New Wimbledon Theatre: Backstage Tour

New Wimbledon Theatre exterior

New Wimbledon Theatre exterior

Where? New Wimbledon Theatre, The Broadway, Wimbledon, London, SW19 1QG

When? From 2017  tours will run on the last Saturday of each month.

How? You can book online

Cost? Tickets are £8 per person

Duration? Approximately 90 minutes

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.

Stained glass window at Wimbledon Theatre

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.

View from the rear of the upper circle in the New Wimbledon Theatre
View from the rear of the upper circle. Not bad at all!

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.

The view from the stage, New Wimbledon Theatre
The view from the stage

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.

Looking up into the fly tower, New Wimbledon Theatre
Looking up into the fly tower
New Wimbledon Theatre dock doors
New Wimbledon Theatre dock doors where all of the sets are shifted in and out

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!

New Wimbldon Theatre mural

New Wimbldon Theatre mural

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.

For more about backstage theatre tours visit backstagetheatretours.com

Almeida Theatre: Backstage Tour

Almeida Theatre

Where? Almeida Theatre, Islington, London N1 1TA Photo: Andreas Praefcke

When? Every few months. Check their website for details

How? You can check times and book online

Cost? Tickets are £7 (£6 concessions)

Duration? Approximately one hour

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 Interior of the Theatre of the Islington Literary and Scientific Institution now the Almeida Theatre
The Interior of the Theatre of the Islington Literary and Scientific Institution Totswill & Co. 1840-1850 (National Maritime Museum Collection)

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.

Almeida foyer
Almeida foyer
Almeida foyer
Original wall of the building, now inside the Almeida foyer under the glass roof.
The glass roof above the Almeida foyer
The glass roof above the Almeida foyer, dating from the 2003 renovations.

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.

Almeida Theatre Green Room
Almeida Theatre Green Room

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..

Under the Almeida stage
Under the Almeida stage

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

For more backstage tour info, visit backstagetheatretours.com

London Palladium: Guided Tour

London Palladium exterior

 

London Palladium exterior

Where: London Palladium, 30 Argyll Street, London, W1F 7TE

When: Tours usually run at 11:30am on selected dates. Check the website for details of upcoming tours.

How: You can book online on the Really Useful Theatres website

Cost: £12

Duration? About two hours

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.

Lovely stained glass doors in the London Palladium foyer.
Lovely stained glass doors in the foyer. This area was for the smart front stalls set!
Beautful decor of The Cinderella Bar, London Palladium
Just a taste of some of the gorgeous decor. This is called the Cinderella Bar for a very particular reason but you’ll have to take the tour to find out why!

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.

London Palladium auditorium
The beautiful auditorium

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.

View from the Royal Box, London Palladium.
View from the Royal Box. It’s more important for the occupants to be seen by the audience than to see the show!
View of the London Palladium stage from the Royal Box.
View of the stage from the Royal Box. A bit side on!

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.

The London Palladium stage.
The London Palladium stage.

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!

The view of the auditorium from the stage, London Palladium.
The view of the auditorium from the stage.

 

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!

Above the London Palladium stage
Looking up above the stage.

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.

London Palladium fly ropes
Fly ropes

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.

Door doors of the London Palladium
This is where all the set gets in and out of the theatre.
Under the London Palladium stage
We even got to see under 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.

For more about backstage theatre tours visit backstagetheatretours.com

Backstage Tour of the Young Vic

The Young Vic exterior showing the three different sections.

Recently I was lucky enough to take a free backstage tour of the Young Vic which were running as part of the BBC Get Creative Weekend.

We started outside with our friendly and knowledgeable guide, Daniel, where we discovered that the Young Vic is a building of several parts, and the oldest section actually started life as a butchers shop. Incredibly, although I’m a regular visitor to the Young Vic I’d never really clocked the original tiles and signage or the meat-hooks hanging in the box office! There’s even a photo just inside the door of the building back in the butcher shop days.

