Backstage at the New Wimbledon Theatre is a wonderful wall, every brick painted to represent a past production, painted by a young flyman many years ago. Inspired by this dazzling example I’m going to paint my own metaphorical wall this year.
From 1st March 2017 to 1st March 2018 I will attempt to document every instance of theatre and live performance I see.
I want to see how my theatregoing ebbs and flows over the months of the year. Do I prefer the shows I’ve paid to see or do the surprises I acquired comps for please me the most? Do the ones I’ve really looked forward to pay back in kind?
I’ll include all kinds of live theatre, performance and music. I might include films too. The cinema is so blinking expensive these days I don’t go that much, so it won’t be a particularly hard task. I like the idea of including books I read – a sort of cultural pattern – but I read so many that could be an unrealistic task. It’s only the 6th March and I’ve already racked up several but we’ll see, we’ll see…
In short –
I will document a Year of Theatre, Live Performance and Live Music
I will probably document a Year of Cinema and Film
Theatre tickets make a great gift of course, but they’re not always the easiest things to buy. You have to check people are available, be sure they want to see the show and get their seating preference right – not at all easy if they’re a theatre fan! Theatre tokens are a good option, and can be used at over 240 venues including the West End with no expiry date but what about if you want to get something more personal?
Well here are some gift suggestions – other than theatre tickets – that will delight every type of theatre fan…
For the Musicals Lover…
If you’re buying for a musicals fan you need to get yourself to the Stage Faves website. It’s a database pulling together the public social media feeds of over 2000 musical theatre performers. There’s some very smart merchandise on sale too, including an exclusive “All I Want For Christmas” range (pictured above). If you know your loved-one’s favourite musical performer, you can order a personalised t-shirt, bag or hoodie for them to show their support! To go with it, mine the Stage Faves database for social media and website info and have a look at which musical theatre stars have an album on sale. Musical theatre goddess Kerry Ellis rocks some great music including exciting collaborations with Brian May. Latest album KE is a contemporary take on several well-know songs from musicals on stage and screen. Or try West End and Broadway star Ramin Karimloo‘s beautiful and unique amalgamation of bluegrass and musical theatre: The Road to Find Out – “East” .
Theatre and books go together so well. For the reader with stamina, Daniel Rosenthal’s The National Theatre Storyis a doorstep of a book that will keep them quiet through the festive period. Pekka Salminen’s glorious photographic hardback Theatresis an exploration theatre spaces from ancient amphiteatres to innovative modern spaces. Or Ian Kelly’s Mr Foote’s Other Leg: Comedy, Tragedy and Murder in Georgian Londonis the true tale of Samuel Foote, a 18th century dramatist, actor and comedian whose story was recently brought to the stage with Simon Russell Beale in the title role. For an interesting selection of playtexts, visit the Royal Court Theatre where the staff will definitely be able to recommend something fresh and exciting.
Just a few suggestions to get you started with theatre-themed Christmas shopping…please add any other ideas! And remember that no festive shopping trip is complete without a mince pie, mulled wine, hot chocolate or all three.
Right, I’m off to play Season’s Greetings: A Jersey Boys Christmas
The New Wimbledon Theatre is a lovely Grade II listed building which stands on the Broadway, Wimbledon, topped by their famous ‘golden angel’. As well as welcoming all the big touring productions, the theatre is known as the ‘Home of London Pantomime’ and I can personally vouch for the top-notch quality and bagfuls of fun you get from their pantos!
At the beginning of the tour we were met by our charming and knowledgeable guide Sherry Plant. As well as working on the Stage Door for the last ten years, Sherry had appeared twice on the New Wimbledon Theatre stage during her career as a professional actress and her love for the theatre was really evident. Most of us on the tour had been to the New Wimbledon several times before so we had very fond memories of the theatre! It was great to be able to find out more and Sherry had lots of fascinating stories and anecdotes to share with us.
