If you’re coming to London for the first time, you no doubt have a long list of activities: The British Museum, a pub, the Tate, an English Breakfast - all things that are must-dos in London. After finally arriving, though, and going on your first walk through the city centre, you’ll soon notice that certain buildings seem to be extra busy, crowded, bustling, and then suddenly quiet. A few hours later, they’re packed again, pouring Londoners back onto the streets and into the pubs and restaurants, as if the city is inhaling and exhaling.
It’s maybe only then that you realise you should ‘probably see a show’. After all, the London theatre scene is probably the best in the world, right? (sorry Broadway, Chicago, Tokyo, and Berlin). Come 7:30, then, where should you go?
You’d be forgiven for being overwhelmed. London’s 241 theatres don’t make it easy. So, with the help of Walkative, you’ve got one less thing to worry about. Here are our 5 must-see places for London theatre:
No. 1: The West End Musical Hut, Leicester Square
Ah, the West End Musical. The glossy, shining, spectacle of theatricality, often found in what is quite literally called the ‘Theatreland’ section of London. It’s here that the world first saw Mamma Mia, Les Misérables, the Phantom of the Opera, Billy Elliot, Cats, Matilda, and countless others.
By all means, you could turn up at any theatre that takes your fancy and likely get a ticket, but for something far more budget-friendly, try the Leicester Square Last-Minute Ticket Hut (known as TKTS). This shed has been giving Londoners last-minute theatre deals since the 1980s, and is a not-for-profit institute. Productions always want a full-house, and as time goes by, they get more desperate, and more willing to sell cheap tickets. Take advantage of this at TKTS, and see one of the great London musicals at half the price.
No 2: The National Theatre, Southbank
Boasting three separate stages, an impressive bookshop, and a lobby famously frequented by celebrities, the National Theatre is the great jewel in the UK’s theatrical crown, and one of the most iconic theatres in the world. A brutalist concrete mass erupting into London’s skyline, the National, founded and built in the 1960s, is a British institute, often described as the UK’s ‘Second Parliament’, presenting the soul of the nation.
Any serious playwright, actor, or director must cut their teeth on the National’s boards to reach the heights of ‘one of the greats’. From the likes of Laurence Olivier, Ian McKellen, Judi Dench, and Maggie Smith, to figures like Harold Pinter, Sarah Kane, Sam Mendes, and Katie Mitchell, the National is the nation’s theatre, and so its productions range from Shakespeare to musicals to immersive black-box productions.
With three different running productions at any time, as well as several country-wide tours, the National can sometimes be a little lumbering and archaic, feeling like a school trip out, but more often than not, it is radical and era-defining. If you had only one night to see ‘British theatre’, the National should be your choice. With brand new incoming artistic director, Indhu Rubasingham, its position will once again shift and grow into a new era.
No 3: The Royal Court, Sloane Square
If the National Theatre is the monarchical titan of Britain’s theatres, then the Royal Court is the younger ‘spare’ brother who’s perfectly content to have fun, knowing full-well that they will never sit on the throne. It boasts decades of subversion and new writing, and still showcases some of the best of Britain’s up-and-coming playwrights.
In 1965 it was thrown into flux with Edward Bond’s Saved, in which a scene depicts a baby being stoned on stage. In 1973 it saw one of its great commercial successes with The Rocky Horror Show. In the 1990s, it was the heart of a new wave of intense, fierce, shocking writing from the In-Yer-Face playwrights, pushing the limits of what an audience were willing to watch before they left or passed out.
Maybe not as shocking anymore as it once was, the Royal Court is still the haven of new writing, and never disappoints in its productions, no matter how much it risks.
No 4: Shakespeare’s Globe, Southwark
On the complete other end of the spectrum, but just as astonishing, is the Globe Theatre, an exact recreation of the open-air stage that was the pulse of Shakespearean London. The Globe is by no means the Shakesepeare of your most-dreaded English class; it channels the bawdi-ness and crass jokes that the Bard hid away in his plays, and encourages you to see Shakespeare as he was meant to be seen. You can sit in the galleries like Elizabeth I would have, or stand with ‘the groundlings’ in the main court, and get in on the action.
Seeing Shakespeare at the Globe is a unique experience that cannot be matched, and if you’re worried about the weather, its brother theatre, the Sam Wanamaker, is an indoor 17th-Century stage lit entirely by candlelight. You have no excuses!
No 5: The Almeida, Islington
Although the Almeida theatre in Islington has always been a good choice for theatre-going, it has hit its stride in recent years, with success after success. It has a particular skill in gaining the trust of great actors, and so nearly always has a star at the centre of its productions, whether that be Andrew Scott, Saoirse Ronan, Adrian Lester, or Paul Mescal.
Sometimes re-imagining the classics, and sometimes show-casing new writing, the Almeida is likely to scratch most theatrical itches in some way or another, often for a decent price.
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