London Calling
London Calling

More Tips to Fit London Theater on Your Trip

London is our favorite theater city (after New York City, that is). That’s why we just spent a great month there. Check out our story sharing the venues we always visit, the West End shows we saw, and some tips about how to get the most out of your trip. We got so excited, we ran out of space. So here’s a look at the theater-adjacent stuff we saw a little bit off the beaten track.

It’s not just cool stuff to do in London – it’s also a glimpse at the trends in theater and entertainment we see taking place in major cities all over the world. We talk about immersive theatrical experiences, tourist sites expanding into VR and drawing upon the theater community to up its game and the unclassifiable pleasure of a home turned into art.

Beyond the West End

Theater extends far beyond the West End or whatever it is the London equivalent of Off-Broadway might be called. Off West End? East End? EastEnders? (No, that’s a soap opera.) And even the definition of “theater” needs to be expanded. Here are some of the coolest things we saw in London, including a playground of immersive theater, a VR spectacle at the Tower of London and a tour of a crumbling home turned set design masterpiece.

Punchdrunk: The Burnt City. Photo by Julian Abrams.

Punchdrunk: The Burnt City – Immersive Theater

Do you know Punchdrunk? It’s a theatrical company specializing in immersive, innovative productions that span the globe and are like nothing else. Most famous, perhaps, is its adaptation of Macbeth called Sleep No More which played in London, Boston and has been up and running in New York City for more than a decade. Punchdrunk’s new show is based on The Iliad and the Fall of Troy. You wander through endless rooms on three or so floors of a giant, sprawling warehouse. You look into drawers found in a bedroom or peek into a fridge, follow actors as they dash hither and yon, find a good spot and just watch the performers and fellow audience members, take a break in the cabaret and then head back into the Burnt City. If you’ve ever been tempted to wander onto a stage and poke around the set, this is the show for you. Somehow it all coalesces into a fevered retelling of Homer’s epic, though a plotline is not the point here. It’s an experience, rich in dance and movement and bloodthirsty deeds and quiet moments. The best thing we saw all trip and surely one of the best theater events of the year.

“Immersive” is the buzzword of the moment and you can thank Punchdrunk for pioneering this approach and raising it to high art. The term is used loosely by any venue that plays music loudly and thinks “attitude” from a wait staff constitutes character development. Many, many slapdash spaces claim to be immersive. Look for ones that have been reviewed by media outlets you recognize and trust. That’s a good sign that you’ll be attending a proper event worthy of the name.

More of them are coming to the US, often linked to movies and tv shows, like Blade Runner and Stranger Things. The UK company Secret Cinema Experience is finding great success building on established brands like Star Wars. It’s a big deal in the UK and soon they’ll have a permanent home in London and New York, with shows coming to other major cities around the world. The immersive brand of theater is clearly just getting started. Learn more here.

The Tower of London: The Gunpowder Plot. Photo by Mark Dawson.

The Tower of London: The Gunpowder Plot

“Immersive” and “virtual reality” are combined in an event/ride/bit of fun at the Tower of London called The Gunpowder Plot. Do you know Guy Fawkes? He looms large in the UK, where they still celebrate Guy Fawkes Day by burning the man in effigy and repeating the short poem: “Remember remember the fifth of November/ Gunpowder treason and plot/ I see no reason why Gunpowder treason/ Should ever be forgot.”

Fawkes was a Catholic when Catholics were brutally tortured and killed. He and others plotted to blow up Parliament, killing the King and politicians and bystanders, but it was foiled at the last minute. Every schoolchild knows the story, while the plot itself and a mask of Guy Fawkes figures in the graphic novel and movie V For Vendetta.

In this experience, you and others are taken into the tunnels and dungeons below the Tower of London, asked whether you support the rebels or the King and sent off on a mission to either help Fawkes succeed or save the King. This involves your group being hurried here and there, conversing with various historical characters who beg you to protect the Catholics or uncover the scheming villains.

Best of all, it involves three sections where you don virtual reality goggles and are genuinely immersed in three escapades: sitting in a rickety wooden chair while you fly over the rooftops of London via rope pulleys, sit in a boat while you’re rowed across the Thames with tattooed men rowing the vessels with ships all around and finally at the top of the Tower of London meeting the King.