The New Wimbledon is a late Edwardian building dating from 1910, and it is filled with marble, brass work and some very cute art-deco style stained glass windows. It was built by the theatre lover JB Mulholland and designed by Cecil Aubrey Masey, who was also the architect of the Phoenix Theatre in central London. Mulholland wanted people living outside central London to also have access to great theatres.
Having previously always sat in the stalls, where the theatre has quite an intimate feel, I was surprised to discover Wimbledon Theatre has around 1700 seats, making it one of the biggest in London. It’s best not to brave the steep tower of the upper circle if you suffer from vertigo, but for anyone unafraid of heights you do get a very decent view of the stage up there.
Of course, one of the highlights is getting to stand on the stage. There was no show in at the moment which meant we saw the stage exposed and bare, giving you a really good idea of the size. It’s amazing to see the stage stripped of all the glitz and glamour; it gives you a real insight into the magic of theatre and how it transforms a space into something special.
Something I always love doing on the stage is having a gaze up above into the fly tower. All along the side of the stage were ropes to raise and lower the scenery. The theatre is full of nautical terminology as backstage ‘crew’ were traditionally sailors – they had the muscle to shift sets around, were used to pulling ropes and handy with blocks and tackles! Many theatrical superstitions derive from maritime traditions as well.
Like every theatre, the New Wimbledon Theatre has its secrets. I certainly never guessed that this was the only known theatre to have its own Turkish baths underneath! The location is now home to a nightclub. Equally, there’s a corridor with a very special mural, painted bit-by-bit by a young flyman in the 60s and 70s to commemorate every show he worked on. I could have looked at it for hours!
Verdict: If you are a local then a visit to the beloved New Wimbledon Theatre is unmissable; but it’s definitely worth a visit from central London or further too. The theatre is just a few minutes walk from Wimbledon station which is a stone’s throw from London Waterloo, just 20 minutes by train. I’d recommend booking a matinee ticket and making a day of it!
An interesting contrast would be to spend one Saturday touring the New Wimbledon Theatre, then following up next Saturday with a visit to Richmond Theatre. Or another good theatre to compare it with is the London Palladium which was also completed in 1910.
A dingy motel room you reach by climbing winding stairs, mismatched wooden chairs, bare concrete walls and a hard-to-spot entrance don’t sound desirable but in the theatre space Found111 they add up to a very special kind of magic. Found111 has to be one of the most atmospheric venues of 2016. Once home to Saint Martin’s School of Art, the place feels saturated with past creativity and it’s the perfect location for the intense, claustrophobic plays seen here, including latest dark offering Fool for Love. It’s been a great chance to see some big names performing in a really intimate space. (Bugwas my particular skin-crawling highlight). Sadly, the life of Found 111 will come to an end on 17th December, but producer Emily Dobbs who brought us this exciting pop-up theatre is currently searching for a new venue.
The only additional benefit I’d hope for in the next Found incarnation is a space accessible to more theatregoers. I did find climbing those winding steps to the performance space high in the building very magical, but it’s a magic I’m willing to lose if it means more people can see the shows. A fully accessible venue would be a great aim for the next one. And I really, really hope there is a next one…
But just what makes found spaces so special?
Immersive theatre company Punchdrunk work on a grand scale, turning former warehouses and old post office buildings into vast, rambling, detailed worlds. Pop-up bars are springing up everywhere from roof gardens to garages. You can go back in time, play games, get mysterious invites to secret locations. Pop-up theatre feels very now. There’s something electric yet comforting about taking an abandoned, no-longer-loved space and filling it with people and energy. In today’s wasteful world it seems right to recycle a derelict building and bring it back to life again.
The history printed in the bones of the space make it special too. If you borrow a costume from the National Theatre costume hire, inside you’ll find a tag with the name of the play it first came from, the name of the actor who wore it and the name of the character they played. History, stitched right inside, always a part of it. Found spaces are a bit like that. Sometimes the story is macabre. The Vaults, a thrilling space under Waterloo station was once part of the London Necropolis Railway, which carried the dead to cemeteries outside the city.
