We just got back from a month in London. A month! As if that wasn’t lucky enough, this was our first extended dive back into theater in two and a half years, and what a pleasure that was. We love Broadway, of course, but there’s also something special about theater in the West End. Maybe it’s the accents?
Some Must-See Spaces
Theater lovers headed to London simply must go to Shakespeare’s Globe. A theatre modeled after the one Shakespeare worked in, it’s an open-air space, and standing-room-only tickets are marvelously cheap and also the best in the house. (You can also sit in seats at the back that are covered from the sun and rain.) It’s Shakespeare the way it was meant to be seen. Now they also have a gorgeous indoor theatre — in candlelight! — so the Globe is a year-round destination. Even the tours are fun. The tickets for standing-room (called the Groundlings) are just £5. If you have really small kids, do like we did: Bring them for a taste of the show and leave after 45 minutes or an hour, or whenever they get restless. That way they’ll have a really positive experience, rather than being forced to stay for the whole thing. (It’s like bringing little kids to a baseball game for three innings and then calling it a day.) And if they’re just old enough and like you, chances are they’ll beg to stay longer. Mind you, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a better bet than King Lear, but you knew that. Find more information here.
The National is the state-backed theatrical venue on Southbank. It’s bursting with theatres ranging from massive spaces perfect for huge spectacles like War Horse to black-box theatres ideal for new plays finding their legs. Like Shakespeare’s Globe, the National always has intriguing shows on tap and it has corporate sponsors that allow it to offer really cheap seats. Most performances will have £15 tickets. Before heading to London, snag some of those cheap seats online and you won’t regret it. Or go to the box office when you arrive and let the staff guide you on which seats are good and why. They know the ins and outs of every show, the set design, and the like, so they’ll give good advice. As a bonus, the National is on Southbank, where you’ll also find Shakespeare’s Globe, the Tate Modern museum, and Hayward Gallery, not to mention all sorts of food options. After a show, we walked across one of the pedestrian bridges toward central London and then jumped on the Tube. Find more information here.
Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre
Another great venue is the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park. Think Shakespeare in the Park, but with a commercial bent. They operate about five months a year, from May to September, and most shows are family-friendly fare. This year’s lineup gives you a good idea of their style: a revival of the musical Legally Blonde, a brand-new musical adaptation of 101 Dalmatians (with some clever puppetry), and a new adaptation of Sophocles’s Antigone. Oh, and they also screened the film West Side Story, which is something Open Air should do more and more often. It’s another great way to introduce kids to theater in a fun, relaxed way. Find more information here.
Wherever you go to experience live theater, we know you have your favorite venues. In New York City, it might be Signature Theatre. In Chicago, Lookingglass. In Los Angeles, Geffen Playhouse. In Minneapolis, the Guthrie. You get the idea. In London, you’ll quickly find venues you love and always want to see what’s going on there. The acclaimed Almeida has a pipeline to the West End second only to the National, plus it’s wonderfully intimate. The Bridge is the first wholly new theatre of scale to be built in London in 80 years, and it’s a jewel. And Kiln — long known as the Tricycle — is a tiny cultural powerhouse of new, politically committed work, along with a great cinema. They’re all favorites we revisit again and again.
Whenever you head to New York City or London, a few shows will be red-hot because they’re about to premiere or just opened to raves. If you tell your theater friends you’ve just been to London, they might immediately ask, “Oh my gosh! Did you see X?” And you don’t want to say, “Uhhh, no.” So as soon as you commit to your plane tickets, make sure you plunk down for one or two must-see shows. And don’t book them for the day after you arrive or the day before you leave. Give yourself some wiggle room, just in case.
Don’t Plan Ahead Too Much
But don’t book yourself in advance for every minute of the trip. London can be easier than New York when it comes to getting tickets for hit shows, even the shows most in demand. Plus, when you arrive you’re sure to learn about a show or two you hadn’t heard about but suddenly don’t want to miss. So allow for a bit of flexibility. Speaking of flexibility, walking up to the box office the day of a performance, especially if you just need one or two tickets? Works a charm more than you’d think. Really, you’ve got to love London.
Call the Box Office. Really!
The first day you can, swing by the box offices of shows you’re interested in, just to get their tips on sight lines, to make sure the star isn’t out the day you’re booking, and so on. But here’s a treat: Often you can even call the box office. And they’ll answer! This is less true than in the old days, but it still happens and they’re terribly friendly and accommodating.
Keep an Eye on Matinees
By the way, shows in London offer matinees on a variety of days, not just Wednesdays. So if you’re a two-show-day kinda person, you have a lot more options to squeeze in an extra production. You’ll find matinees almost every day of the week. So make sure you take advantage of that, because really, is there such a thing as too much theater? No, there is not.
