A list of the top 10 longest running West End shows.
Did you realise that around 15 million people go see a theatre play in London a year? With dozens of high-quality plays a day to choose from, catching a theatre show is one of the top things to do in London. For lots of holidaymakers and day trippers it’s actually the main reason for their trip!
But with so many plays performed daily, where do you even start trying picking one that piques your interest?
Let’s start by having a look at the longest running theatre shows in London.
Some of these have been on for over half a century already so you know you can’t go wrong with any of these highly popular plays!
Ranging from an Agatha Christie classic whodunnit to a musical celebrating all the classic ABBA hits we love, and even a cheeky musical comedy by the makers of South Park, I’m sure you’ll find something here that will leave you cheering in your seat!
Go straight to:
This blog post may contain affiliate links. This means that if you make a purchase through these links, I will receive a small commission in return. While these modest earnings help towards the costs of running this site, the best thing about it that it doesn’t cost you a penny more. Thanks for your support!
The longest running theatre plays in London
Since the opening of the first London theatre in 1576, countless world-famous actors have graced the stage in the English capital, including none other than esteemed playwright William Shakespeare himself.
Most of the biggest and famous theatres are located in Central London, an area locals also refer to as the West End. That’s why you’ll often people hear speak of West End plays.
You’ll find the highest concentration of London theatres in the popular theatre district, also known as Theatreland. Roughly speaking, this area is bordered by Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square, Tottenham Court Road and Covent Garden.
The West End is the vibrant heart of the capital’s influential entertainment industry and the London equivalent of New York’s enthralling Broadway. Just to walk through the area at night when the hundreds of dazzling lights are on is a sparkling sight not to be missed.
But if you want to see some unforgettable West End shows and soak up the glitter and glamour and enjoy a magical experience, then check out any of the following plays in the West End!
1. The Mousetrap (1952) St. Martin’s Theatre
Based on a short story by one of the greatest crime writers in history, Agathie Christie’s The Moustrap has managed to draw in the crowds for nearly 70 years now.
It is a multi-record-breaking play holding the amazing title of not only being the longest running West End show, but even the longest theatre play in the world!
The Mousetrap has had over 28,5000 performances played by about 300 actors over the years. Some of them have been recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records for their long runs (sometimes thousands of performances) on the same show.
What is The Mousetrap play about?
Set in a 1940s guesthouse, the young owners find themselves snowed in with their four guests. When a detective arrives at the scene, they discover they might have a murderer amongst themselves. But who is it?
All of the guests have a questionable past and doubtful character, making each one of them a viable suspect. And as the detective leads the viewer to the conclusion, the greatest plot twist in theatre world unfolds itself, revealing the success of the longest running play in London.
2. Les Misérables (1985) Queen’s Theatre
Affectionately called ‘Les Mis’, Les Misérables is the longest running West End musical.
When it first came to London in 1985, it was initially performed at the Barbican. But after two months of solid sold-out shows, the blockbuster musical moved to the West End, remaining a solid favourite for decades.
What is Les Misérables the musical about?
Les Misérables is based on the epic 1860s book by French author Victor Hugo who drew inspiration from events he witnessed during the June Rebellion in 1832 in France.
Highlighting social and political issues, the story follows the life of French peasant and ex-convict Jean Valjean who’s being hunted down by his nemesis, policeman Javert. As if that’s not enough to deal with already, Valjean’s life becomes even more complicated after he agrees to look after a factory worker’s daughter.
Centred around the themes of love, injustice and rebellion, the story comes to an explosive end with a violent citizen uprising. Who will survive this glorious revolution and who will end up with their true love?
3. The Phantom of the Opera (1986) Her Majesty’s Theatre
Now, can you also hear that haunting piano opening from The Phantom of the Opera main theme in your head just thinking of this musical? (And if you didn’t, you do now. You’re welcome.)
What is The Phantom of the Opera the musical about?
Based on the French novel by Gaston Leroux, he world-famous musical The Phantom of the Opera is set in 19th-century Paris.
It narrates the story of the mysterious figure who haunts the opulent Paris Opera House. Dressed in a smart long-tail black tuxedo and donning his iconic white mask, covering half of his disfigured face, he remains hidden in the theatre’s vast catacombs.