I’ve even experimented a bit with found spaces myself back in my drama student days where along with my trusty companions, we turned the concrete pergola at Brunel University into a house, complete with bathroom, kitchen and bedroom. We begged abandoned furniture, baths, carpets and even an old toilet from the maintenance team and local businesses and intended to spend an entire day living there. Unfortunately, staging an outdoor performance in November is rarely advisable and after several hours of shivering in an icy rain we were advised to abandon the performance a little earlier than planned but I’d like to think the pergola still remembers the day it became outdoor accommodation.
Immersive and pop-up theatre covers so many different experiences from the sublime to the ridiculous but there really is something for everyone. If you’re shy about getting too involved, pick a quirky venue which stages plays rather than devised or participatory work. Large scale productions like Punchdrunk’s work do give you an incredible experience, but there are lots of smaller venues and pieces out there too where you can get really up close and personal.
Design my Night and Time Out list immersive theatre, games and dining. For lots of different pop-up experiences including bars, cinema and circus check out The Nudge.
For something a little more experimental, the annual VAULT festival returns in 2017 with six weeks of adventure and exploration underground. Also Brighton Fringe is a great way to try out all kinds of different work.
And of course don’t forget to visit Found111 if you haven’t already for a bittersweet goodbye…I can’t wait to see where I will find Found next!
I like my own company. Me, myself and I make a happy team. We’ve been to the theatre, just us, to the cinema solo, holidayed alone and thoroughly enjoyed it. You do what you want, when you want, how you want. Fancy spending an hour simply gazing at the sky? No problem! Want to idle in front of Monet’s Water Lilies for half a day? Just do it.
Lovely, but if there’s one thing better than journeying alone it’s sharing the experience with a like-minded companion. For example, my Mum and I have just one guide wherever we go and whatever we do: SpontaneityRules!
I can’t count the amount of weird and wonderful food we’ve tried, the top tickets we’ve acquired and the amazing times we’ve had all over the world – and at home too! – from being spontaneous. Fantastic!
But how about if we include more people on the journey? Not just two or three friends but a proper group tour? I’ve worked as a tour guide and workshop leader for many years so I’ve had lots of experience leading tours. I’ve lived in London for most of my life so have seen hundreds of tours passing through the tourist spots. And I’ve also been on several group tours myself. Here are some of my highlights…
My 10 favourite group tour moments:
Getting chosen to be one of the tasters on the Jameson Whisky Tour – and getting rewarded with another drink as a thank-you! Such a great experience and I even have a certificate to prove it.
Taking groups of 7-11 year olds on tours through Darwin’s Garden at Down House and seeing the ‘lightbulb moment’ when they clocked Natural Selection in action all around them! (BTW I can recommend the OpenLearn course on Natural Selection if you’re a bit woolly on this…followed by a visit to Down House of course!)
The backpacks/heavy walking shoes/vast picnics/huge range of clothing you see groups with in central London. Seriously folks, it’s a city, not Mount Everest.
…and seeing people’s amazed faces when they saw the size of the construction workshops at the National Theatre. You’d never believe there was a whole factory hidden back there.
Not very enjoyable at the time but now I look back and laugh…I worked weekends at Madame Tussauds during my degree and people used to make up ‘fake tour groups’ by collecting individuals from the queue and forming an impromptu tour group so they could get a group discount. Showed initiative but there was always a fuss about having to pay together, not being able to re-enter, people changing their mind and going back to the other queue leaving too few people to be a group, etc, etc. Chaos often ensued.
A walking tour of Jerusalem with a great guide and a very interesting group of people – including my spontaneous Mum! (The whole holiday came about rather unexpectedly but that’s another story…)
A tour of the cellar, winery and museum at Castellriog including of course tasting the delicious cava and lovely local food. Cava is sooo much nicer than prosecco!
A tour of Brighton sewers – there’s an entire world hidden away down there! Utterly fascinating.
