West End Theatres
‘Theatreland’ is the nickname for an area of London’s West End that has a dense concentration of grand theatres, a district the equal of New York’s Broadway. Every year, more than thirteen million people visit a show at one of the venues here, making West End easily one of the most popular London attractions.
This small area, bounded by the Strand to the south, Regent Street to the west, and the South Bank complex to the east, plays host to more than forty theatres. Most of the big venues are on The Strand, Drury Lane and Shaftesbury Avenue. The majority are glorious Victorian or Edwardian edifices, featuring grand, classical facades and with high auditoria full of fine detail.
Most of these theatres are privately run, commercial ventures which put on musical spectaculars. Some of these are extremely long lived: the longest running is the musical Les Miserables, at the Queens Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue, still going strong after 24 years; just behind it are The Phantom of the Opera at 23 years and Blood Brothers at 22. However, the longest running drama in theatreland, in fact the longest running in the world, is The Mousetrap (a murder mystery by Agatha Christie) at St Martin's Theatre on Cambridge Circus, which is now, incredibly, in its 57th year.
At the moment the most popular shows are Billy Elliot and Mary Poppins, which boast sell out crowds night after night. Other popular shows having a good run are Mama Mia and the Lion King, Wicked, Joseph's Technicolour Dreamcoat and Chicago. There are no rules that guarantee a hit, of course, but looking at what does well it's clear that audiences like a tale set in a distinctive world that features songs or a story that they are already familiar with (Mama Mia is based on Abba songs; The Lion King, Sister Act and Billy Elliot were successful films first; and Oliver and Les Miserables are based on classic stories). Having a well known film or TV star certainly helps to guarantee ticket sales, and recently Kevin Spacey, Rob Lowe, David Schwimmer, David Tennant and Val Kilmer have all been tempted to come and tread the boards in the West End.
The business is a notoriously brutal one. It costs a vast amount to put on a show, and the ones that prove popular make huge profits; but it's just as possible that, following poor reviews and audience numbers, the show closes in a matter of days, leaving its financiers to contemplate a hideous loss. So perhaps it's not surprising that the producers like to play it safe.
For more experimental theatre, and for highbrow drama, you'll have to head to one of the state funded or subsidised venues; these include the National Theatre on the South Bank, the Globe Theatre near the Tate Modern, The Old Vic and the Young Vic, and Islington's Almeida Theatre. Here you'll find performances of classics, plenty of Shakespeare and new work by leading modern playwrights. If a show proves popular at one of these theatres it will often later make the jump to one of the gaudier commercial venues.
But the biggest state supported venue is Covent Garden’s Royal Opera House, one of the greatest theatres in the world, and home to the Royal Opera Company, Royal Ballet Company and its own orchestra. The building is more than a hundred and fifty years old but has recently benefited from an enormous refurbishment, making it easily the most impressive venue in West End theatreland.