Trying to narrow down the vast number of theatres in London to a notable list of ten is a daunting task, but there will always be a few standouts for me. I have not listed them in order of preference or grandeur, but instead attempted to select a diverse collection of venues/spaces that each have winning attributes. Theatres often struggle to find the balance between making a profit and keeping their productions creative, original and fresh. Taking risks to discover new work and develop the world of theatre, in the long haul though, is as important as making a profit. Many of these theatres find a good balance.
Believe it or not, I have heard debate about whether or not the kind of theatre happening at this venue is bold, exciting or daring enough to justify this venue being called our "national" theatre. Arguments aside, I couldn’t possibly leave this building off my list. Despite what some may think about the selections of theatre produced at this venue, I believe it has housed some terrific work. For example, I went to see London Road (given four stars by our reviewer) just a couple of days ago, and believe it to be unique, original, clever and entertaining, and it has had vast critical acclaim to boot. Besides the actual productions, the very architecture and location of the building is beautiful. It has such a spacious and aesthetically pleasing interior, stunning views from its higher decks, neatly houses an extremely comprehensive bookshop, and in many ways, has the grandeur and presence of a modern day concert hall. Being positioned on the Southbank, which is so often alive with creativity and culture, is not only good for business, but seems relevant and pertinent to the very reasons for which I believe theatre exists.
This theatre has proven how successful its "Royal Court Young Writers Programme" is: examples include Laura Wade’s work, Breathing Corpses and, more recently, Posh, to name but two. Another Royal Court production, in conjunction with ATG, is Jumpy (at the Duke of York’s Theatre) by April De Angelis, which perhaps supports the ‘celebrities make profits’ theory slightly more (cast including Tamsin Greig), but even this production does not smack of the idea that they are putting a known face in just to attract business; the Royal Court maintains its integrity. This venue is more than a theatre; it is an educational establishment, as well as an aid to new and old writers alike. With the website dedicating an entire page to playwriting, The Royal Court states that it ‘...has an unwavering commitment to writers.’ Located in Central London, endeavouring to lower prices of tickets for students and others, and encouraging new writing, what more could you want?
I have seen bold and sometimes brash work at this theatre, such as The Conquest of the South Pole and with past shows including titles like Penny Arcade: Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!, Life Ain’t No Musical: The Remix, and Clown Sex, you can tell that much of the theatre at this venue could be described as fierce. The work generally appeals to that specific generation between teenagers and young adults, but often the writing, direction and acting presented is of such a high standard and intrigue that it can attract older generations as well. I like the youthful and rebellious feel that comes from the work here, and practically following in that almost hippie-like fashion is the system at this theatre called ‘Green Arcola’, which, in a nutshell, means the venue is also resourceful and environmentally aware. Perhaps this venue is the wildchild among its peers on my list.
Having been through numerous changes since it first began its journey in 1683, I can say without doubt that Sadler’s Wells is one of the most exciting, up-to-date and thriving dance venues in the country, never mind London. Having witnessed the talent and genius of Britain’s most beloved ballet dancer Darcey Bussell; the lyrical, modern, yet accessible choreography of Matthew Bourne (seen this year in Play Without Words), the truly contemporary work of Akram Khan, and countless others, it is fair to say that Sadler’s Wells has more than covered the bases. Although focusing heavily on dance, theatre of other varieties does find its way in, but the standard stays high. I recently enjoyed a rather pertinent play in the venue’s pristine and contemporary Lilian Baylis studio, 1936, which became almost an evening of education when it was followed with a fascinating Q&A. New and exciting dance is, as ever, in the near future though: New Adventures Choreographer Award: Showcase will take place in the main venue on September 7th.
‘We are a small theatre that thinks big...’, they say on their website. Holding regular writers’ nights, giving courses on every aspect of theatre for those between education and work (such as ‘Five-O-Fresh’), as well as selflessly offering links to other writers’ guilds (such as Bush Green of The Bush Theatre), tells us that this theatre is certainly true to its word. I find that Theatre503 seems to genuinely care about the nurturing of new writing, but what I also relish about this venue is its physical arrangement. I’ve been to so many theatres above pubs in London, but what makes this one different is that the space doesn’t feel cramped in any way. It doesn’t feel like a spare room atop some noisey tavern; it’s nicely sectioned off from the pub downstairs, but maintains a good business link. The shows here tend to stay on a contemporary plain, often resulting in this way because of how frequently the venue welcomes new writers. I saw a play there in March that comprised four different writers in a perfectly appropriate fashion, London: Four Corners One Heart. This practice is clearly not uncommon though; Life for Beginners, written by five different writers, will be running from the 4th to the 29th September. Then Theatre 503 will do something brilliant. They invite authors to write a response to Life for Beginners, choose the best responses, then rehearse, direct and perform them at the event Rapid Write Response (September 25th). Not content to just showcase new writing, this theatre is actually sparking it.
