London's Theatre Land
Explore London’s vibrant theatre scene, from West End theatres, famous for long-running musicals and plays, to the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, renowned for original productions of mainstream masterpieces.
Or to see some of most exciting work performed in London today, head to what’s become known as the Off-West End and Fringe theatres located throughout London – just perfect for couples celebrating a honeymoon or romantic getaway.
At any one time there are literally scores of shows and plays running in the West End alone. Add in the Fringe theatres and you’re spoilt for choice with a huge variety of productions from musicals, comedies and plays to opera and ballet.
The West End, a stone’s throw from Piccadilly Circus, is the heart of London’s Theatreland, with Shaftesbury Avenue its centre. Here you can expect big-budget musical productions – often classical revivals that run for years – and popular plays featuring the best actors and actresses. Spot your favourite A-list Hollywood actors in lead roles, from Al Pacino, Val Kilmer and Kevin Spacey to David Schwimmer and Ewan McGregor.
Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre
The government-subsidised Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and the National Theatre (NT) put on exceptional productions of mainstream masterpieces. Being subsidised means they are less commercial than the West End and often take risks with new writers, actors and plays that may not appeal to a wide ‘popular’ audience.
Check out the Barbican Theatre for new drama works, and of course Shakespeare, courtesy of the Royal Shakespeare Company, who performs here from autumn to spring each year.
The Royal National has three theatres - The Olivier, The Lyttelton and The Cottesloe. Most performances are in repertory, so you can see quite a few plays in just one week.
The Royal Shakespeare Company, although located primarily at Stratford-upon-Avon (a great excuse to visit the birthplace of William Shakespeare), has bases in London and Newcastle.
Like the National Theatre, the Globe Theatre is one of the most popular repertoire companies in London. The season of open-air galleried theatre runs from April to September. The replica of the 1599 playhouse opened in 1966 and is worth a visit even if you’re not seeing a play (with guided tours every half-hour between 9.15am and 12.15pm).
This is an alternative to the commercial West End, which is not known for taking too many risks and where shows have often first proved themselves elsewhere such as Broadway. At the Off-West End theatres you get to see some of the most exciting performances in London, with new writers, actors and actresses. Check out www.offwestend.com for the latest shows.
Another alternative to West End theatres is the Fringe. Productions are often held in pubs in and around London. Ticket prices are typically low and quality variable.
Booking – For mainstream West End productions, play safe and book early before you leave home. The cheapest way to buy tickets is to visit the theatre box office in person; if you book over the phone, you’re likely to be charged a booking fee. Students and senior citizens get concessionary rates on tickets for many shows. It’s best to avoid the touts and the ticket agencies that proliferate in the West End.
The Society of London Theatre runs the Half Price Ticket Booth in Leicester Square (www.tkts.co.uk), which sells on-the-day tickets for all the West End shows at discounts of up to 50 per cent, although they tend to be in the top-end of the price range, are limited to four per person and typically carry a service charge of GRB2.50 per ticket.
Prices – West End shows typically cost GRB30 to GRB40 but can be as much as GRB60 for top-end tickets and more if buying from an agency. However, you can buy tickets from GRB15 to GRB25 depending on the day of the week and seat chosen. Tickets under GRB10 are restricted to Fringe theatres.
Dress code Nowadays, it doesn’t matter what you wear to the theatre: dress up or dress down, it’s your choice.
Did you know? The longest running shows in the West End are usually musicals: Cats, by Andrew Lloyd Webber, ran for 21 years and 7000 performances, making its composer a multi-millionaire. However, not all musicals do so well. Oscar Wilde: The Musical ran for only one night, closing after terrible reviews and poor bookings – quite possibly the biggest flop in London’s theatrical history.