London's Lively Theater Scene
By Rick Steves
On our week-long London getaway tours, we give you several free evenings to make your own discoveries. And since you'll already be smack-dab in the middle of the world's greatest city for live theater, you'll almost certainly want to see a play...or several. Here's a quick primer on London's theater scene...
London's theater rivals Broadway's in quality and beats it in price. Choose from Shakespeare, musicals, comedy, thrillers, sex farces, cutting-edge fringe, revivals starring movie celebs, and more. London does it all well. I prefer big, glitzy — even bombastic — musicals over serious chamber dramas, simply because London can deliver the lights, sound, dancers, and multimedia spectacle I rarely get back home.
Most theaters, marked on tourist maps, are found in the West End between Piccadilly and Covent Garden. Box offices, hotels, and TIs offer a handy free London Theatre Guide (also at www.londontheatre.co.uk) and Entertainment Guide. Performances are nightly except Sunday, usually with one or two matinees a week (Shakespeare's Globe is the rare theater that does offer performances on Sun, mid-May–Sept). Tickets range from about £8 to £40. Matinees are generally cheaper and rarely sell out.
To book a seat, simply call the theater box office directly, ask about seats and available dates, and buy a ticket with your credit card. You can call from the US as easily as from England (check www.officiallondontheatre.co.uk, the American magazine Variety, or photocopy your hometown library's London newspaper theater section). Arrive about 30 minutes before the show starts to pick up your ticket and to avoid lines.
For a booking fee, you can reserve online (www.ticketmaster.co.uk or www.firstcalltickets.com) or call Keith Prowse Ticketing (US tel. 800/223-6108, London tel. 020/7808-3871). While booking through an agency is quick and easy, prices are inflated by a standard 25 percent fee. Ticket agencies (whether in the US, at London's TIs, or scattered throughout the city) are scalpers with an address. If you're buying from an agency, look at the ticket carefully (your price should be no more than 30 percent over the printed face value; the 17.5 percent VAT is already included in the face value) and understand where you're sitting according to the floor plan (if your view is restricted, it will state this on the ticket; for floor plans of the various theaters, see www.theatremonkey.com). Agencies are worthwhile only if a show you've just got to see is sold out at the box office. They scarf up hot tickets, planning to make a killing after the show is sold out. US booking agencies get their tickets from another agency, adding even more to your expense by involving yet another middleman. Many tickets sold on the street are forgeries. Although some theaters have booking agencies handle their advance sales, you'll stand a good chance of saving money and avoiding the middleman by simply calling the box office directly to book your tickets (international phone calls are cheap and credit cards make booking a snap).
Theater Lingo: stalls (ground floor), dress circle (first balcony), upper circle (second balcony), balcony (sky-high third balcony), slips (cheap seats on the fringes). Many cheap seats have a restricted view (behind a pillar).
Cheap Theater Tricks: Most theaters offer cheap returned tickets, standing-room, matinee, and senior or student standby deals. These "concessions" are indicated with a "conc" or "s" in the listings. Picking up a late return can get you a great seat at a cheap-seat price. If a show is "sold out," there's usually a way to get a seat. Call the theater box office and ask how.
Many theaters are so small that there's hardly a bad seat. After the lights go down, scooting up is less than a capital offense. Shakespeare did it.
Half-Price "tkts" Booth: This famous ticket booth at Leicester Square sells discounted tickets for top-price seats to shows on the push list the day of the show only (£2.50 service charge per ticket, Mon–Sat 10:00–19:00, Sun 12:00–15:00, matinee tickets from noon, lines often form early, list of shows available online, www.tkts.co.uk). Most tickets are half-price; other shows are discounted 25 percent.
Here are some sample prices: A top-notch seat to Chicago costs £40 bought directly from the theater, but only £22.50 at Leicester (LESS-ter) Square. The cheapest balcony seat (bought from the theater) is £17.50. Half-price tickets can be a good deal, unless you want the cheapest seats or the hottest shows. But check the board; occasionally they sell cheap tickets to good shows. For example, a first-class seat to the long-running Les Misérables (which rarely sells out) costs £45 when bought from the theater ticket office, but you'll save 25 percent and pay £36.50 at the tkts booth. Note that the real half-price booth (with its new "tkts" name) is a freestanding kiosk at the edge of the garden in Leicester Square. Several dishonest outfits nearby advertise "official half-price tickets"; avoid these.
