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; 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.
If you are desperate to see a specific show, book tickets before you leave home to ensure you won’t be left out. Check with The Society of London Theatre (www.officiallondontheatre.co.uk), the trade association for theater owners and producers (established in 1908), for a rundown of what’s playing and soon to play, as well as discount offers. Keep in mind that many links, including Visit London’s, will deliver you to ticket sellers who’ll hit you for a premium of as much as 20% for your booking. Only use that method if you’d be heartbroken to miss a particular show.
Given a lead-time of a few weeks, the established LastMinute.com sells tickets for half price, as does LoveTheatre.com (click “Special Offers”). BroadwayBox.com’s www.theatre.co.uk posts the known discount codes for the West End shows.
Once you get to London, grab a copy of The Official London Theatre Guide, dispensed for free in nearly every West End theater’s lobby and at countless brochure racks; it tells you what’s playing, where, for how much and how long, and the location of each theater. TKTS (south side of Leicester Square; tkts.co.uk; Mon–Sat 10am–7pm, Sun 11am–4:30pm; Tube: Leicester Square), operated by the Society of London Theatre sells same-day seats for as much as half off—the best stuff is sold in the first hour of opening. While the white-hot shows won’t be represented here, about 80% of West End shows are—TKTS posts a list of its available shows on its website so you can know ahead of time. When musicals are half off, they’re around £30 to £40, and plays cost £20 to £30, although the prices fluctuate per production with up to a £3 per ticket service charge. Come armed with a magazine or a newspaper that lists what the shows are about because TKTS offers no descriptions. Also put the free app TodayTix on your phone—it also discounts shows in the days and hours before curtain and it’s a terrific source for deals.
The West End is dotted with closet-size stalls hawking tickets to major shows and concerts. Don’t deal with them. They are for audiences who simply must get tickets to their chosen show regardless of the fees as high as 25% over cost. Before you give your money to any of these outfits, check with the self-policing Society of Ticket Agents and Retailers (www.star.org.uk; [tel] 01904/234-737) to find out who is reputable. Scalpers, called touts here, often issue counterfeit tickets or abscond with your cash before forking over anything at all. Some sightseeing discount cards also brag about discounts, but their deals are mostly for the longest-running, touristy shows and they don’t save you nearly as much as TKTS would—only around £20 off the top price.
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.