The Young Vic exterior showing the three different sections.
The different sections that make up the Young Vic. The medium sized Maria space is the brown piece on the left-hand side and the main house is the metallic section on the right. The glass section in the centre is the bar and restaurant, and the oldest part of the building is where you enter just under the red ‘Theatre’ sign.
Young Vic entrance, where you can see the original butcher's shop signage under the neon.
Look under the neon and you can see the original butcher’s shop signage.

 

We started off with a visit to the main house which seats about 500 but is completely flexible so can be laid out differently for every show. We saw the simple but brilliant set of a giant plug and plug socket for current show If You Kiss Me Kiss Me which sounded really exciting – a combination of gig and dance show performed by Jane Horrocks, with a live band and a team of dancers.

The biggest surprise for me was going into the Young Vic’s Maria Space, their medium sized venue which seats about 150 although like the main house it’s a flexible space with endless staging possibilities. Recently I saw the moving A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing here, with an end-on stage. Another terrific show I’ve seen in this space was Bull where it was transformed into a boxing ring with audience sitting and standing around the playing area. But today there was absolutely nothing in there. Really nothing. No set, chairs, no rostra…and even the door where I’ve always entered was locked and barred high up in the wall above our heads. It’s amazing how an empty room can be so inspiring!

We had a walk through the offices – which even include a lovely little roof garden – and spotted some of the various departments that keep the Young Vic’s heart beating. I also discovered that the Young Vic is home to several associate companies – 1927 (I was lucky enough to catch their incredible Golem at the Young Vic – a fusion of animation, live performance and music), Belarus Free Theatre, BirdGang and the Regional Theatre Young Director Scheme.

We finished off with a quick visit to costume where a fabulous array of hats from past shows were suspended above our heads and the costume supervisor was kind enough to answer our questions about the department.

This was such a great opportunity to find out more about the work of the Young Vic and a treat to see into the theatres and backstage areas. The Young Vic offer backstage tours for local schools but no regular public programme, so if ever you get a chance to join a one-off tour like this, I’d urge you to come along and find out more about this great place!

You can find our more about all things backstage tour on my website

 

London Coliseum Guided Tour

London Coliseum

London Coliseum

Where: London Coliseum, St Martin’s Lane, London, WC2N 4ES

When: Currently running Saturday mornings

What’s on: The London Coliseum is home to the English National Opera (ENO) and runs a varied repertoire, all sung in English. You can also see ballet and now musicals too.

How: You can book online or by calling the box office on 020 7845 9300

Cost: Full price £10, concessions £8, school tours £5

Duration? About an hour

London Coliseum facade
London Coliseum facade

The London Coliseum is home to English National Opera but was actually built as a Palace for the People, a Hall of Varieties.

It came up in 1904, the brainchild of Sir Oswald Stoll who can actually be seen in the foyer, but not as a simple statue or bust – oh no, Sir Oswald’s face is incorporated in a much more interesting and unusual way! To find out where, take the tour, or when you go to see an opera, see if you can spot him in the throngs of people!

The building was designed by the exceptional theatre designer Frank Matcham, and there is a nod to Classical, Baroque and even early Art Nouveau in the amazing architecture.

We learnt all about the fascinating history and characters behind the London Coliseum and what is was like for audiences in the past, where sedate and elegant tea-rooms sat where the bars are now!

We went into the beautiful auditorium, where you can get a surprisingly good view from the very reasonably priced Balcony seats – something I have much experience of enjoying!

London Coliseum stage during a changeover between two shows
London Coliseum stage

The theatre was a hubbub of activity as a new show was being built into the theatre. There’s relatively little space behind the stage, and sets are stored off-site, so every change in the repertoire requires huge lorries to take the sets in and out.

ENO lorry transporting all the sets
ENO lorry

We could actually see daylight sparkling onto the stage where the huge dock doors were open at the back of the building…and when I had a look from the outside at the end of the tour, I could just make out the red velvet seats from the road!

The dock door at the rear of the London Coliseum
The dock door at the rear of the theatre

We then made our way through the offices and backstage areas of the building. In the staff canteen you can see a few remaining parts of the original stage machinery that allowed effects such as a show of the Epsom Derby – complete with racing horses!

We finished off with a visit to the sizeable orchestra pit, which gave a good feel of what the auditorium looks like from the stage, and had a sit in the fancy stalls seats.

