THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO THE THEATRE IN LONDON
WORDS BY DIVYA SEHGAL
Everything you need to know about catching a West End or Off-West End show.
“Come, sit down, every mother's son, and rehearse your parts”
- A Midsummer’s Night Dream, Act III, Scene 1
The Bard had the right idea of what entertainment was when he showcased his finest works at The Globe 400 years ago. Today, a visit to London is incomplete without a trip to the theatre. Even those who aren’t fans of watching a live show or think they aren’t “cultured” enough will think twice about skipping such a ritual from a typical London bucket-list. As for the hardcore fans, they treat theatre as their elixir. The place where they can escape their own mundane lives and enter one that is full of fantasy, spectacle and magic.
There’s something for everyone in the 38 West End theatres that are dotted around Central London. With new shows (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) to old (The Mousetrap, the longest running non-musical play in London), it’s 100 per cent family fun. Guaranteed. But it all comes at a price, and a hefty one at that. Most West End plays start at £25 and go up to a whopping £200 for front row seats (The Book of Mormon, Elf and the next hotly anticipated US smash hit musical, Hamilton). So here are some tips and tricks to get the best seats for less.
Tickets and Prices
The easiest and safest way to get your hands on cheap tickets is to book in advance. But some of the more popular plays (Harry Potter, The Book of Mormon, Aladdin, The Curious Incident of a Dog at Night Time) are sold out weeks, if not months, in advance. So if you don’t have time constraints, simply log on to the website of the respective play or theatre and select the seat of your choice. However, if you or a friend have limited number of days in the city and want to get a taste of The West End, you won’t be disappointed, even if you can’t get tickets to the most popular plays.
In London, there’s no such thing as a “slow season”. If you thought the Winter months were sluggish on account of the weather, you couldn’t be more wrong. If anything, it’s probably the best season for the theatre! What better way to spend a night out than bundled up in a warm and cosy space watching some of the best entertainment you’re going to get? So if you think you’ll get tickets easily because of an “off-peak” season, you can forget about that. But there are plenty of ways of getting cheap tickets. The most popular one is the theatre ticket book at Leicester Square. They offer half-price and discounted theatre tickets on the day of the show and up to a week in advance. Some theatres, such as The Globe, offer £5 standing tickets – an absolute steal if you’re okay with jellied legs at the end of a 3-hour performance.
For those who are more tech savvy, you can also grab great discounts on TodayTix, available on iPhone and Android devices. There’s also a lottery system which you can enter on the day of a show to win heavily discounted tickets for most West End shows.
If you’re one for more “serious theatre” and happy to skip the razzle-dazzle of West End, why not give less mainstream theatre a chance? Some of the best plays that have gone on to huge success started at the Off-West End. Theatres like The Young Vic, The Old Vic, National Theatre, The Barbican Center and Almeida Theatre have a line up of plays by writers such as Chekhov, Ibsen, Shakespeare and contemporary playwrights. Tickets can be as cheap as £10 if you book in advance, and go up to £75 for the Stall seats.
The easiest way to book cheap tickets for the Off-West End theatre is to subscribe to their newsletter so you’re informed of new plays straight away. There’s usually an online queue for a more anticipated production, but even then you might have to shell out just £15 more than the lowest price. And if the production is a hit (like One Man, Two Guvnors), you’d have watched it before all the hype of its West End appearance.
Like with most cultural experiences in the UK, both West End and Off-West End theatres offer discounts to students and senior citizens so if you fall within one of these two camps, you can save a few extra quid.
In my personal experience, I’ve found Saturday afternoons to be slightly less busy than the rest of the week. I guess it’s down to the fact that most matinees start at 2.30 p.m. and finish at 5.30 p.m., leaving you with half-baked morning and evening plans. Pro tip: The Barbican Center is known to close off its balcony section and upgrade anyone who has a ticket for those half-filled seats on Saturday. You get front row seats for a tenner!
Evening shows mostly start at 7.30 p.m., sometimes at 7 p.m. If you’re going straight from work and feeling particularly peckish, grab a burrito, or a noodle box from Wok to Walk. There are also plenty of restaurants in Central London that provide a pre-theatre menu; however, you will need to devote a bit of extra time if you want fine dining. My favourite restaurant before a show is India Club near Somerset House. Fuss free, cheap, home cooking. And, most importantly, quick.
Plays usually end at 10 p.m., some slightly later. If you think you can hold on till after the play, you might have a more relaxed meal provided the restaurants have a table for you and they’re not closing shortly. My suggestion of a quick burrito and noodle box still holds good for post-theatre as well.
Let’s talk about theatre etiquette. Most theatres don’t allow photography. No harm in trying to take that sneaky picture of Ralph Fiennes on stage, but a chaperone will most likely catch you in action and ask you to delete the image. You have been warned.
There’s no particular dress code in West End or Off-West End theatre. Going to watch a play isn’t for those who want to see and be seen. It’s almost a ritual for most regulars. Unlike in Broadway, you don’t have to worry that you’re wearing jeans and trainers.
Off-West End theatre is known to stage plays with famous actors such as Kristin Scott Thomas, Benedict Cumberbatch, Gillian Anderson, Patrick Stewart, Hugo Weaving who have starred in plays like A Street Car Named Desire, Frankenstein, Waiting for Godot, among others. So if you’re after some star sighting, keep those eyes peeled.
Finally, enjoy the show! It’s worth every penny.
Palace Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, Soho, London W1D 5AY. Phone: 0844 482 9676
Victoria Palace Theatre, Victoria Street, Westminster, London SW1E 5EA. Phone: 0844 248 5000
Dominion Theatre, 268-269 Tottenham Court Road, Fitzrovia, London W1T 7AQ. Phone: 020 7927 0900
Prince of Wales Theatre, Coventry Street, London W1D 6AS. Phone: 0844 482 5115