Many actors get work doing shows like this and they’re all having fun, bustling you along. In a taped section, actor Tom Felton (Draco of the Harry Potter films) is Guy Fawkes himself. While the show strongly urges you towards choosing not to blow up Parliament,  it does an admirable job of conveying the complexity of the era and showing Fawkes to be a figure who now symbolizes a certain anarchic freedom to many, failed evil act of terrorism or not. The same company also does another VR experience called Jeff Wayne’s The War Of The Worlds: The Immersive Experience but we ran out of time. In any case, spectacles like this provide steady work for actors you’re likely to see the following week in an Off West End play.

Its use of VR and honest-to-goodness proper actors is part of a larger trend. Classic tourist draws like the Tower Of London know they must change with the times. Nothing can beat a glimpse of the Crown Jewels of course. But it’s not enough to offer little factoids on a phone app or maps on the wall that light up when you press a  button and call your site “interactive.” People expect more.

Now you can find VR goggles at Civil War battlefield sites. And instead of grumpy seasonal tour guides spouting a few wooden lines of “period” dialogue, tourist sites are hiring top-notch actors and giving them actual scripts to perform. It does add a sense of excitement and drama to what otherwise might be a dry recitation of historical facts. At it’s best they bring the past to life. If it gives a young actor a steady paycheck while they’re waiting for their big break, all the better.

Dennis Severs' House. Photo by Lucinda Douglas-Menzies.
Dennis Severs’ House. Photo by Lucinda Douglas-Menzies.

Dennis Severs’ House

Finally, for an utterly unique experience, take a tour of the Dennis Severs’ House. Any fans of theater design or anyone considering a career in production design should absolutely make this top of their list. But really, it’s sui generis and something we’re delighted to have finally checked out after years of kind of, sort of being aware of it but not quite sure what it was. Mind you, it’s on every list of Best Kept Secrets in London, so we’ve only ourselves to blame.

Dennis Severs took over a crumbling, landmarked home. Over the years, he turned every room into a fever dream of a set, a melange of items that turned each area, each floor of the house into a work of art. Everywhere you turn, you’ll spot incongruous, fascinating objects. Some of them absolutely belong in any respectable lady’s bedroom in the 1880s, for example. Others make no sense at all. What’s the Yankees baseball cap doing on the banister in the hallway, you wonder?

The house evolved and grew and became the life’s work of Severs and his partner. To support his passion project, Severs started giving tours. Those grew and grew in length over the years and lasted all his life. Then he died too soon at the age of 51, right before the end of the 20th century. Dennis probably preferred the 19th century anyway.

The home has been maintained and modestly added to over the years, always in a way comporting with the vision of Dennis Severs. It even inspired a book by the innovative graphic novelist Brian Selznick. (That’s called The Marvels.) And now tours have begun again. You can go on a silent tour in the afternoon or evenings, taking your time and poking carefully into every corner. Best of all are the guided tours on Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Your guide delivers a 90 minute tour distilled down from the wonderfully rambling talks of Severs himself. You begin in the basement and work your way up to the top floor, moving through time in a way as you ascend the stairs and hear more and more elaborate tales about the people who lived in the house and the changing world around them. It’s not a one-person show as such, but it’s a theatrical experience as sure as you’re reading this and great fun. Not to be missed.

London is chock-a-block with historic buildings. You can find the homes of famous people which have been turned into museums. You can find museums which devote sections to recreating the homes of famous folk. On seemingly every corner of London you’ll spot brass plaques saying “Charles Dickens lived here for six years” or “This pub or one like it has been a working business on this site for 300 years.” But surely the Dennis Severs’ House is the only example of an historic site created out of someone’s sheer determination to make it so.

It’s a testament to the fact that anyone’s passion can become worth celebrating in its own right. So maybe that collection of Playbills taking over your living room and the posters from Broadway shows covering your walls isn’t out of control – it’s just waiting for an audience so you can tell the story behind each and every one.

Michael Giltz is the co-host of the weekly entertainment podcast Showbiz Sandbox. He has covered all areas of entertainment as a journalist, critic, feature writer, and analyst, contributing to numerous outlets, including the New York Daily News, New York Post, New York Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Entertainment Weekly, and The Advocate. When Michael’s not attending the theater, he’s reading about it.