London Coliseum stage during a changeover
The stage

Verdict: The London Coliseum is a beautiful building that I really knew very little about before this tour, in spite of having attended many operas and ballets here. It was great to learn more about the history and we really left with a feel for how this building has changed over the years.

For more about backstage tours, visit my website backstagethearetours.com

Royal Court Theatre: Building and Backstage Tour

Grade II listed Royal Court Theatre facade
Original Royal Court signage
It looks so contemporary but this the original Royal Court signage, now in the theatre’s bar

Where: Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square, SW1W 8AS

When: Currently running Saturday mornings 9 January – 23 April 2016.

What’s on: The Royal Court is first and foremost a writers theatre and runs an exciting programme of predominantly new work

How: You can check times and book on their website

Cost: Tickets £7 or free on Open House Weekends

Duration? About 90 minutes

Grade II listed Royal Court Theatre facade
Grade II listed Royal Court Theatre facade

The beautiful building dates from 1888, and spent time as a theatre, then a cinema, before being bomb damaged in WW2. It re-opened in the 1952 with the English Stage Company and artistic director George Devine, committed to discovering new writer and creating new work. The third play they premiered was George Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, a play that changed the face of modern British theatre.

The building closed for refurbishments for a few years in the 90’s and re-opened bigger and better in 2000, extending underneath Sloane Square. The architects were briefed that the theatre owes everything to it’s past but looks only to the future.

 

We started our tour in a cozy corner of the bar called the The Ladies Room…made, fittingly from what were previously  ladies public toilets, donated from the council to the theatre!

The whole building is filled with little stories and unexpected discoveries. Mirrors turn out to he secret doors. A wonderful piece of public art extends through the levels front-of-house. The lift talks to you in the voices of several famous actors. Elements such as the window covers are grilles from those ladies toilets. Even the offices are incredibly well-appointed and contain two of the original auditorium doors. Impressively, the whole building is fully accessible for visitors and staff alike.

The red wall - public art with markings that show where the sunbeams hit it during the day.
The red wall – public art with markings that show where the sunbeams hit it during the day.

 

We visited both of the theatres. The little Jerwood Theatre Upstairs has always been associated with risky work, it can be totally transformed and the design of the building makes it feel as though you are climbing into a secret attic where anything can happen.

Jerwood Theatre Upstairs Royal Court
Jerwood Theatre Upstairs

The Jerwood Theatre Downstairs was currently home to the new Caryl Churchill play …and the stage was mainly covered with live grass which we were unable to stand on. But we still got to go onstage and feel how wonderfully intimate this performance space is. While we waited our turn to stand onstage we checked out ‘writers row’ where writers typically sit to watch their play in previews. The seats all bear the names of famous playwrights.

Jerwood Theatre Downstairs auditorium
Jerwood Theatre Downstairs auditorium

Royal Court auditorium detail of ceiling

The named seats on ‘Writers Row’:

John Osborne's seat on writers row, Royal Court

We had a great look backstage as well!

Backstage - the scene dock
Backstage – the scene dock
Looking up into the flies above the stage at the Royal Court
Looking up into the flies
Royal Court scene dock from the outside
Royal Court scene dock from the outside
Royal Court Stage Door
Stage door

Our lovely guide had so many great stories to tell – which I won’t give away…you have to go and hear them on the tour!

If you want more backstage tours information, visit backstagetheatretours.com 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Richmond Theatre Backstage Tour

Richmond Theatre upper facade
Richmond Theatre facade
Richmond Theatre facade

Where? Richmond Theatre, Little Green, Richmond TW9 1QJ

When? Currently running Saturday mornings 9 January – 23 April 2016.

What was on? Cinderella – it was panto season!

How? You can check times and book on their website

Cost? Adult tickets are £8, ATG card holders £7 and Concessions are £5

Duration? About 90 minutes

Richmond Theatre upper facade

Richmond Theatre is a beautiful Frank Matcham building and also a busy receiving house now owned by ATG. Although they ran tours several years ago, there haven’t been any for a long while so I’m delighted they’ve started again and definitely didn’t want to miss this opportunity. I’ve been a reasonably regular visitor to Richmond Theatre over the years and it’s a lovely space to be an audience member, with really good sightlines and an interesting and varied programme.