Going backstage at Phantom of the Opera at Her Majesty’s Theatre – I first saw that show at just 6 years old so it was like magic going back! Even though I now work in theatre and have seen all kinds of backstage, they all have their own particular magic and I’ve loved every theatre tour I’ve taken!
One of my first really special theatregoing memories is seeing Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera as a child. We had to book the tickets nearly a year in advance in those long ago pre-internet days and by the time the night finally arrived, I knew the music off by heart and was filled with excitement and anticipation. As the performance started, I peeked around the side of the huge 80’s perm pitched in front of me and was utterly absorbed from start to finish. I could hardly believe what I saw. The lake filled with candles. Christine vanishing through the mirror. The Phantom invisibly disappearing from his throne and leaving the mask behind. It was like magic.
Over 25 years later, I was lucky enough to take a rare tour of Her Majesty’s Theatre exploring behind-the-scenes and on the stage. I’ve seen literally thousands of shows of all kinds since my first heady visit and have worked in theatre for many years as well. I’d read of and watched films about the fascinating tricks and illusions used in Phantom. Yet as we went through the pass door into the backstage areas, I felt that excitement all over again. We saw the cramped wing and under stage spaces. We found out many more backstage secrets. We saw sets and props close up, many of them hanging above our heads due to the lack of space. We stood on the stage and were surprised at how intimate it felt. And watching Phantom after the tour, I was struck how this backstage visit had not killed the magic of the production at all. Quite the opposite. There seemed to be another layer, another level of appreciation to my enjoyment, a cozy sense of kinship and sharing the secrets of what I was watching.
I now work as a tour guide and theatre tour development consultant and advocate, and in my experience, backstage access only increases the magic for an audience rather than negating it. After a tour, a group who has viewed a set in construction is left with a burning desire to see the production it will appear in. Walking through dressing room corridors gives them a buzz of anticipation before seeing the show. They are fascinated with knowing how the parrot popped out so quickly, or one room changed to another within seconds. I forget sometimes, how exciting people can even find an empty rehearsal room or dingy dressing room if they’ve never been in one before. It’s about painting a picture and using imagination. Magic, really.
It’s true discretion has to be exercised. It’s why a good tour guide is so important. Backstage and back-of-house needs to be interpreted so people don’t come away with misconceptions and secrets aren’t spoiled for people who haven’t yet seen a show. The NT’s High Level Walkway can be understood and appreciated better by people with a prior knowledge of what goes on behind-the-scenes – whether that’s by study, working in the industry, or from taking a backstage tour.
At the same time, a working theatre is not a museum. It’s vital that the skills and needs of backstage workers are fully respected and they have the space they need to do their job without interruption. But taking audiences backstage and giving them a brief taster into the incredibly busy process of staging and running a show can only increase their appreciation of the expertise, creativity and hard work to be found behind the scenes.
Equally, not everyone who goes on a backstage tour is a layperson or unacquainted with the world of backstage theatre. Industry professionals from across the world as well as keen and dedicated members of amateur or community theatres come to learn and see how someone else’s backstage practice differs from theirs. For many people, the real ‘magic’ is actually to be found in the theatre making process as much as in the finished production. The journey is as important as the destination.
As someone who works in theatre and sees a lot of shows in production, I know I’m still receptive to the magic of theatre. We might know every unlovely sweaty detail of a show’s genesis but we can still be moved, challenged and delighted by what is created in those precious moments onstage – and backstage – when the audience is in. If handled and interpreted properly, it’s no different for anyone else.
My first memory of going to the theatre was the pantomime. I can’t remember whether it was Jack and the Beanstalk, Dick Whittington, Cinderella or another one of those traditional tales, but I remember people onstage, I remember singing, I remember colour and light. I remember sweets being thrown and people from the audience climbing up on stage. I even remember where I was sitting, more or less. It was likely to be somewhere in London and I was definitely pre-school age. A very early experience of theatre, and one, I’d suspect, shared by several theatre goers. Pantomime, although filled with salty innuendo for the grownups is a perfect first-time theatre experience for children.
