London, and in particular the West End, has to be one of the best places on the planet to spend a night at the theatre. From big commercial venues to small scale fringe theatres you are sure to find a play, musical or show that caters to your sensibilities.
Below, in no particular order, are six of London’s best theatres.
The brainchild of American actor and director, Sam Wanamaker, the Globe is a reconstruction of the bard’s original open-air playhouse and is situated on the south bank of the Thames. As well as putting on performances through the Globe Theatre Company, Globe Education seeks to further explore and refine understanding of Shakespeare’s work.
As it is a faithful replica, the audience are likely to experience some of the quirks of the times such as views obstructed by pillars and hard, wooden bench seating (tip: invest a pound in a rent-a-seat cushion). Hiring a blanket is also recommended as things can get a bit chilly. But as the whole idea is to enjoy an authentic experience, the benefits should outweigh the challenges, particularly since entry prices can be surprisingly cheap (as in a fiver for some shows!) Perhaps the most serious distraction is the noise from London City airport which can be an issue if the wind is in the wrong direction.
Royal National Theatre
Staying south of the river, the publicly funded Royal National Theatre (sometimes known by its international name, the National Theatre of Great Britain) has something for everyone to enjoy, with classical plays, musicals, fringe performances, summer open-air shows and family extravaganzas. There is also a large theatrical bookshop, bars, restaurants, art exhibitions and a dynamic forecourt with constantly changing décor. The Terrace Bar is particularly recommended, even if you don’t stop for a show.
Since 2013, the NT Future project has been ongoing, with an expected £80 million of investment to be ploughed in.
The National Theatre comprises three separate auditoria, including the recently re-opened Dorfman Theatre (part of the NT Future project). Each stage can put on three plays in repertoire, increasing the variety on offer during a season.
Prince Edward Theatre
Now owned by Delfont Mackintosh, the Prince Edward (or Prince of Wales), on Old Compton Street, is a big favourite with London theatre-goers after returning to its previous incarnation as a theatre after some years playing the role of a dance and cabaret hall.
Some people do find the Prince Edwards’ Circle seating layout a little awkward, since there is limited aisle access to some seats and toilets are spread out. This can mean disrupting other people when needing a loo break.
Another Delfont Mackintosh theatre, the Gielgud is an attractive old building on Leicester Square. Posters and portraits of previous performances adorn the walls lending to the atmosphere of authenticity and nostalgia, while the auditorium is intimate yet well designed for optimal viewing, with excellent lighting and stage design enhancing the quality performances. Again, staff are highly regarded for their professionalism and warmth. Perhaps the main drawback for the Gielgud is that its small proportions leads to inevitable crowding during popular performances. There is also a cosy bar within, the Dress Circle, with beautiful decor, including elegant arches, fine drapes, ornate railings and topped of by a huge chandelier.
The Young Vic
For something a bit more hip and trendy, Southwark’s Young Vic is a small theatre that includes a lively bar and restaurant. It was originally conceived as an experiment, by Laurence Olivier, and was supposed to last just five years and serve to inspire young performers. In 2006 though, it received the RIBA London Building of the Year award following a refurbishment – not bad for a theatre that was constructed from breeze blocks some thirty years prior. The biggest auditorium has seating for just 420 people, while the Maria and Clare rooms are even more intimate with seating for just 150 and 70 respectively. The Young Vic offers a diverse range of performances, from classic theatre (modern and old) to new, and sometimes controversial, plays. The Young Vic continues its work of spreading the joys of theatre to the young by inviting thousands of local schoolchildren to performances each year.
Theatre Royal – Drury Lane
The Theatre Royal is a real old-timer, whcih celebrated its 350th anniversary in 2013. It’s main auditorium is one of the most impressive you will ever come across – and not just in London.
Those with a penchant for the spooky will love coming here on account of its reputation as the oldest and most haunted theatre in the world, with the sound of clogs and smell of lavender said to announce the arrival of ghostly ex-dame Dan Leno; there’s also the floating head of Grimaldi the clown to watch out for.
A more recent highlight is the immensely long Saloon Bar, complete with a huge staircase leading to it. A benificiary of a proportion of the theatre’s £4 million funding injection, the bar is extremely spacious and affords impressive views of Covent Garden below. Surrounded by over half a million pounds-worth of statues, a drink at the Saloon feels very special..
If ballet and opera rock your boat, then the publicly funded Royal Opera House has no equal. If you can get a ticket, the performances are guaranteed to be of the highest standard. The Apollo Theatre is a warm, intimate venue, well-located on Shaftesbury Avenue, while the Royal Court Theatre on Sloane Square champions all that’s new on the scene. Situated in the Docklands, Brick Lane Music Hall, a modern take on the traditional music hall theme, was ranked first by Trip Adviser reviewers in the ‘Performances’ category.