Shows and Cinemas

To begin with, the term show is used in the UK to describe a staged production such as a play or musical and the term cinema is used to describe the place in which a film is viewed. These terms, used incorrectly, may cause confusion.

What is On

To find out what is on in the Theatre, read the daily papers (the Times has a Saturday supplement that is particularly good, listing all theatres and cinemas in the London and near area). For a good guide to London Theatre pick up “The Official London Theatre Guide” (see The Official London Theatre Guide Web Site which is FREE from many areas in London (check at your hotel/B & B or pick up a copy at the Half Price Ticket Booth (TKTS) in Leicester Square). A number of web sites may also be able to help, I have used TheatreNet.com and What's On Stage, finding them both pretty good. For inside information about the theatres (including what tickets/seats to avoid) try theatremonkey.com.

Leicester Square - Theatre Central

Show Tickets

For shows, the best prices for tickets can be obtained at the Half Price Ticket booth (TKTS) in Leicester Square on the day of the show at HALF price (plus a service charge). Typically the tickets are the best seats in the house. NOTE: There are other vendors close (but not IN) Leicester Square that proport to be a “Half Price Ticket Vendor” but the REAL (and best deal) can be had by the one located on the south side of the park in Leicester Square – The building is labelled “TKTS”.

Queues start early, the booth is open from Monday to Saturday from 10:00 am to 7:00 pm for matinees/evening performances and Sunday from 11:00 am to 4:30 pm. Matinees and evening performances have two separate lines (matinees in the line to the west, evening performances to the east), don't get in the wrong line! I have found that it is fun to get tickets with a few, specific, shows in mind then line up to see if you can get tickets (they do have boards that tell you want shows are on offer for the day as well, they have copies of “The Official London Theatre Guide” which is updated every fortnight (2 weeks)).

Prices for tickets can range (literally) from about £5 for a “groundling” ticket (standing in front of the stage) at the Globe Theatre to as much as £100 for the best seats in the house for a big musical (possibly, much more if you go for the “royalty” option). Most tickets are around about the £60 mark.

If you want tickets in advance, my best advice is to directly contact the theatre, however, there are other agencies on the 'net that may be able to help such as TicketMaster.

Incidentally, if you are fan of musicals then it might be good to check out West End Live, a free yearly event that showcases acts from the various shows currently playing in London over the course of a weekend (generally in June). This huge theatrical event is held in Trafalgar Square with the biggest shows performing early on the Saturday (so this is when there are the largest crowds). In some years the queue to get into the square has stretched well into Piccadilly Circus a good distance away (for a queue)!

Leicester Square - West End Live

Every summer Trafalgar Square also plays host to BP Big Screens which are free live broadcasts of Opera and Ballet shown on large video screens but get there early as space fills fast! Also be sure to pick up a free inflatable cushion as the stone is pretty hard to sit on for a few hours (and a free rain poncho if the weather does not cooperate).

BEST Shows

Please see here for up to date reviews of more recent London events and shows. However, some personal recommendations:

  • Hamilton (Victoria Palace) - An incredible and vibrant new “hip hop” musical telling the story of a little known father of the American constitution. See my review here
  • Les Misérables (Queens, originally Palace) - A venerable classic a must see if you have not already. It has been playing here for god knows how long.
  • The Lion King (Lyceum) - Great Disney adaptation of the animated film. The design, music, singing and acting are all absolutely wonderful and are a great night out. NOT just for kids.
  • Phantom of the Opera (Her Majesty's) - If you have not seen this (as it seems the world has) you MUST see it in London, THE place to see it. Great music, great staging…not so bad story either.

Her Majesty's

  • Wicked: The Musical (Apollo Victoria) Another big-musical transfer from Broadway Wicked tells the story of the two witches of Oz – Glinda, the good witch, and, Elphaba, the wicked witch of the west – What really happened behind the scenes of the Wizard of Oz story (very wittily done, if I can say so). Great music, fantastic staging and very believable acting by the cast, notably, Kerry Ellis, who puts her heart and soul into the performance. Now, almost a year since it first started in London, a large number of the audience appears to be familiar with the music and yet it still sells out every night…[22/5/07]

OK Shows

  • Mamma Mia! (Novello, originally Prince of Wales) A rollicking musical that has lots of music with a bit of story thrown in as an excuse to burst into another of Abba's famous hits. Be surrounded by American tourists as you begin to feel the music take hold in it's infectious embrace. The cast are certainly exuberant and the sets quite good to behold. I found the music sometimes a bit overwhelming – perhaps a bit TOO loud. Good fun but don't expect content.
  • The Mousetrap (St. Martins) - Running for some 46 years in London this show is great light entertainment if not a bit dated. The theatre (St Martin's) is very small and leads to a quite personal experience.

