse in 2016, was Olivier nominated for best new play.

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