London’s Other Theatre World


It’s autumn; the season when you can’t get into a play. So here’s another way of looking at it.

One of the things that makes British theatre special is the way in which shows can still start small, filtering from tiny tryouts to larger venues. Productions can begin at a grass roots level in Scotland, Yorkshire or coastal towns and refine themselves into city-ready performances via a filtration process of playing live audiences around the country.

Within London the same system applies as venues like the minuscule Finborough, the Arcola and the Menier supply the city, helping to fend off the corporations invading theatreland, although theatre owners allow fodder like ‘Stomp’ and ‘The Book of Mormon’ to overstay their welcome because they come armed with a bottomless supply of advertising expenditure.

JB Priestley wrote about the old touring troupes in ‘The Good Companions’, set in a time when people still gave up their jobs to learn three plays a fortnight and tour Stockton, Darlington, Hull and Crewe – anywhere within reach of a railway station. One of the most delightful non-fiction books I’ve read explores this world with stories from actors who still handled the twice-nightlies; Kate Dunn’s ‘Exit Through The Fireplace’ conjures a world that has largely vanished now, of fluffed lines, inappropriate ad libs, flop shows, inept ASMs and angry landladies.

Plays have to please London’s ‘sophisticated’ audiences – I put that in inverted commas because if you’ve ever been to a London matinee you’ll enter a world you never see in the theatre at night; 90 year-old ladies tackling the vertiginous dress circle stairs, retired stockbrokers nodding off, old actresses dragging along recalcitrant nephews, etc. There’s a theatre myth that says players hold back for matinees, but I’m not sure it’s still true, although laughs do come in different places at a 2:00pm performance.


It’s a more traditional crowd, too old, too white, but also full of dedicated theatregoers and Shakespeare experts. And because all of the theatres are walkable it’s possible to slip out of work for a couple of hours. In my building we’re all avid playgoers, and last Christmas I attended a Shakespeare double-bill to find myself surrounded by my neighbours. This is theatre’s other world, where incredibly middle-class families turn up for safe annual fare like ‘The Nutcracker’, ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, ballets based on ‘Alice In Wonderland’, ‘Peter Pan’ and now ‘Harry Potter’. But it can be a peculiarly charming one. And because they tend to be more mature they don’t use their phones during performances.

Besides, now there’s a new type of evening audience; non-English speakers who have no idea what they’re seeing because the tickets were included in their itinerary. I watched as an entire block of Chinese tourists rose and left halfway through Dame Maggie Smith’s big speech, throwing off the entire cast. These new high-spenders make the classic mistake of thinking that the most expensive seats in a London theatre are the best. London theatre buildings are constructed vertically, so often the worst seats are the ones that were added to the front stalls when the orchestra pit was removed. Such audiences are catered for by an endless roster of bombastic musicals. Why else is ‘Les Miz’ still hauling itself across the barricades, or the unsophisticated ‘Phantom’ dropping its chandelier eight times a week?

But we’ve enough theatres to provide something for everyone, and there’s plenty of serious fare at this time of year. Just don’t forget the matinees; you may be pleasantly surprised.

2 comments on “London’s Other Theatre World”

  1. Roger says:

    ” a Shakespeare double-bill ”

    King Lear & Hamlet back-to-back?

  2. Helen Martin says:

    Yes, Roger, I wondered about that, too. A Shakespeare double bill at Christmas?
    We switched from evening season tickets to Sat. matinee when my son turned 11 or 12. Yes, there were a lot of seniors (including my old high school principal once) but the actors didn’t seem to “hold back” and it made for a fun moment when we were attending a CBC open house and met the cast of The Beachcombers, all in costume, only to have my son ask the gentleman who played Relic, all scruffy beard and rough clothes, whether we would see him in anything at the Playhouse next season because Ian had enjoyed him as Polonius in Hamlet. Poor man, he wasn’t sure how to answer but he did, in his own persona not Relic’s.

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