Everyone’s geared up for a more relaxed atmosphere.
As I got slightly older I became quite a fan of the Dame. I recall donning a flowery dress and lots of red lipstick while my sister toddled about with a fluffy cat and a bundle on a stick as Dick Whittington and our mum gamely took on the uncoveted role of Alice, staging our own bijou version.
Pantomime has a rich theatrical history in Britain, where it’s a huge part of our holiday traditions. In the December and New Year period, pretty much every theatre, both amateur and professional will stage one. Panto has origins in the improvisation and colourful stock characters of the Commedia dell’arte of 16th century Italy, as well as the stars, songs and variety acts of Music Hall.
I’ve seen many pantomimes over the years. Some have been great fun, others a bit rubbish. Sometimes I’m really in the cheery panto mood, on other occasions the thought of singing along with an Aussie soap star and a theatre full of sugar-filled children to the latest pop hit has me running for the hills.
That first visit to the pantomime may not be very clear in my mind, but it started a whole lifetime of visits to the the theatre. I must have seen absolutely thousands of shows over the years and I even ended up working in the industry.
Maybe I never quite got over that first burst of panto magic…
The 325 seat Almeida Theatre is bijou but world-class and I couldn’t wait to take a backstage tour and see how the space operates as a working theatre, as well as find out more about the history and architecture.
Throughout, our knowledgeable guide wove in stories of the theatre’s history, taking us from the rise of the building right up to the current day.
The original building, now listed by Historic England, dates from 1837 and was home to the Islington Literary and Scientific Society including a library and lecture theatre.
The Almeida Theatre has a beautiful curved back wall just behind the stage, and when you’ve seen a picture of the original lecture theatre, you can really see how the original building has become the theatre we have today. The theatre is set the other way around than the lecture theatre – which accounts for the curved wall is behind the stage rather than the audience as in the picture. It makes for a wonderfully wide playing area compared to the number of seats, yet still retaining a very intimate feel.
The building has had many different functions over the years, including Salvation Army barracks and a factory and showroom for Beck’s British Carnival Novelties. It wasn’t until 1980 that it became a theatre, welcoming a vast array of exciting companies and directors. Today the theatre has a world-class reputation and stages a brilliant range of work, often leading to West End or Broadway transfers, giving even more people a chance to see the shows.
We started our tour in the foyer, looking towards the original wall on one side and the modern glass roof overhead.
The Ameida makes artful use of every corner of space. We started in the workshop which before the extensive 2001-2003 refurbishment was tucked underneath the stage. Although sets are not made on site, they do of course need to be constructed and built into the theatre so this is an important spot in the building.
We visited the cosy Green Room, a sort of common room or waiting room for the actors before they go onstage (and one of the few I’ve seen with natural light!) before heading into the Wardrobe department.
We visited the understage area, a combination of storage space, quick change dressing area and route to the stage. We even had a chance to step on the stage itself. For copyright reasons we were unable to take photos of the stage as it was filled with Sacha Wares winding travelator set for the production Boy..
The Almeida has welcomed some very famous actors through its doors so we enjoyed an evocative peep into one of the dressing rooms, imagining all the past performers who had been in the space. Today the room was full of wigs for the current production, all painstakingly hand made.
Verdict: A great chance to discover more about a fascinating theatre, from architecture and social history right up to how the theatre works today. After the tour, visit the Almeida Café & Bar for a dish from their freshly prepared seasonal menu.
Header Image: Almeida Theatre. Photo: Andreas Praefcke (Own work (own photograph)) via Wikimedia Commons
You never forget your first time at the London Palladium. Whether performer, backstage or audience member, this is a really special place. My own first memory dates from my 7th birthday where I was surprised with tickets for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat! I’ve been back several times over the years so I was very excited to explore this theatre further…
The London Palladium opened on Boxing Day 1910 as a Palace of Varieties, and fittingly it has hosted more Royal Variety Performances than any other theatre.