Mousetrap at St. Martins

  • The Woman in Black (Fortune) - Billed as a 'Suspense Thriller' I was not either. An acceptable play that seems to take it's time getting to the point, the acting is superb. Mind the smoke from the end of the first act (and into the second act) – I ended up gagging through most of those parts.

Shows that Have Come and Gone...

The following shows played in recent years but are no longer around:

  • Animal Crackers - A fantastic show based on the movie of the same name by the Marx Brothers. Be prepared for audience participation if you are anywhere within 10 rows of the stage (I sat in the front row… groan…). The energy given off by the cast is staggering and leads to a laughter-filled two hours (try to be seated early a bit of a 'show' starts before the curtain is scheduled to rise), also, spot the number of times the cast strays from the script (it will be obvious, believe me!).
  • Art - A great little comedy play (with an ever-changing cast) about three friends. The story resolves around the purchase of a modern piece of art which is, to all intents and purposes, white. That's it. Very good speech by the friend caught in the middle of the battle about whether or not it is 'Art' in the second act.
  • Avenue Q (Noël Coward Theatre) - A dysfunctional version of Sesame Street (though, of course, they can't say that) with puppet sex, swearing, and lot of fun. Particularly brave is the puppeteers visible throughout operating their characters (so it up to the audience to decide where to look). I would not suggest this for the easily offended but it really is a great laugh and quite enjoyable. [2/6/07]
  • Blood Brothers (Phoenix) - The seminal London musical. Extremely long playing, Blood Brothers is an English musical that addresses class differences in twins separated soon after birth. There is a fair amount of swearing which does sometimes distract but is overall an enjoyable experience. Not a spectacle as many other musicals, the polish is quite good and the cast very convincing (many in the audience were close to tears at the end).
  • The Beautiful Game - The latest Andrew Lloyd Webber musical with lyrics by Ben Elton (better known as a stand-up comedian, script writer for such shows as “Blackadder” and author of such books as “Popcorn” and “Blast from the Past” and playwright). Set in Northern Ireland's Belfast during the troubles (1969), the story follows a football team (hence the direct relationship to the title) and it's unwanted problems with religious violence. Some wonderful musical numbers (notably the “Beautiful Game” number in the first scene with great dancing) throughout with some hard-hitting and often, it seems, heavy-handed message-laden scenes. Ben Elton seems to have definitely brought Webber's somewhat optimistic style down to earth with (parents take note) expletives and violence throughout. Definitely not Cats or Phantom.
  • Bombay Dreams - A musical telling the story of a young man who rises up from a shanty town in Bombay to become a Bollywood star. Some great dance numbers and music though not terribly memorable. The story is fairly predictable though the acting is quite good. Not the best musical that Webber has produced but definitely not the worst. If you are in the mood for some light musical entertainment, this is the one to see.
  • Cats - A classic Webber musical with little attempt at story though the great choreography and music tilts the balance in it's favour. If you have not seen it and are looking for a light musical, this one is it.
  • Chicago (Adelphi) - A wonderful musical choreographed in the style of the seminal Bob Fosse. Set in the Chicago of Al Capone this musical makes little attempt at story but what story there is follows the life of a wife who murders her lover through jail and, hum, trial. A light-hearted look at this period is basically a premise for some wonderful pieces of music and dance with the band taking centre stage (literally). A classic American musical (but not necessarily west end).
  • Comic Potential - A light-hearted tale set in the near future where 'actoids' (android actors) act out soap-operas. The nephew of the TV network's mogul falls in love with one of the actoids, teaching her what humour is. A few comedic moments but not exactly “rolling in the aisles” humour. The second act is by far the best (and most interesting) when the couple head out into the “wide world”. Acting is adequate but not outstanding with fairly cardboard characters.
  • The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) - A hilarious comedy encompassing all of the bard's works. The fast-forward sections are really great. Knowing a bit about Shakespeare would help but is not absolutely required. The same group, the Reduced Shakespeare Company, also perform The Complete History of America (Abridged) which is also supposed to be quite good (though is only performed infrequently).
  • Copenhagen - A play set (on and off again) in the second world war as a dialogue between Werner Heisenberg (creator of the “Uncertainty Principal” and one of the founders of modern quantum mechanics), Niels Bohr (“god father” to many physicists of the day) and his wife (Margrethe Bohr). Dialogue is quick and requires sincere concentration due to it's often heavy material. A very interesting play offering a question into our interpretation of our own past and morality.
