The theatrical capital of the world, London is home to some of the most famous companies on the planet, often housed in glorious buildings. The number and variety of productions, and the standards of acting and directing, are unrivaled, and a London stage has also become the first port of call for many Hollywood stars looking to show off their thespian skills. The London stage accommodates both the traditional and the avant-garde and is, for the most part, accessible and reasonably affordable.
Pre-Theatre Dining -- Our particular pre-show favorites are Rules, for old English ambience, and traditional yet impeccable cooking; J. Sheekey, for theatrical interiors and some of the best seafood in the West End; Atelier de Joël Robuchon for Michelin-starred cooking and a great value, pre-theatre set menu; Koya for tasty noodle dishes to keep you full if the show goes on; and Mon Plaisir for the full Gallic experience, including French onion soup and fruits de mer platters.
Long-Running Shows -- In recent years the musical has come to dominate London's theatre heartland, to both the delight of audiences and the chagrin of many traditional producers. Latterly the trend for new musicals has been for two specific genres. First, there are those based around popular rock and pop acts, such as We Will Rock You at the Dominion Theatre, 268-269 Tottenham Court Rd., W1 (tel. 020/7927-0900; www. dominiontheatre.co.uk), featuring adaptations of songs by rock band Queen, and Mamma Mia! based on the music of Abba. Second are stage adaptations of films: musical versions of Dirty Dancing, Shrek, Lion King, Flashdance, and Legally Blonde have been packing in the crowds.
Those on the hunt for more traditional fare needn't despair, and long-running West End mainstays such as Les Misérables still play to appreciative crowds. Also, you're almost always guaranteed to find at least one Andrew Lloyd Webber production being performed somewhere in London, and currently both Phantom of the Opera and its sequel Love Never Dies occupy major London houses. And no guide to London theatre is complete without mentioning Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap, now in the 59th year of a record-shattering nonstop run. Since its premiere in 1952, this murder-mystery play has been performed more than 24,000 times, first at the Theatre Royal and now at St. Martin's Theatre, West St., WC2 (www.stmartins-theatre.co.uk). It has become as intrinsic a part of London as the ravens at the Tower of London.
Fringe Theatre -- Some of the best theatre in London is performed on the "fringe" -- at the dozens of venues devoted to alternative plays, revivals, contemporary drama, and musicals. These shows are usually more adventurous than established West End productions, and they're cheaper. Most offer discounted seats (often as much as 50% off) to students and seniors. Fringe theatres are scattered around London, so check listings in Time Out or websites such as Kulturefalsh.net or LeCool.com, both of which cover leftfield theatre.
To see specific shows, especially hits, purchase your tickets in advance. Ticket prices vary greatly depending on the seat and venue -- from £25 to £85 is typical. Occasionally gallery seats (the cheapest) are sold only on the day of the performance, so you'll have to head to the box office early in the day and return an hour before the performance to line up, because they're not reserved seats.
Founded in 2000, London Theatre Direct (tel. 0845/505-8500; www.londontheatredirect.com) represents a majority of the major theatres in the city and tickets for all productions can be purchased in advance, either over the phone or via their website. Alternatively try the Society of London Theatre (tel. 020/7557-6700; www.officiallondontheatre.co.uk), whose ticket booth ("tkts") on the southwest corner of Leicester Square is open Monday to Saturday 10am to 7pm and Sunday 11am to 4pm. You can purchase all tickets here, although the booth specializes in half-price sales for shows that are undersold. These tickets must be purchased in person -- not over the phone. A £2 service fee is charged. For phone orders, you should call Ticketmaster (tel. 0870/060-2340; www.ticketmaster.co.uk).
Visitors from North America can try Keith Prowse, 234 W. 44th St., Ste. 1000, New York, NY 10036 (tel. 212/398-4175 in the U.S.; www.keithprowse.com) to arrange tickets and seek information before they leave home. Their London office is at 39 Moreland St., EC1 (tel. 0844/209-0382; Tube: Angel). They'll mail your tickets, fax a confirmation, or leave your tickets at the appropriate production's box office. Instant confirmations are available for most shows. A booking and handling fee of up to 20% is added to the price.
If you're staying at a first-class or deluxe hotel with a concierge, you can also call and arrange tickets before you arrive, putting them on a credit card.
Many of the major theatres, such as the National , offer reduced-price tickets to students and those under 18 on a standby basis, but not to the general public. When available, these tickets are sold 30 minutes prior to curtain. Line up early for popular shows, as standby tickets go fast. Of course, you must show a valid student ID.
TheatreFix (www.theatrefix.co.uk) is a website set up to help and encourage those aged 16 to 26 to attend London theatres. Sign up to the service and you can get cheap entry to many productions, as well as valuable advice if you're making your first trip to the city.
Finally, if you decide to check out the theatre on a whim -- and you're not too fussy -- Lastminute.com is a safe bet to pick up late tickets at discounted rates.
Warning: Beware of scalpers (ticket touts) who hang out in front of theatres. Many report that they sell forged tickets, and their prices can be outrageous.
Classical Music, Opera & Dance
Currently, London supports a sometimes unwieldy yet impressive five major orchestras -- the London Symphony, the Royal Philharmonic, the Philharmonia Orchestra, the BBC Symphony, and the BBC Philharmonic -- as well as several choirs, and many chamber groups and historic instrument ensembles. Also look for the London Sinfonietta, the English Chamber Orchestra, and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.