10 of the best period dramas set in the theatre

To celebrate the release of murder mystery drama See How They Run, our guest writer Matthew Abel is raising the curtain on some of our favourite theatrical period dramas.

Set in London’s West End in the 1950s, the new movie stars Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn) and Sam Rockwell (Moon), alongside David Oyelowo (A United Kingdom), Adrien Brody (Peaky Blinders), and Ruth Wilson (Mrs Wilson).

Watch the trailer here:

Let’s set the stage with 10 other period dramas about the world of theatre:


The Libertine (2004)

A vivid portrayal of London’s Restoration theatre in all its seedy glory, this critically underrated film tells the true story of the notorious rake and poet, John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester (Johnny Depp).

Disillusioned with the reign of King Charles II (John Malkovich), Rochester leads a nihilistic life of drinking and debauchery until he meets the struggling actress Elizabeth Barry (Samantha Morton) and becomes her mentor and lover.

The Libertine is available on DVD on Amazon.


Shakespeare in Love (1998)

This fresh and funny – but fictional – tale about the creation of Romeo and Juliet was released just after the opening of Shakespeare’s Globe and used the recreated Elizabethan theatre as a filming location.

Young gentlewoman Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow) dresses as a man to fulfil her dream of being an actor in Shakespeare’s plays. But when the Bard (Joseph Fiennes) discovers her secret, they develop a forbidden love which inspires him to pen his most famous tragedy.

Shakespeare in Love is available on DVD on Amazon.


Stage Beauty (2004)

A bittersweet fact-based drama about the Restoration-era actor Edward Kynaston (Billy Crudup), who was acclaimed for his lead performances in female roles.

When King Charles II (Rupert Everett) suddenly abolishes the law against women appearing on stage, Kynaston’s glittering career comes crashing down as his former dresser Maria (Claire Danes) steps into his signature role as Desdemona in Shakespeare’s Othello.

Stage Beauty is available on DVD on Amazon.


Upstart Crow (2016-2020)

Anachronisms abound in Blackadder writer Ben Elton’s witty sitcom which rises to the sometimes-difficult challenge of making Shakespeare funny. David Mitchell plays the Bard as he moves between his theatrical life in London and his home in Stratford-upon-Avon, with each episode featuring characters and events that end up inspiring one of his plays.

A stage version of the show which had its initial run cut short by the Covid pandemic will reopen at London’s Apollo Theatre in September 2022.

Upstart Crow is available to watch on Amazon Prime Video.


Topsy-Turvy (1999)

The story behind the creation of Gilbert & Sullivan’s classic comic opera, The Mikado, was considered an unusual subject for Mike Leigh to film. Nevertheless, Topsy-Turvy showcases Leigh’s signature skill for authentically capturing a time and place on screen.

Praised for its accurate representation of Victorian life, the film acknowledges some of the culturally insensitive elements of The Mikado’s original staging, as well as the flaws and eccentricities of Gilbert (Jim Broadbent), Sullivan (Allan Corduner) and the stars of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company.

Topsy-Turvy is available on DVD on Amazon.


Anna Karenina (2012)

Joe Wright’s sumptuous but unusual adaption of Tolstoy’s classic novel portrays much of the action as taking place within a theatre – the result is a striking production which is almost part film and part stage play.

This staging gives the impression that Anna’s (Keira Knightley) life is like a theatrical performance, her every move and mistake watched and criticised by her peers in Russian high society. Jude Law and Aaron Taylor-Johnson star as Anna’s husband and lover respectively.

Anna Karenina is available on DVD on Amazon.


The Phantom of the Opera (2004)

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1986 musical is an established fixture of both the West End and Broadway, where it still plays to packed houses after nearly 40 years.

This film version starring Gerard Butler as The Phantom and Emmy Rossum as Christine was less well received but is still visually spectacular. The famous opening scene where time rolls back and the derelict opera house blooms back into life as the chandelier rises is spine-tingling.

The Phantom of the Opera is available on DVD on Amazon.


Mrs Henderson Presents (2005)

Dame Judi Dench has great fun as the lead in this joyous and heartfelt adaption of a true story. In 1930s London, the rich and eccentric widow Laura Henderson opens the Windmill Theatre as a hobby and hires impresario Vivian Van Damme (Bob Hoskins) to manage it for her.

When receipts for her variety shows start to dry up, Mrs Henderson uses a loophole in the theatre censorship law to stage tableaux vivants featuring nude actresses, to the delight of her audiences.

Mrs Henderson Presents is available on DVD on Amazon.


The Dresser (2015)

Two acting legends head up this TV adaption of Ronald Harwood’s 1980 play, set backstage at a London theatre during the Blitz.

Anthony Hopkins stars as an ageing Shakespearean actor known only as ‘Sir’, who is determined to go on with his show despite experiencing symptoms of dementia. He is assisted by his faithful dresser Norman (Ian McKellen), whose own fragile mental state becomes increasingly apparent as the film progresses.

The Dresser is available on DVD on Amazon.


Moulin Rouge! (2001)

In 1900, the manager of the Moulin Rouge, Harold Zidler (Jim Broadbent), seeks investment from the wealthy Duke of Monroth (Richard Roxburgh) to turn his Parisian cabaret into a theatre, promising the love of his beautiful star turn, Satine (Nicole Kidman), in return. But the deal goes awry when Satine falls in love with Bohemian playwright Christian (Ewan McGregor)…

The stage musical based on this spectacular (spectacular) film is currently playing at London’s Piccadilly Theatre.

Moulin Rouge! is available on DVD on Amazon.