Getting a ticket for a West End show has always been very high on the wish list of visitors to London. With all the glamour and prestige of New York’s Broadway, Central London’s theatre district is thick with history. There has never been a better time to dive into the city’s theatre scene. With exciting venues popping up all over the Thames, and the stars of tomorrow cultivating a vibrant fringe scene, there is something to suit every taste.
Brits have always had a passion for theatre, which is hardly surprising as it is woven into their national identity. There’s the greatest playwright of all time, William Shakespeare, who created so much of the theatre tradition. There are also greats like Sir Laurence Olivier, and many of the British stars you see on the silver screen today got their start treading the boards. This history and infrastructure creates some of the best entertainment you can find, drawing in native Londoners as well as star-struck tourists.
The first place they all stop, of course, is the West End. Shaftesbury Avenue holds a mesmerising strip of top shows, starting with the immensely popular Harry Potter and The Cursed Child. We then wander down the stretch of popular shows such as the long-running Thriller – Live and the new hit musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. If classic drama is more your thing, head to the South Bank, where you’ll find two theatre giants standing by the river.
At one end, Britain’s National Theatre is a concrete behemoth that produces some of the most talked-about plays in the world. Actors Bryan Cranston, Ralph Fiennes and Andrew Garfield have all starred on The National’s stage, while a 2007 production of War Horse has toured the world and inspired a Steven Spielberg film.
At the other end of the South Bank is Shakespeare’s Globe, a painstaking reproduction of the original Globe Theatre, where Shakespeare’s plays were first shown to the public. Built in 1997, this faithful reconstruction allows fans to sit or stand and watch Shakespeare’s works as they might have been seen four hundred years ago (if you’re after something a little more dynamic, The Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-Upon-Avon is a couple of hours away by train).
Farther down The Thames, the newest kid on the block is the picturesque Bridge Theatre. Nestled beside HMS Belfast and overlooked by Tower Bridge, it’s the brainchild of former National Theatre Artistic Director Nicholas Hytner, who has brought some famous friends along for the ride. Having already produced sold-out productions of Young Marx and Julius Caesar, the director of Oscar-winning Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Martin McDonagh, will bring his new play A Very, Very, Very Dark Matter to the theatre in October, starring beloved British actor Jim Broadbent.
Expensive, star-led productions not your thing? London also produces some of the finest fringe theatre productions. A short walk from the shopping heaven of Oxford Street is Soho Theatre, a funky venue showcasing the best in fringe theatre and stand-up comedy.
Focusing on new writing that questions the society we live in, the tickets are cheaper than the glitzy musicals nearby and may just introduce you to a new artistic perspective. About five minutes’ walk from Waterloo Station, The Young Vic is equally well-known for pushing boundaries. As well as new writing, the theatre has also welcomed Sienna Miller in a production of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof and Mark Strong in Arthur Miller’s A View From The Bridge in recent years.
To the south in Elephant and Castle, Southwark Playhouse specialises in quirky and powerful stage works. Upcoming productions include #BeMoreMartyn (June), a tribute to one of the victims of the 2017 Manchester bombing, and Bring It On, a musical based on the hit movie with lyrics by musical sensation Lin-Manuel Miranda.
If that last name sounds familiar, then you should be familiar with the first of our must-see shows while visiting London’s theatre scene. Having rocked Broadway with its contemporary take on American history, Hamilton came to the Victoria Palace Theatre late last year and is still the only place to see the production outside of America.
Miranda himself collaborated with West End titan and Les Miserables creator Cameron Mackintosh to bring the show to London with a new cast that is every bit as exciting as its American equivalent. With universal five-star reviews and a devoted fan base, it won’t be easy to find a ticket, but a breath-taking experience awaits if you do.
For a must-see British original production, Matilda, based on the beloved novel of the same name by Roald Dahl, is still playing at the Cambridge Theatre, just a few minutes from Covent Garden. A collaboration between The Royal Shakespeare Company and musical comedian Tim Minchin, the West End smash hit with its catchy songs is an incredible set and a story that all ages can appreciate. Matilda really is one of the best nights out the West End has to offer. Harry Potter fans will, of course, want to see The Cursed Child, but with the play in two parts, it’s an expensive evening compared to the above sure-fire hits.
Whether you want elaborate musical dramas, stripped-down dramas, big stars, up-and-comers, or a mixture of all of those, London is the place to make all your theatre dreams come true. With so many venues within a short walk of famous landmarks, you can weave some of the best culture in the world into your sightseeing schedule. In fact, the biggest problem may be fitting in all the shows that catch your eye!