Combining romance, horror, mystery and tragedy, the enticing stage retelling of the classic gothic novel centres arounds the phantom’s reign of terror over the opera and his obsession with a young talented soprano.
His dreams of spending his life with her are shattered when another man enters the scene. But will this really stop the lovesick erratic maniac from getting what he wants?
4. The Woman in Black (1989) Fortune Theatre
Possibly the scariest London theatre play in this list, The Woman in Black is the second longest running non-musical theatre show in the West End.
What is The Woman in Black the play about?
Based on a ghost story by Susan Hill, it’s a play within a play in which the old Arthur Kipps narrates his eerie experience of when he was a young man. A solicitor by profession, he was sent to a small town to settle the affairs of a deceased client.
Nothing unusual there you’d say, expect for the unsettling presence of a young woman dressed completely in black at his client’s funeral. The villagers refuse to speak about this mysterious woman, but Arthur’s soon to find out the macabre truth about her. Much to his dislike.
5. The Lion King (1999) Lyceum Theatre
Retelling the story of the famous 1994 Disney animation movie, The Lion King is one of the most popular London musicals for families.
Featuring the well-known songs by Elton John and Tim Rice from the film and scores by leading composer Hans Zimmer, the musical is a trip down memory lane for adults (hands up if you also grew up with the original 1994 movie!) while kids will enjoy singing along the songs they know and love so well too.
What is The Lion King the musical about?
For those who aren’t familiar with the film (how would that even be possible?!) here’s a very brief synopsis of what The Lion King play is about.
It follows the tragic story of, the young newly born lion cub of the beloved King Musafa and Queen Sarabi. Destined to become king of the Pride himself one day, Simba leads a joyful and carefree childhood. Until his traitorous uncle, Scar, hatches a plot to become king himself, turning Simba’s life and fate upside down.
Evoking the vast Serengeti plains, the astonishing set design is a true feast for the eyes. Let alone the incredible costume design, adding to the explosion of colour and sound on stage, stimulating all senses. If you decide to book a ticket for this dazzling, high-quality production, you’re in for a treat!
6. Mamma Mia! (1999) Novello Theatre
Even if you don’t call yourself an ABBA fan, I bet you know the lyrics to more of their songs than you’d like to admit. Don’t tell me you can sit still remaining silent and completely still when you hear the first tunes to Mamma Mia or Dancing Queen on the radio!
What is Mamma Mia! the musical about?
Centred around the songs of one of the most famous pop bands in history Mamma Mia! isn’t a theatrical retelling of the ABBA story. Instead, it’s a fictional story about bride-to-be Sophie who wishes to be walked down the aisle by her father.
Great for her I hear you think, but how does this make for an interesting 2.5hr-long play?
Well, the problem is that she doesn’t know who her biological father is. But after stumbling upon her mother’s old diary, she discovers there are three possible candidates. And what better way to find out, than to pretend being her mother to invite them to her dream wedding on the bountiful Greek island of Kalokairi, right?
Supported by a cheery soundtrack, Mamma Mia! the musical is one of the most lighthearted West End plays in this list, celebrating love … and ABBA of course!
7. Wicked (2006) Apollo Victoria Theatre
Which film adaptation of The Wizard of Oz did you grow up with? While I’ve seen the classic 1939 version starring Judy Garland several times, I adored the one with Michael Jackson and Diana Ross. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve seen The Wiz as a little girl!
Wicked isn’t yet another retelling of the famous 1900 children’s bookThe Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Instead, it follows up on a crucial event in the story set in the magical world of Oz.
What is Wicked the musical about?
We all know the story of The Wizard of Oz, right? The one where innocent pig-tailed Dorothy gets swept into a hurricane. Leaving behind her rural Kansas hometown, she lands into the wondrous Land of Oz. Desperate to return home again and accompanied by the strangest travel companions, she seeks out the almighty Wizard for help.
Along the way Dorothy and her motley crew meet numerous memorable characters, including the Wicked Witch of the West. She’s after Dorothy to avenge her sister, the Wicked Witch of the East. The poor woman was squashed to death by Dorothy’s house upon the girl’s unexpected arrival in Oz.
I think I would be rather annoyed too if such a tragic accident would befall my sibling.
