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!