But how do things look from the other side of the curtain?

The original pit entrance door at Richmond Theatre
The original pit entrance. Nowadays we all get to use the grand staircase and doors!

We started outside and heard about the history of theatre in Richmond and how this building fits in which gave us a good context before heading inside, and backstage.

Because the tour focussed very much on the current production (the very last of the pantomime season!) this is a tour you could do again and again. I especially enjoyed hearing all about the stories from the pantomime – Cinderella’s amazing transforming dress, the (real!) minature Shetland ponies – just to name a couple! Best of all, it was clear throughout that our guide loved the theatre and was so full of enthusiasm to tell us all about it and make us love it too.

Richmond Theatre red, gilt and velvet auditorium
The beautiful auditorium
Richmond Theatre's beautiful auditorium ceiling
Richmond Theatre auditorium ceiling

We were able to stand on the stage, which is always a highlight, and we spent a good amount of time there too, looking at the set, peering up into the flies and out into the auditorium while our guide explained how everything worked and answered all of our questions.

Looking down at the Richmond Theatre blue stage
Looking down at the stage
Looking up into the Richmond Theatre fly tower above the stage
Looking up into the fly tower directly above the stage

Everything always feels a lot smaller from the stage, so it was great fun to go into the circle after and see how the false perspective made everything looks so much bigger and grander.

The chandelier and painted ceiling in the main foyer
The chandelier in the main foyer. The paintings are by a famous interior designer and TV personality…take the tour to find out who!

Richmond is quick and easy to reach from central London by underground or National Rail and the theatre is just a short walk from the station. It’s also a pleasant place to spend a day. You could start with a backstage tour, have a bit of a mosey round the attractive town centre or walk up Richmond Hill, and finish off with a matinee performance, still giving you time to head home before a Saturday night out! Or for a real theatre fan, why not start at Richmond for a tour then head back into London for a tour of one of the big modern spaces like the Barbican or the National Theatre as the contrast is fascinating.

For more backstage tour information visit backstagetheatretours.com

Barbican Henry IV Backstage Tour

Barbican Centre Lakeside Terrace entrance. Concrete and glass.
Barbican Centre exterior. Main entrance with concrete and glass.
The Barbican Centre

Where? Barbican Centre, Silk St, London EC2Y 8DS

What was on? The RSC were in residence. Henry IV Parts 1&2.

How? Book online on their website. Tours on offer vary depending on what is happening in the theatre.

Cost? £10.50 each plus booking fee. Members, concessions and under 16s: £8.40

Barbican Centre Lakeside Terrace entrance. Concrete and glass.
Barbican Lakeside Terrace entrance

The iconic Brutalist Barbican Centre building – which is Europe’s largest multi-arts and conference venue – was completed in 1982 and sits at the heart of the Barbican Estate. Much of the Barbican is built below the ground and at times you feel like you’ve entered a huge subterranean world!

Barbican detail of ceiling lighting. Blue squares in a circular concrete hole.
Barbican detail of ceiling lighting

It’s an odd sensation to go underground to get into the theatre, and every level you descend the walls change to a different lurid colour. The deeper you go, the brighter it gets.

The wonderful thing about the Barbican Tour is the amount of backstage access you get. By the time you’ve finished this tour, you really feel like you’d had an insight into how this theatre works.

We went half-way up the fly tower – the tallest in Europe, in its day – and looked up into the grid above and down onto the stage below. We descended under the stage and saw where a live orchestra can sit, and where the actors go when they vanish through trapdoors! We even saw a few bits of the paper ‘blizzard’ still remaining from the recent Hamlet with Benedict Cumberbatch.

As if this wasn’t impressive enough, we also had a chance to go on the stage itself. Although this auditorium has more than a thousand seats, the space looked and felt quite intimate from here and it was great to look up and view what we’d seen from the fly tower from the actors’ point of view. It’s also interesting to see the unusual projecting upper levels of seats which ensure everyone gets a good view in this theatre – although you might need a bit of a head for heights if you are near the top!

