The London theater scene feels a lot like the New York theater scene—but with even more variety. What we call Broadway, they call West End. And what we call off-Broadway, they call off-West End or fringe. And once you dig in to the live productions of all scales throughout London you realize there is an enormous array.
In the West End you’ll find the most extravagant shows like Les Miserables, Wicked!, Book of Mormon, Lion King, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Billy Elliot, Mamma Mia, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and the list goes on. In this same area, are smaller theaters that house musicals, comedy shows, and plays as well. In total there are approximately, forty theaters considered as part of the West End.
Like in Midtown Manhattan, the theaters are clumped together especially in Covent Garden and Soho, areas that are awash with restaurants welcoming pre-show and post-show diners.
I recently spent the evening watching the funny and thoughtful production, “The Play that Goes Wrong” at the Duchess Theatre. After picking up our tickets at the box office well before show time, we roamed around the surrounding neighborhood, peering into the windows of restaurants, deciding where to eat. We settled on a vibrant Spanish tapas and wine bar called The Opera Tavern (you must get the chargrilled octopus)—one of many international restaurants in the area. After our tasty meal, we headed to the play where we laughed for hours straight.
Viewfinder Tip: For discounted London theater tickets book online well in advance or visit the TKTS booth in Leicester Square.
It’s easy enough to book a theater ticket in the West End, simply Google around for London theater tickets and you’ll stumble upon sites such as londontheatre.co.uk.
But what about going deeper?
Something rather special about London is that there is a particular respect and interest in live performance arts. All over the city, productions are held in small theaters as well as in the back of pubs. And to have a truly local theater experience, you must attend one of these fringe performances.
Here are just a few popular theaters and pubs to begin your search.
The National Theatre is the most renowned off-West End production house in London. Top theater troops and famous actors perform on the theater’s three stages in as many as 25 new shows a year. A fun fact about this theater is that some of their performances are streamed live online—so you can even watch from home (wherever that is!).
The Jermyn Street Theatre is in the West End, yet it is a fringe studio theater known for acclaimed revivals. For a more experimental and radical performance, try the Ovalhouse. Or check out The Pleasance Theatre for comedy shows.
And don’t forget the theaters often in the back or upstairs to pubs. Consider the Finborough Theatre, an intimate venue often focusing on plays and musicals seen as “genuinely neglected works from the 19th and 20th centuries.” Other pub theater examples include Landor Theatre for musicals and Old Red Lion Pub & Theatre known for showing productions so good they break through to the West End and Broadway.
What kind of live theater shows do you like to see?