But alas, also the Witch of the West meets her untimely death when she gets melted by Dorothy. Speaking of unfortunate deaths in the family!
While the book and film of The Wizard of Oz continue following Dorothy’s story after this event, Wicked the musical shows us the other side of the story. Namely, the story of how the Wicked Witch of the West became the evil person we know her as.
And you know who tells us this story? Her former roommate and best friend, Glinda the Good Witch. Oooooh, intrigue …
Find out how this unlikely friendship unravels by the hands of the Wizard and prepare yourself for a ‘wicked’ night out! (Sorry, that was just the laziest closing line in blogging history ever!)
8. Matilda The Musical (2011) Cambridge Theatre
If I had to name a few of my favourite authors in English literature, Roald Dahl would certainly appear in that list.
Characterised by his unique tone of voice combining the absurd, fantasy and humour, I yet have to come across a Roald Dahl story that didn’t manage to captivate me.
When his book Matilda was made into a movie, I immediately fell in love with this magical family film.
Centred around the highly intelligent, witty and somewhat quirky girl Matilda, her unsupportive parents and doting teacher, this feel-good film always made me laugh. And that’s see me seeing the film (many times) as an adult.
I can only imagine the joy of a kid watching this film. Or the musical for that matter as Matilda The Musical has been one of the best West End musicals for families since its opening in 2011.
What is Matilda The Musical about?
Suitable for kids from 6 years and older, Matilda The Musical follows the quirky adventures of 5-year-old Matilda.
Raised by her uncaring parents, Matilda goes about life rather independently living in her own world, fully engrossed in books.
While she has to deal with her mean and swindling father at home and the bullying headmistress Miss Trunchbull at school, the only person who seems to care about Matilda is her new teacher, Miss Honey. Her nature is as sweet as her name indeed.
While Matilda discovers her telekinetic talents, she and Miss Honey combine forces to put an end to Miss Trunchbull’s tyranny once and for all. It’s a wild adventure, filled with magic, affection and humour, making it a perfect London outing with kids!
9. The Book of Mormon (2013) Prince of Wales Theatre
Don’t you agree that South Park is the most brilliant animation series ever? I’ve been a firm fan since the very beginning and even saw South Park the Movie at the cinema at the time. You can only imagine how excited I was to hear that the creators’ hit Broadway musical The Book of Mormon was coming to London years ago! Even more so when we managed to get tickets for one of the earliest performances.
What is The Book of Mormon the musical about?
Definitely not a musical to see with your little ones, the advisory age is from 17 years old, The Book of Mormon is just as hilarious and outrageous as you’d expect from the creators of South Park.
The comical music follows the funny adventures of two young Mormon missionaries who are sent to Uganda. Their missionary work doesn’t go as smoothly as anticipated, not helped by the evil warlord they face.
Satirizing anything from religion to consumerism and musicals, The Book of Mormon is a fast-moving play filled with razor-sharp lines and crude humour. It’s certainly one of the most unusual and original West End musicals out there!
10. The Play that Goes Wrong (2012) Duchess Theatre
Dubbed as ‘a gut busting hit’ by The New York Times, The Play that Goes Wrong is one of the best West End shows to see if you want an exhilarating night out. First premiering in London, this side-splitting production has been taken to Broadway and toured across Australia, the US and the UK. Remaining a London favourite, it’s the longest running comedy in the West End.
What is The Play that Goes Wrong about?
The play follows the Cornley Poytechnic Drama Society who are putting on a 1920s murder mystery.
Yet, the biggest mystery of the night is how the theatre troupe are ever going to make it till the final curtain call. Because, as the title suggests, everything that could possibly go wrong, goes wrong. And terribly so!
From collapsing floors, to actors forgetting their lines or getting trapped in the stage props, you name it! The Play that Goes Wrong is guaranteed to induce some serious belly laughter.
Now tell me, if I were to ask you to join me to the theatre which of these top London plays and musicals would you pick?
Let me know in a comment below!
Thanks, Zarina xx
Want to stay on top of the best West End musicals and plays?
For more London theatre news and reviews, head over to the wonderful book & theatre blogs run by my friends of Pages to Stages Reviews and Paradise is a Library.
*Photo credit feature image: Agustin Biagi Vincenti / Unsplash