  • Dr Dolittle - A stage version of the classic film complete with the same songs. The staging is terrific with animatronics by a someone formerly with Jim Henson's Creature Shop. The acting is somewhat wooden (except for the doctor) though the music and props seem to stand up quite well. Definitely one to take the children too (as most people seem to do).
  • The Drowsy Chaperone (Novello) A man reminisces of 1920s musicals in his apartment. He puts on his favourite record: “The Drowsy Chaperone” and the musical springs to life around him…A witty and tremendously enjoyable romp with the legend Elaine Paige as the “Drowsy Chaperone” herself. Well staged with fantastic script and characters. [23/06/07]
  • Evita (Adelphi) A new staging of this classic Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice musical sees Elena Roger in the title role. This small woman has a very powerful voice and is ideally suited for the role not the least as she was born in Buenos Aires. The rest of the cast, in particular Philip Quast as Péron and Matt Rawle as Che deliver very strong supporting roles with the voices to match their demands. The staging is much warmer than the original with less of the more formal and abstract staging structures used then.
  • An Inspector Calls - Now playing for 5 years, this is billed as a classic play and I suppose, to a certain extent, it lives up to this billing. The set it very good and the acting as well. A very sombre play, Inspector focuses on the hypocritical nature of the wealthy (not necessarily a reference to English peerage). A surprise twist near the end leads to a predictable (if not exactly the nature of the) ending. The narrative seems to take some liberties with the characterisation (why are the children turned to immediately support the Inspector after confessing all?) but overall, a worthwhile show to see.
  • The King & I - Starring the fantastic Elaine Paige (previously) this is a wonderful revival of the classic Rogers and Hammerstein's musical. The staging is wonderful, the sets are fantastic and the singing is truly incredible (not only Mrs. Paige but also her co-star Paul Nakauchi). Don't expect a deep story but some great music and spectacle (though, admittedly, there is a fair amount of social commentary).
  • Little Shop of Horrors (Duke of York's) - A new stage production of the classic musical based upon the original Roger Corman film (starring Jack Nicholson). Good staging but with slightly less than overwhelming voices of the main characters, still an enjoyable romp.
  • Lord of the Rings (Theatre Royal) - An (inevitable) disappointment after the magnificent films this was always going to be a challenge to bring to the stage (demonstrated by the failure of this musical in the Canadian box office a year ago). Interesting and magnificent staging is unfortunately let down by forgettable music and mediocre acting (the actor playing Gandolf is particularly hammy). Still a bit of light fun…(18/08/07)
  • Miss Saigon - Incredibly loud music and needless crass dialogue do not assist this musical in the least. The story is acceptable and the staging is really quite good. The cast seem to want to be somewhere else. Theatre Royal is a wonderful location though.
  • Napoleon - The story of the young general and his Josephine as he rises from general to the supreme ruler of France. Billed as the biggest show to hit the West End I found this musical a lot smaller and the characterization somewhat lacking, in fact, I found Josephine a far more compelling figure and even that a somewhat shallow one. The music is good but is not easily remembered and not consistent from number to number. Having said all that, the finale is by far the best part of the musical and the best staged bringing the story to an expected conclusion (though perhaps not completely predictable).
  • Notre Dame de Paris - A new transfer from the Quebec (Canadian) stage. Very memorable music but not much (other than basic) acting and story. See link for detailed review.
  • Our House - A musical based around the life of a young man's key life decision and the two very different lives he could live as a consequence. Wonderful music, great dance numbers and a good feeling make this an enjoyable visit.
  • Pirates of Penzance - The traditional Gilbert and Sullivan opera as performed by the D'Oyly Carete Opera Company in their “traditional home” at the Savoy is very good indeed. D'Oyly is well known for their G & S opera productions which are always on offer somewhere in the west-end. Their singing, acting and staging is quite good and definitely one of the best ways to see Gilbert and Sullivan.
  • Rent - A bit on the loud side and, at times, terribly confusing (though that could be more me than the show). Much lauded by the critics I could not really get into it, perhaps it is an American thing?
  • Spamalot (Palace Theatre) - Great lot of fun if you are a fan of Monty Python's humour. Broadly based upon the film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” there is a lot of new material that will keep them rolling the aisles for quite some time yet!

