London’s theatre is all around the town
Once the West End meant simply the area to the west of London’s financial district, upwind of the smoke of the busy City. Now, to Londoners and tourists alike, the ‘West End’ usually means ‘theatre’. At any one time some 40 world class plays vie for attention here.The theatre district, and the West End, extend to Covent Garden home of the legendary Royal Opera House .The portico of the Royal Opera House borders on a lively piazza, normally a stage for acrobats, jugglers and assorted buskers. Last year, the roster included a surprise free gig as Sir Paul McCartney kicked off his new album here.
Fittingly, the ‘actor’s church’, St. Paul’s, is tucked away in a tiny park off the piazza. Its plain interior (the architect was instructed to make it ‘not much better than a barn’) is a backdrop for plaques commemorating dozens of theatrical greats.
Although ‘the West End is now synonymous with theatre, it didn’t start out that way. London’s commercial theatre scene was established in the East End–the first playhouse, called simply ‘The Theatre” was built in Shoreditch in 1576 . That was long before the Puritans closed the theatres in 1642. After the Restoration, the King was a frequent visitor to the Theatre Royal Bridges Street, built in 1663 where the Theatre Royal Drury Lane stands now.
The Coliseum opened on St. Martin’s Lane in the West End as the ‘London Coliseum Theatre of Varieties’. That was in 1904, and it’s still there, now as home of the English National Opera. The Coliseum is a newcomer compared to Wilton’s Music Hall in the East End.. That started life as an ale house in 1743 before morphing into a magnificent, chandelier-lit theatre and then, a century later, a Methodist Mission soup kitchen. After WW2, left to decay in the bomb-ravaged East End, the ruined building was saved by a campaign spearheaded by the poet, Sir John Betjeman. Despite ongoing restoration, Wilton’s is already bringing the East End’s performance tradition back to life. Its once world famous Mahogany Bar is functioning again, too, though the mahogany is long gone. Details and performance schedules .www.wiltontheatre.com.
For East End theatre of a different kind, a ‘still life’ drama of a family of Huguenot weavers, call in at the Dennis Severs House. Severs bought this small Georgian building in 1966, transforming it into an evocation of the life and times of the imaginary Jervis family in the periods between 1724 and 1914. The rooms seem to have been recently abandoned with uneaten food and unmade beds in the museum-quality interiors. The painter David Hockney described his visit, conducted in silence and by candle light, as among the worlds’ five greatest operatic experiences’. For details: www.dennissevershouse.co.uk
The average cost of a West End theatre ticket is £50 but £75 would be nearer to the mark for a sought-after play. Trim costs for a night at the theatre by getting a cut price ticket. The dependable Society of London Theatre booths, one at Leicester Square and the other at the Canary Wharf DLR station, offer same day tickets at a discount.. Book online for the longest running show of any kind in the world, Agatha Christie’s mystery, the Mousetrap. The play opened on the West End in 1952 and is still going strong. (www.the-mouse-trap.co.uk) No wonder a monument has been erected to the playwright, Dame Agatha; the 2.5 metre high bronze sculpture is at the end of Cranbourn Street in the West End.