The question: I would like to take a trip to London in the fall. Any tips for diving into the theatre scene?
The answer: Within minutes of booking flights to London, I'm usually feverishly trawling the Internet (starting with officiallondontheatre.co.uk) to see what's on stage during my stay. And since I generally disdain musicals and bloated blockbusters, I favour venues where you're less likely to be sitting with tour-group vacationers fresh from Madame Tussauds.
These less glitzy greasepaint experiences are the heart of London theatre – and they're often far better value than those West End tickets to Phantom of the Opera . In recent years, I've been mesmerized by Patrick Stewart portraying an elderly Shakespeare in Edward Bond's Bingo (for $25) and Benedict Cumberbatch humanizing the monster in Danny Boyle's Frankenstein ($30).
And this year I discovered the pub theatre scene: dozens of studio-sized venues hidden in the backrooms of London bars that operate like a permanent, top-notch fringe – with ticket prices around $20 a pop.
But great theatre isn't just about price. For local tips on where to go, I touched base with Londoner James Hodgson. He's co-founder of the lively Everything Theatre blog (everything-theatre.blogspot.co.uk), which reviews shows around the capital. For him, there are many grassroots options for visiting theatre fans.
"The little Finborough Theatre (finboroughtheatre.co.uk) is renowned for churning out shows of consistently high quality. You're pretty much guaranteed to see something you've never seen before due to their policy of staging world premieres or undiscovered classics," he says.
Tucked above a wine bar, the celebrated Earls Court venue isn't Hodgson's only top pick. He also recommends South London's Ovalhouse (ovalhouse.com) for its experimental drama, and the Battersea Arts Centre (bac.org.uk), "where amazing companies perform all sorts of exciting and often groundbreaking shows."
It's not all about avant-garde Beckett revivals, though. Hodgson's must-see suggestions include several mainstream productions. "The best three shows in London at the moment are The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time , War Horse and One Man, Two Guvnors – all of them are as good as theatre gets," he says, adding that he's also looking forward to director Michael Grandage's A Midsummer Night's Dream starting in September at the Noël Coward Theatre.
Personally, I'm keen to see what's on at the Young Vic, Royal Court and Donmar Warehouse during my next visit – and I'll likely book A Tale of Two Cities at the King's Head pub theatre. I might also check out some supporting acts: Backstage tours of the London Palladium and the National Theatre are available, while the latter also celebrates its 50th anniversary this fall with exhibitions and special productions perfect for London-bound theatre nuts (nationaltheatre.org.uk has more information).
But since "the play's the thing," your main focus will likely be on the boards. Hodgson suggests perusing offwestend.com to see what's on at smaller London theatres. And I'd suggest not giving up on shows that seem to be sold out: I've staked out theatre websites for days on end and found tickets suddenly popping up – returns or cancellations – for hot shows.
Dogged determination should also be applied once you arrive, advises Hodgson. "Many venues offer day-release tickets – the catch is you have to queue up in the morning and there are usually only 10 or 20 available. Box offices tend to open around 10 a.m. but for popular shows you might need to arrive by 6 a.m."
Queues are also common at Leicester Square's official TKTS booth (tkts.co.uk), which offers daily discounts for many of the city's bigger shows. But big productions are just part of London's rich theatre scene. For every jukebox musical here, there are dozens of far more rewarding nights out to be had.
"The best advice I have is to do some research and look beyond the bright lights and big musicals of the West End," says Hodgson. "You really don't have to look too far for the smaller, less well-known venues."
OUR READERS WRITE
- Check out the Samuel French bookshop. Tons of scripts and theatre-related books @erin_braincandy
- Arcola Theatre in Hackney [arcolatheatre.com]. Good-weird little experimental-ish space for the less orthodox @lowerlameland
- Visit TKTS early on your chosen theatre day, then kill time with a fabulous meal at the Porcupine pub near Leicester Square – I recommend going upstairs to the quaint little dining room @jillbatie
- Don’t go in summer – no air conditioning! @CTVColeen
- I’d recommend pre-purchasing your beverage for the intermission. Rather more time to enjoy it! @SbonnerABV
- Perhaps I’m snobby about it, but I suggest visitors see a homegrown play, not a reproduction of a Broadway hit @melanierenzulli
- We found we got the best prices by going direct to the theatre box office – cheaper than online @alywong26
NEXT WEEK I'm tempted to rent my place out on Airbnb, but I've never done anything like this before. Any pitfall-avoiding advice for a newbie? Have a tip? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.