As the name explains, this is an outdoor space, which is always refreshing, and despite the poor weather London has endured this summer, the Open Air Theatre has persevered on with productions of Ragtime and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, (both receiving good write-ups from us!). Helped by a strong budget, designers have created fantastic sets and costumes to fortify the excellence of the work at this venue, and although it has one of the largest audience capacities in London, the shows in this space feel almost more private than in a standard roofed venue. Both acting company and audience share the sky as their ceiling, and lighting can only highlight the actors so much, meaning, at times, we feel almost a part of their performance. Although this can be true of many outdoor venues, to have it happen in the middle of one of London’s most popular parks is something I find quite special.
This has to be one of the most prestigious Off West End venues in London. Although I am one for championing all kinds of smaller theatres and the productions produced at them, Southwark Playhouse shows are often quite exceptional. If there’s ever been a doubt in your head about the level of professionalism behind less commercial venues’ productions in comparison to West End theatre, Southwark Playhouse will vanquish it. Take Mack and Mabel for example, ‘...the intelligence of this production is how it plays the doomed love story contrapuntally against a deliberate and defensive brightness in the songs’ said Johnny Fox in our website’s reviews. Last year I was fortunate enough to see an absolutely fantastic production of Parade that I, and many others believe, rivalled the 2007 production at The Donmar. There is a consistent level of slickness and style to the shows at this theatre that not all other venues can guarantee to match every time.
This is another encouraging theatre for playwrights. Although they receive more than 1,000 scripts per year, they state that they will read every single one of them - now that is a hopeful thought for writers! What’s unique about the Bush, though, is that it has also teamed up with Kudos Film and Television to create their co-development initiative, designed to help writers working on theatre and/or television, yet this theatre is not just admirable for its enterprise. It was only in October 2011 that this theatre relocated to the Old Shepherds Bush Library, and when I last visited, the building was wonderful. It has maintained some of its previous functions; books, plays and novels line the walls. The place feels fresh, the staff are welcoming, and the change of address has allowed for 3 spaces, 1 main stage, and 2 further studio spaces. This year also marks the theatre’s 40th anniversary, and a year that’s seen some terrific theatre, such as Snookered, ‘The acting is stellar throughout’, said Jon Barton in our website’s review.
In terms of design, there’s an industrial yet intimate feel to this theatre, which is quite fitting. Focusing heavily on cultural, political and social issues, this venue sees a lot of contemporary work. I’ve been to this theatre on several occasions to see a variation of shows, most recently a captivating production of A Slow Air, and what I really love about this venue is that there’s always a calm atmosphere. Perhaps this is because the subject matters of its productions attract a more focused audience, an audience that wants to listen and learn, rather than be wowed and impressed. The Tricycle is just seeing the end of Trinidad and Tobego Village, which has showcased all aspects of the Republic’s culture, after which will follow a double bill of The Letter of Last Resort, about London after the next election, and Good With People, which sees its protagonist, Evan, return to Helensburgh, west Scotland, which is now home to the nation’s Nuclear defence programme, afraid of his past and future. So there’s plenty more political, social and cultural theatre on the way!
This rebuild is located but a few hundred yards from its historic original position on the bank of the River Thames, and is surely another example of architectural greatness. This time, however, it’s not modern beauty, like the National, that impresses me about this venue, but the recapturing of something which designers and builders had no photographs to go on. No one lived long enough to describe the original building, so it is on written accounts and drawings that the project had to begin its course, initiated by the American actor, director and producer Sam Wanamaker in 1949. Today, this venue allows its audiences to step back in time, to see Shakespeare plays as they were most likely originally intended - what an achievement, and what an unique theatrical experience this provides. The 2012 season sees a host of Shakespeare’s plays including new productions of Henry V, Richard III and Taming of The Shrew, as well as Twelfth Night, which will see Mark Rylance reprise his highly commended portrayal of Olivia, and touring productions of Anne Boylen, Hamlet, and As You Like It - plenty of classics to be enjoyed there.
Phew! So there you have it, my top ten theatres in London. As you have read, I have generally chosen theatres which offer so much more than your basic performance, interval drinks, then home time - not that there’s anything wrong with that! More and more theatres across London now are becoming places for creativity to grow and blossom, not just showcase venues. The more theatres we have like this, surely, the more intriguingly and surprisingly the world of theatre can develop.