A theatre lover’s guide to London

Adore the bright lights of the theatre? Take a wander in the West End...


London’s Theatreland is booming. More than 22 million people go to see a play in the capital every year, according to research carried out by the National Theatre – so why not make the most of it? Here’s our guide to walking through the world’s most exciting theatre district.


Let’s begin at Shakespeare’s Globe on Bankside, the replica of the Bard’s playhouse that opened in 1997. This is the epicentre of the modern London stage. The city’s first purpose-built playhouses, the Theatre and the Curtain, were over the Thames in Shoreditch, and the remnants of Shakespeare’s Rose and the original Globe, arguably the “wooden O” mentioned in Henry V, are just to the south.

Shakespeare’s Globe

To the east is the new playhouse that former National Theatre director Nicholas Hytner is opening by Tower Bridge in 2017: due north is the Barbican, where Les Misérables first opened 30 years ago.

Heading west, but keeping south of the Thames, we reach the road known as the Cut. Here is the Old Vic, built
in 1818 and shaped by visionary managers Emma Cons and Lilian Baylis. John Gielgud, Alec Guinness and Michael
Redgrave played seminal roles here between the wars, and Laurence Olivier almost died on stage. During rehearsals for his 1937 Macbeth, a 25lb stage weight fell to the stage and missed him by inches.

Years later in 1980, Peter O’Toole may have lamented taking the same role at the same address, though he only had to dodge savage reviews. Olivier lived to open the National Theatre in its original Old Vic home in 1962, with O’Toole’s Hamlet; a young Maggie Smith joined the company, while Judi Dench, who played here in the 1950s, went off to the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Back beside the Thames, part of the South Bank’s arts complex, is the National Theatre’s concrete current home, designed by Denys Lasdun, opened in 1976, and described by director Jonathan Miller as “a mixture of Gatwick Airport and Brent Cross shopping centre”. Its three stages have seen political strife and strikes but also Albert Finney as Tamburlaine, Michael Gambon as Galileo, The Romans in Britain, the David Hare trilogy, Guys and Dolls and War Horse. 

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Across Waterloo Bridge on Wellington Street is the Lyceum, home to the first theatrical knight Henry Irving, once managed by Bram Stoker, and now home to The Lion King. But turn immediately left on the Strand and there’s the Art Deco Savoy, the first public building entirely lit by electricity when it opened in 1881. Seven years later, its owner, Richard D’Oyly Carte, built the adjacent Savoy Hotel with the proceeds of Gilbert and Sullivan operas.

Savoy Hotel and Theatre in the 1930s

Further along the Strand are the Adelphi, where the musical Kinky Boots is a runaway success, and the Vaudeville… but you may be hungry. Try Joe Allen on Exeter Street, a basement favourite of the theatre crowd.


Fortified, head left to the Aldwych, taking in the matching icing-sugar Novello and Aldwych theatres, designed by the WGR Sprague, then up Drury Lane and left onto Russell Street, past the tiny and elegant Fortune, where The Woman in Black has been petrifying audiences since 1989. Look left onto Catherine Street for the frontage of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. It’s one of the jewels of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Company and home to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: there has been a theatre of this name here since 1663.

From here, meander through Covent Garden market, up James Street and Neal Street and turn left into Earlham Street, passing the banana store that became the Donmar Warehouse, where Nicole Kidman bared all in The Blue Room, and the Cambridge (home to Matilda). Beyond the Seven Dials roundabout, pass through Tower Court, between the St Martin’s (home to The Mousetrap for over 60 years) and the Ambassadors, then up West Street to the Palace on Cambridge Circus. This dazzling terracotta-clad theatre is an artwork in itself.

Up Moor Street beside the Palace is the Italianate Prince Edward, in Soho’s Old Compton Street, one of eight London theatres owned by producer Cameron Mackintosh. There’s time for a snifter at the Coach and Horses on Greek Street, which leads into Shaftesbury Avenue to the south. There are four theatres between Cambridge Circus and Piccadilly Circus: the Queen’s and the Gielgud, and the Apollo (where the ceiling fell on the audience watching The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time in 2013) and the Lyric. 

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On Piccadilly Circus we pass the Criterion, built entirely underground in 1873, then it’s down Haymarket, where the Theatre Royal – described by Noël Coward as “the most perfect theatre in the world” – sits opposite the equally handsome Her Majesty’s, in which the Phantom of the Opera broods. When it was suggested that the nearby Comedy Theatre on Panton Street be renamed for playwright Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard allegedly suggested that Pinter should change his surname to Comedy.

Across Trafalgar Square and up St Martin’s Lane we pass the Coliseum, London’s largest theatre. Opposite stands the Duke of York’s: behind that, on Charing Cross Road, is the Garrick, where this month Kenneth Branagh kicks off a season of plays. 

The Coliseum

Straddling Charing Cross Road and St Martin’s Lane are Sprague’s Wyndham’s and Noël Coward theatres: at the latter, Ms Kidman is currently fully covered in Photograph 51.

Assuming you are going to a play, book a post-show table at the stars’ favourite hangout, the Ivy, back on West Street.

Good luck on your travels. I won’t say break a leg.  

Visit London’s West End with Radio Times Travel