Back when the theatre was designed there were several different entrances and exits for the variety of different audiences from working people to the wealthier crowd. We began by hearing about the history of the theatre and looking at some of the exquisitely decorated foyer and front-of-house areas as well as discovering how everything fits together.
The London Palladium is a beautiful Grade II listed building designed by the great theatre architect Frank Matcham. As well as looking wonderful, it features a cleverly cantilevered auditorium which ensures pretty much every seat from the top to the bottom has an unimpeded view of the stage as no pillars are required to keep it up.
The exception is the boxes, which, as in all theatres, boast the most luxurious surroundings but offer a better view of the audience than the stage! This is particularly true of the Royal Box, which we had a chance to visit. As you can see below, it’s more important for the occupants to be seen by the audience than to see the show! The actual stage view is a bit side on and if a member of the Royal Family wants to watch a particular show rather than attending a special event or gala as an honoured guest, they’ll generally take seats elsewhere in the theatre which offer a better view.
The London Palladium is a busy working building so you never quite know what you’re going to see – but that is what makes this tour so exciting! There’s a rich, fascinating history here, but you never forget that it’s created first and foremost as a venue for live performance. In 2016, the Palladium is returning to its variety roots and running a programme of concerts so there was plenty of activity in the building.
One of the highlights of the tour was a chance to stand on the famous Palladium stage ourselves, and walk in the footsteps of all those famous performers who have graced the theatre in the past, such as Bing Crosby, Ivor Novello, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Josephine Baker, Danny Kaye, Max Bygraves, Julie Andrews, Cilla Black, Tommy Steele (who holds the record for the most appearances), Ronnie Corbett, Shirley Bassey, Bruce Forsyth, Yul Brynner, Liza Minnelli, Jonathan Pryce, Kerry Ellis, Robbie Williams…and many, many more!
Looking up, we discovered that the London Palladium has a relatively small space above the stage (for example, in comparison, the National Theatre has a whopping 30m fly tower in its Oliver Theatre). Equally, although the stage is very wide, it’s not very deep, and has little wing space, so designers have to bear all of this in mind when designing sets for the theatre. It certainly hasn’t prevented the Palladium housing some very large and elaborate sets however!
Fly ropes at the side of the stage are used to raise and lower the scenery. They are on a double purchase pulley system so you need twice as much cable as the distance moved but they take less effort.
It’s amazing when you think of all the big musicals and huge-scale sets that have been in the London Palladium in the past as everything gets in and out through a modestly sized shutter at the rear of the stage. The sets are constructed off-site, taken apart like a jigsaw, brought in through this door, then re-assembled on the stage.
Fortunately for us, the dressing rooms were currently unoccupied so we also had a peek into the former and current Number One spaces which are rather less glamorous than you might imagine. It was lovely to think of the many performers who had passed through these rooms over the years.
The two hour tour can give you just the tip of the iceberg of the rich London Palladium story, so it was great to have the opportunity to ask questions throughout the tour as well.
Verdict: This tour is an especially magical experience for anyone who has memories of seeing a show at the London Palladium, but anyone who is keen on theatre history, architecture or just has a general theatre interest will have a great time too. As well as getting a closer look at the beauty and cleverness of Frank Matcham’s design, you get to explore some very exciting spaces and hear all those little stories and anecdotes that you can’t find out anywhere else. And the London Palladium has many great stories to tell!
If you want to make a day of it, why not stay in the mood by looking at some other Edwardian buildings in London such as Admiralty Arch or Central Hall Westminster and team it with afternoon tea or an elegant cocktail. Or you’re interested in comparing the London Palladium to an older theatre, a tour of the Restoration-era Theatre Royal Drury Lane makes an interesting contrast.
And I definitely want to return for a concert in this beautiful space! Check out the RUT Live website for further details.