Get a Data Plan for Your Phone in London
If you can afford it, get a data plan for London while you’re there. Why? Because you’ll really want to use your favorite maps app. London is a maze, but with a smartphone, you’ll be a pro and navigate from the Tube station to the theatre with ease. Speaking of the Tube station, download the London Transport Tube Map app. You can name the Tube station near you and the Tube station by the theatre (they all provide that info on their websites) and it will show you the easiest way to get there. Instead of staring at a map and looking around in confusion, you’ll be relaxed and at the theatre in no time. Oh, and at most every exit of every Underground station, you’ll find Tube workers who know the area and can quickly point you in the right direction to a show.
The Eye vs. the Shard
At some point during your stay in London, you’ll want to survey your theatrical domain. London now has a surprising number of rooftop gardens and bars with spectacular views of the city, but two options stand out. The London Eye is the marvelous Ferris wheel that defines the skyline. Any movie or TV show that wants to quickly indicate “London” simply flashes an image of the Eye, the way Paris is identified by the Eiffel Tower. The Shard is a striking building with an observation deck at the top, similar to the Empire State Building. Really, you can’t go wrong with either. But we’re going to recommend the Shard.
On the Eye, you’re placed in a car with open glass views of the city in every direction and the entire trip around the wheel lasts 30 minutes. The only problem? Your car holds a lot of people, so it won’t be just you. At the Shard, they have two observation levels, one open-air and one enclosed. You can walk all around, go up and down between levels, sit for a while in chairs, and even buy a (very expensive) drink. You never feel stuck with any one group of people, you’ve got a lot more freedom, and you can stay as long as you want, which is usually longer than a half hour. So all in all, the London Eye is cool to see, but the Shard is your better bet.
But what you really want to know is, What did you see and is it worth my time and/or should I be eagerly anticipating the show if and when it comes to the U.S.? OK, here we go.
West End Shows
Art is all well and good, but what about the big, fun blockbuster shows? The West End has loads of them. Our first choices are always the big shows that began in London, especially those that haven’t come to the U.S. yet. Nothing makes you feel in the know quite like seeing a blockbuster before it hits Broadway. Here’s a rundown.
Back to the Future: The Musical
Like every other show in recent years, this one was bedeviled by the pandemic, starting and stopping and starting again. It’s now playing in triumph in the West End, having won the Olivier Award for Best Musical and announced a transfer to Broadway in 2023. Honestly, we thought, a musical version of Back to the Future? Sure, the movie had a few songs associated with it, like “Back in Time” and “The Power of Love” and even “Johnny B. Goode.” But that’s a bit of a stretch, isn’t it? The show features a light display to make the entire venue feel like the inside of a flux capacitor, the time-traveling device invented by the passionate scientist in the film. A house packed with family and friends as the show celebrated a milestone and some dazzling theatrics won us over.
TINA – The Tina Turner Musical
This acclaimed musical closed on Broadway after a strong run, but it’s touring the U.S., and you can still see the show around the world in Germany, Australia, and right where it all began: in London at the Aldwych. The British love their jukebox musicals, and this one has both a great clutch of songs and an inspiring story about the way Tina Turner overcame a brutal marriage to become one of the biggest solo stars in the world.
Life of Pi
The story of a young man trapped on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger began as an acclaimed, best-selling novel by Yann Martel. Then it turned into the Oscar-winning film by Ang Lee, who won Best Director for his work on the groundbreaking hit, which also scored for its visual effects, cinematography, and score. And now it’s the Olivier winner for Best Play, using puppetry to tell a fantastical tale of tragedy, survival, and triumph. Audiences will be enthralled by the marvelous puppetry that allows us to believe we’re watching a shipwreck and then a boat tossed about in the middle of the ocean with a young man and — at various times — a zebra, an orangutan, and a Bengal tiger, whose puppeteers won an Olivier for Best Supporting Actor, inside. Jaw-dropping stuff.
The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe
Is there room in the West End for two shows about lions? You bet. Based on the beloved children’s novel by C.S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe is another acclaimed West End show that overcame numerous pandemic-era obstacles to get back to the theatre and find the audience it deserves. This adaptation is exceptionally faithful to the plot of the book, contains old-fashioned special effects, and works a charm. It has a playful theatricality, features a cameo from Father Christmas, and it’s easy to see why they’ve booked this to run through at least January 2023. This may not make the leap across the pond, so if you’re at all interested, make the leap to London and check it out.
Beyond the West End
Theater extends far beyond the West End or even whatever the London equivalent of Off-Broadway is… Off–West End? Even the definition of theater could be expanded. Some of the coolest things we saw in London, included a playground of immersive theater, a VR spectacle at the Tower of London, and a tour of a crumbling home turned set design masterpiece. It’s worth checking out Punchdrunk: The Burnt City, The Gunpowder Plot, and Dennis Severs’ House.
If you end up using any of these tips on your next London trip, let us know on Twitter!
Michael Giltz is the cohost 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.