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If you saw the film 'Shakespeare in Love' you'll have an inkling how dear theatre is to Londoners' hearts. When the Puritans under Cromwell closed down it's theatres in 1642, they sowed the seeds of their doom - Londoners could stand almost any other affront: the loss of their most popular entertainment was the last straw - the monarchy (and theatregoing) was restored within 20 years.
At the present theatre is flourishing: there are over 40 major venues in the centre of London and Broadway is dominated by British talent. Most of the houses are an easy walk from Leicester Square. Curtain up is usually 19:30, (sometimes 19:15 at the National and RSC) though midweek matinees at 14:30 are common. Tickets cost from £5 to £40, and if a show is sold out there's usually a queue for returns. Touts buy up tickets in the hope of making a quick buck later - they can be a good way to get seats for a sell-out, but examine the tickets closely and ask their mark-up. Mondays are usually cheaper - several houses do an all-seats-£5 policy. We recommend, unless you want to see something in particular, you decide on the day - often it'll be cheaper that way.
Until the 2001 season we wouldn't have recommended anyone see the shows at the Globe - the reconstruction of Shakespeare's open-roofed theatre - the seasons 2001 and 2002 have seen theatrical triumphs that have made plays on the 'normal' stage look pale by comparison. Mark Rylance, (along with Alex Jennings, to be found along the river at the RNT) is one of our greatest young actors, and not-to-be-missed onstage. You can buy standing tickets for £5, usually on the day.
But beware: it's real theatre not the disneyfied version more usually found on the forecourts of Las Vegas casinos. It's not a tourist spectacle, you'll annoy other theatre-goers if you just use it as an easy way to see the interior: go on a guided tour instead. The performances usually last over 3 hours, with only one 15 minute interval... and unless you buy a seat, no chance of sitting down. If you buy a seat it's difficult to leave before the interval.
Don't trust a theatre billboard that doesn't have a good review by at least two major newspapers - Radio show reviews are regularly used to ramp up shows (what you don't know is that the 'review' was part of a promotional scheme to give away free tickets), and the specialist film magazines are too reliant on the film industry to be objective reviewers. One last point - ask around: reviewers often err on the side of kindness: the financial risk
involved in mounting a new show can be crippling - they rarely want to be the cause of a bankruptcy. Papers like the Evening Standard are usually over-generous to new plays, and the Guardian tries so hard to be at the cutting edge it will often praise a strange new play without noticing it's atrocious. They also want to remain on the guest lists for theatrical parties. At present the right-wing papers like the Telegraph and the Financial Times are the only ones we rely on. Word-of-mouth is usually the best critic.
If you're queuing up at the half price ticket booth (queues in summer from noon to about 16:00 when it usually thins out) ask people in the queue for recommendations. Generally you can't go wrong when seeing any Shakespeare/Shaw or their contemporaries at the Barbican RSC (wherever their next season is held), Globe or National Theatre. That said the Barbican's current theatre policy is (with a couple of exceptions) dire and they've put on some real stinkers: reviews are no help here as they tend to be over-friendly to small companies. Our advice: DO NOT SEE ANY THEATRE AT THE BARBICAN UNLESS YOU HAVE GOOD, TRUSTWORTHY WORD-OF-MOUTH.
Has suffered a coup with Trevor Nunn (Cats, My Fair Lady) being forced out in favour of Nick Hytner. We approve - Nunn was a good mainstream director, but no good at admin, talent cultivation or serious stuff. The 2001 season was effectively a Battle Royale between these two directors, and the better for it. The RSC is showing signs of going the same way but is still turning out some good shows - and a few dogs. See reviews before you buy a ticket (the Sunday Telegraph and Independent feature meta-reviews, showing how a show has fared across a range of papers - see the back page of their review section). Even famous names are not reliable. When Sir Peter Hall nursed a dog into existence with 'Japes' at the Theatre Royal Haymarket - few reviewers were brave enough to take on such an icon - yet the audiences were walking out in droves: this kind of gossip you'll pick up at the half-price booth. Best for new plays: Royal Court/Ambassadors/Alberry/Duke of Yorks/Young Vic Soho Theatre, Southwark Playhouse. The tradition of finding new playwrights continues apace - the disastrous flirtation with trendy young Brit shows like 'Shopping and Fucking' - designed to pull in new, young audiences has now ended and good writing is again the thing. The new, shocking plays were eclipsed by a series of well written mainstream plays from Ireland like long-runners 'The Weir' and 'Stones in his pockets' which turned out to be more popular and profitable, even drawing in the younger audiences so keenly sought.
Mainstream drama: The theatres on Shaftsbury Avenue where playwrights such as Aykbourn and Bennett still pack houses are doing well.
Many small 'pub theatres' theatres have put on plays of such quality that a new 'middle tier' of houses has arisen, sometimes called 'off West End': theatres such as the Almeida, Donmar Warehouse, Soho Theatre, Hampstead, New End, Tricycle, Bush Gate and King's Head are on a roll - many branching out into other areas - viz the Almeida's Operas. Beyond this it's rare that a show is all good - exceptions do occur, but much research is necessary before venturing out of the centre to an unknown venue. Some theatres may require a £0.50p membership (available on the door) to get round theatre licensing laws - usually joining one theatre gives you reciprocal membership at all the others. This was a way they got round the censors, and until the laws are changed will remain a feature of the fringe. Many fringe venues sell all tickets for £5 on Mondays
A good guide to a show is the awards it garners: The Oliviers are, unlike the Oscars, actually awarded for merit. If a show has won one, it's usually worth seeing.
Britain's best actors are to be found on stage: we don't have a separate film industry, (and American film stars seem to be queuing up to play London at the moment) so stars like Vanessa Redgrave, Michel Gambon, Ralph Fiennes, Donald Sutherland, Kathleen Turner, Maggie Smith, Nichole Kidman are all there for the taking in the (often unclothed!) flesh. However the recent trend for mediocre American scripts and two or three-handed plays with stars has diminished the quality of theatre. If you want to see the stars go to Madame Tussauds! A guide to what's on can be found here or , more lurid and more commercial, here. A good advance ticket agency, which also owns many theatres can be found here .
The BBC gives out free tickets to TV shows, Radio shows and BBC Orchestra concerts (the latter are of very very high quality) Find out and book online HERE.