“To enter a theatre for a performance is to be inducted into a magical space, to be ushered into the sacred arena of the imagination.”
Simon Callow, Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World
This is an article I wrote some time ago for Your Life Choices magazine. It’s about my love of theatre – something which hasn’t changed – and I really wanted to share it here. But, please note, some of the shows mentioned may no longer be appearing on in the West End.
I’m something of a theatre tragic. I love extravagant big-band musicals, Shakespeare and all the classics. I admire shows that challenge the audience, or introduce new and inventive ideas. Quite frankly, I’ll watch anything that calls itself theatre. For several years I worked as an usher at Melbourne’s Regent Theatre, humming along to famous show tunes. So it’s hardly surprising that on my last visit to London I decided to immerse myself in a week in the West End.
Bordered by The Strand, Kingsway, Oxford and Regent Streets, the West End is the largest theatre district in the world. It’s a hive of activity. Every second shop offers theatre tickets, all claiming the cheapest and best seats in town. A prominent billboard advertises Spamalot, while just around the corner, I discover St Martin’s Theatre, home to the world’s longest running show, Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, which opened in 1952.
On a backstage tour of Theatre Royal Drury Lane, I step back in time to a rough and tumble era when theatregoers did not have reserved seats. Arriving early, they pushed and shoved their way to pit benches. Orange girls carried heavy baskets through the crowd, selling oranges, apples and playbills (a crude form of program). The humble orange was a multipurpose item. It served as food and drink, as an air-freshener to mask the ill-smelling crowd, and most importantly, the skin could be thrown at the actors.
Theatre’s colourful history is full of larger-than-life characters, I discover. In 1735, Charles Macklin killed a fellow actor in a quarrel over a wig, but his acting career continued. His portrayal of Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice was apparently so convincing that King George II was too frightened to go to sleep after the performance. Supposedly, Macklin’s ghost haunts Drury Lane, along with the ghost of famous clown Grimaldi, said to kick the backside of any performer not giving 100 per cent.
I make a mental note; buy oranges for my next theatre outing. In hindsight, I needed them the previous night when I saw In Celebration and a rather wooden performance by superstar Orlando Bloom. Luckily for him, times have changed. During the 19th century theatre became fashionable for middle and upper classes and throwing orange skins became a ritual of the past.
Big screen stars often appear in West End shows. As well as Orlando Bloom, I get to see Rhea Perlman, of Cheers fame, in Boeing Boeing. In 2008, Kenneth Branagh treaded the boards, while in 2009 Judi Dench and Rowan Atkinson appeared in shows. I can’t imagine Kenneth Branagh or Judy Dench being kicked by a ghost for not giving 100 percent.
The last 300 years have also seen backstage changes, including the shift from gas to electric lighting and the emergence of set designers able to recreate anything from avalanches and car crashes to the famous helicopter landing in the 1989 production of Miss Saigon.
Today there is much greater scope for big budget productions with whizz-bang special effects, such as the musical version of Lord of the Rings. At an estimated cost of £12.5 million this production is the most expensive show ever produced. I’m tempted to go, but the traditionalist in me can’t imagine The Lord of the Rings crammed into three hours. Instead, I opt for Billy Elliott at the Victoria Palace Theatre, and I’m not disappointed.
An online search of the Official London Theatre Guide finds 159 theatres and 350 shows. Several not in the West End proper are definitely worth checking out for their significance to the London theatre scene.
The Hampstead Theatre develops and produces new plays, giving opportunities to young writers and performers. Alumni include playwrights Mike Leigh and Harold Pinter and actor Jude Law. The Menier Chocolate Factory, converted to an arts complex in 2004, has seen several of its shows go on to the West End, including its 2005 version of Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George. The show scooped five prestigious Laurence Olivier theatre awards and was later performed on Broadway in New York.
Just across the Thames River from the West End is the National Theatre. Touring backstage, I learn that the theatre’s first production was Hamlet in 1963, starring Peter O’Toole and directed by Laurence Olivier (the theatre’s Artistic Director from 1963-1973). Incidentally, the seats in the Olivier Theatre, the largest of the National’s three performance spaces, are lilac because that was the director’s favourite colour.
Each year over 1000 shows grace the National Theatre’s stages, performed to audiences totalling more than 600,000. During summer, £10 theatre tickets are offered and free events staged in an attempt to broaden audiences to include people who cannot usually afford theatre tickets.
Walking along South Bank towards London Eye I see buskers entertaining crowds. It’s the same in the West End’s Covent Garden, with classical music spilling from the Royal Opera House while I watch a man on a unicycle juggling knives. Crowds have gathered and there’s a festival-type atmosphere. It’s all part of a normal summer’s day in London’s West End – and I’m already planning my next trip.