Palace Theatre

  • Starlight Express - Ok, acceptable to watch but not much more than light entertainment (admittedly some wonderfully poignant lyrics and moments). Fantastic to see the cast quickly race around two levels of roller skate tracks (yes, even on the balcony – they will NOT be getting back their deposit on the rental of the hall).
  • Two Pianos Four Hands - A different mixture of concert and short skits about learning to play the piano. Put on by two Canadians it is often witty and always entertaining. Music is far between, so don't expect a concert.
  • Whistle Down the Wind - Full of great rock 'n' roll music. The staging is quite spectacular (witness the “rising /split” stage) though the story does seem to take it's time.
  • The Witches of Eastwick - A great stage adaptation of the film complete with (a few) special effects. Ian McShaine recently has retired from the title role, but his replacement has certainly stood in good stead. The music is good with a few memorable numbers, the staging is minimal but works very well (especially the “post card” back drops) giving the correct “air” to the musical. It was surprising to see that there actually is a (few) moral(s) to this story and it does seem to work. There are a large number of dance numbers (surprising if you are familiar with the film) which, though not comprised of exceptional expertise are certainly adequate for a contemporary stage musical.
  • Woman in White (The Palace Theatre) - The latest musical from Andrew Lloyd Webber staring, at least initially, Michael Crawford (the original Phantom of the Opera) as Count Fosco and Maria Friedman as Marian. This musical sees Webber returning to his formula of operatic musicals along the lines of Aspects of Love and Sunset Boulevard. The story is told from the standpoint of a young man who is given a warning by the ghostly figure of a woman when arriving at a distant train station. A terrible secret is long hidden and affairs come to a head. The cast all have, as may be expected, strong and talented voices to deal with the intricacies of Webber. The staging is relatively minimal with extensive use of computer generated, almost, virtual environments which do seem to, at times, abruptly contrast with the surrounding Victorian props. It is definitely not a stunning blockbuster along the lines of Phantom or Cats but enjoyable nonetheless.

Cinema

There are a million (or so it seems) theatres and cinemas in the London area, my favourite cinema still has to be the Odeon of Leicester Square, pro-porting to be one of the biggest (if not THE biggest) in Europe. They have recently undergone extensive renovation and it is really quite spectacular. If you want to really experience cinema at it's best get a top-price ticket here and see a REALLY impressive film, you will not regret it.

Most theatres have reserved seats with ticket prices being tiered (typically normal and premium) with associated costs. Films tend to cost around about £8 per ticket. Incidentally, there is no such thing as buttered popcorn in theatres here so if you want some, you will have to bring your own – the two options are salted and sweet which seem to always be served cold.

The Prince Charles Cinema, located on Leicester Place just north of Leicester Square (TUBE Leicester Square) is a local favourite providing screens of older films at VERY reasonable prices (£4 to non-members, £3 to members) and often show films late into the evening/next day.

Theatres

There are a number of theatres that hold regular performances, my favourite is the Royal Albert Hall, not only a historical site there are spectacular acoustics and views from all of the seats. Late summer are the highlight of the Royal Albert Year playing host to the Proms where, for about four weeks, there are performances at least once a day of classical, orchestral and popular music. Typical 'Promers' buy tickets for the performance where a thousand tickets are sold for £5 one hour before the performance starts (a guide is published every spring and for sale in most new booksellers; see Steve's Guide to the Proms).

Royal Albert Hall

The Barbican Centre is a general arts and theatre venue in the middle of London that has cinemas, theatres and exhibition spaces. There is often something free going on here and, if anything, people will be here using the free wi-fi. It looks a bit 1950s (because it is) but don't let this fool you – this often hosts cutting-edge contemporary exhibitions and shows.

The Barbican (Home of the Famous Theatre) - City of London

The National Theatre and the Royal Festival Hall (TUBE Waterloo), located on the south bank of the Thames offer a wide range of performances from symphonies, plays to musicals. There is also a program of free events throughout the year, though these events are thickest in the summer. For fans of Shakespeare the National Theatre provides serious and enthralling performances by the National Theatre company itself staged on an open stage with a very intimate feeling theatre (in the Olivier). Less serious fans can take a look at the more traditionally staged plays at the Globe.

Royal Festival Hall - At night with footbridge and the London Eye

Opera

The new Royal Opera House, located just off of Covent Garden, is the premier location of opera in London, or at least, they would have you believe this with the price of their tickets. The ROH is the home of the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet groups and as such offers first class facilities and what must be what one would think of as a classical night out at the opera. It must be admitted though, that the quality of performances is truly wonderful with the truly magnificent Royal Opera company and the visiting troupes such as the Kirov Ballet company.

Serious opera fans tend to find a home with the English National Opera based in the London Colosseum just off of Trafalgar Square. ENO offers tickets starting at about £3 all the way up to a much more reasonable (than the ROH) £60. ENO offers a larger assortment of both classical and modern pieces than the ROH. It should be noted that the cheapest seats are truly that: cheap with extremely narrow and cramped areas – pay an extra £10 for something a bit better.

Note: TUBE Indicates closest London Underground station, see Transport for London for further information.