A second tkts booth has opened at the Canary Wharf Docklands Light Railway (DLR) Station. The freestanding kiosk is located near platforms #4 and #5 above the DLR concourse (Mon–Sat 10:00-15:30, closed Sun, Tube: Canary Wharf).
What's On in the West End
Here are some of the perennial favorites (specifics subject to change, of course) that you're likely to find among the West End's evening offerings. If spending the time and money for a London play, I like a full-fledged high-energy musical. Generally you can book tickets for free at the box office or for a £2 fee by telephone or online.
Billy Elliot — Part family drama, part story of a boy who just has to dance (£17.50-55, Mon-Sat 19:30, matinees Thu and Sat at 14:30, Victoria Palace Theatre, Victoria Street, Tube: Victoria, tel. 0870-895-5577, www.victoriapalacetheatre.co.uk).
Chicago — A chorus-girl-gone-bad forms a nightclub act with another murderess to bring in the bucks (£17.50–49, Mon–Sat 20:00, matinees Fri 16:30 and Sat 15:00, Cambridge Theatre, Earlham Street, Tube: Covent Garden or Leicester Square, booking tel. 0870/890-1102, www.chicagothemusical.com).
Mamma Mia! — This high-energy spandex-and-platform-boots musical weaves together 20 or 30 ABBA hits to tell the story of a bride in search of her real dad as her promiscuous mom plans her Greek Isle wedding. The production has the audience dancing by its happy ending (£27.50–55, Mon–Thu and Sat 19:30, Fri 20:30, matinees Fri 17:00 and Sat 15:00, Prince of Wales Theatre, Coventry Street, Tube: Piccadilly Circus, booking tel. 0870-850-0393, www.mamma-mia.com).
Mary Poppins — A nanny that's "practically perfect in every way" sings her way through this supercalifragilisticexpialidocious show (£15-55, Mon-Sat at 19:30, matinee Thu and Sat at 14:30, Prince Edward Theatre, Old Compton Street, Tube: Leicester Square, tel. 0870-850-9191, www.marypoppinsthemusical.co.uk)
Les Misérables — Claude-Michel Schönberg's musical adaptation of Victor Hugo's epic follows the life of Jean Valjean as he struggles with the social and political realities of 19th-century France. This inspiring mega-hit takes you back to the days of France's struggle for a just and modern society (£12.50–47.50, Mon–Sat 19:30, matinees Wed and Sat 14:30, Queen's Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, Tube: Piccadilly Circus, box office tel. 020/7494-5040, www.lesmis.com).
The Lion King — In this Disney extravaganza, Simba the lion learns about the delicately balanced circle of life on the savanna (£20–42.50, Tue–Sat 19:30, matinees Wed and Sat 14:00 and Sun 15:00, Lyceum Theatre, Wellington Street, Tube: Charing Cross or Covent Garden, booking tel. 0870-243-9000 or 020/7344-4444, theater info tel. 020/7420-8112, www.thelionking.co.uk).
Phantom of the Opera — A mysterious masked man falls in love with a singer in this haunting Andrew Lloyd Webber musical about life beneath the stage of the Paris Opera (£20–50, Mon–Sat 19:30, matinees Tue and Sat 14:30, Her Majesty's Theatre, Haymarket, Tube: Piccadilly Circus, booking tel. 0870-534-4444, www.thephantomoftheopera.com).
We Will Rock You — If you're a Queen fan or not, this musical tribute (more to the band than to Freddie Mercury) is an understandably popular celebration of their work (£27.50–55, Mon–Fri at 19:30, matinees Wed and Sat at 14:30, Sat at 19:30, Dominion Theatre, Tottenham Court Road, Tube: Tottenham Court Road, Ticketmaster tel. 0870-169-0116, www.queenonline.com/wewillrockyou).
The Mousetrap — Agatha Christie's whodunit about a murder in a country house continues to stump audiences after 50 years (£11.50–30, Mon–Sat 20:00, matinees Tue 14:45 and Sat 17:00, St. Martin's Theatre, West Street, Tube: Leicester Square, box office tel. 0870-162-8787).
The Woman in Black — The chilling tale of a solicitor who is haunted by what he learns when he closes a reclusive woman's affairs (£12.50–32.50, Mon–Sat 20:00, matinees Tue 15:00 and Sat 16:00, Fortune Theatre, Russell Street, Tube: Covent Garden, box office tel. 020/7369-1737, www.thewomaninblack.com).