We continued by walking around the sides and rear of the stage, taking in a range of props, weapons, costumes and set making this tour a terrific accompaniment to seeing the show.

Barbican Estate from the Lakeside Terrace
Barbican Estate from the Lakeside Terrace

Barbican Centre exterior

Verdict: I was so impressed with this tour. We took the most incredible route, there was lots of great backstage access and I feel like I know the Barbican so well now! It’s the kind of tour you’d want to come back and take again for different productions. You can also explore the Barbican further with an Architecture Tour. Why not team it up with a National Theatre Architecture Tour for a full day of concrete enjoyment?

For more about backstage tours visit backstagetheatretours.com

The National Theatre: A Tour for Every Occasion

National Theatre backstage tour in the Olivier Theatre
National Theatre entrance
National Theatre

Did you know the biggest factory in central London actually sits on the bustling South Bank overlooking the River Thames?

It’s the impressive National Theatre, an iconic building which as well as being home to three permanent theatres, contains extensive production workshops. This is because the National makes every aspect of its shows onsite and everything from the wigs and costumes to the vast sets are constructed here.

The National Theatre runs a repertoire system, switching between two (and sometimes even three) plays every few days in each theatre. This means they can stage around 30 plays a year and there’s always lots to choose from.

Best of all, the National Theatre runs a range of great tours which give you a chance to see some of the action.

National Theatre backstage tour in the Olivier Theatre
Ship ahoy! National Theatre backstage tour in the Olivier Theatre in front of the set for Treasure Island. [Image copywright National Theatre]
Backstage Tours run daily and you can check availability and book on the website. Exact timings vary because tours of this busy working building have to fit around the demanding schedule of running around 30 plays a year. Tours are led by one of the National Theatre’s dedicated team of knowledgeable and entertaining guides and no two tours are ever the same which is very exciting! You never quite know what you’re going to see, but a typical tour usually includes visit to at least two of the theatres, as well those incredible production workshops where the sets and props are constructed. You might see a new set being built in, you might see a change-over between two plays…you just never know!

Occasionally special post-show tours are offered which give you a chance to walk on the stage and have a close-up look of the set. Get in touch with the tours team to find our when one of these is next running.

Younger children would love one of the Family Tours which run at half-terms and holidays. These are a bit shorter than the standard backstage tour and everyone gets a chance to try on costumes at the end. The National also runs on-request tours for parents/carers with babies so get in touch if you’re interested in one of these.

Special occasion? Team up a backstage tour with a delicious theatrical-themed afternoon tea in fine dining restaurant House on one of the Tea and Tour packages.

If costume is your passion you definitely need to sign up for a Costume Tour. These run less often and only accommodate small numbers so there’s a waiting list for places but it’s definitely worth the wait! As well as visiting the workshops where the costumes are made you get to see into wigs hair and makeup (or ‘WHAM’ as it is known). You’ll see wigs being prepared for the shows that day as well as new costumes being made for future productions.

National Theatre flying buttresses looking like a giant cubist composition
National Theatre flying buttresses looking like a giant cubist composition

Personally I’m a big fan of the concrete (one of the seven wonders of London say Time Out ) and you can get to know the building better by taking one of the new Concrete Reality Architecture Tours. You’ll find out more about architect Denys Lasdun’s vision, discover how those soaring pillars and terraces stay up and explore some of the sparkly-new redeveloped NT Future spaces.

National Theatre Tours also pride themselves on being accessible. The Contego system, an easy-to-use wireless listening device, is available for the hearing impaired (including hearing aid users) and step-free accessible routes can be arranged in advance. Contact the tours team in advance of visiting to discuss any access requirements.

Finally, if you don’t have the time to take a tour, or if you want to make a day of sit, spend some time wandering around the amazing building and terraces as it is open to the public. There are several free exhibition spaces, including the Lyttelton Lounge where you can access content from the Archive on your smartphone. Or if you just want to relax, grab a coffee and freshly made cake from the Espresso Bar or Kitchen cafe and make use of the free WIFI! (Tip: if you want to see the original wheels from the drum revolve, a massive scenic elevator that sits under the Olivier stage, you can find them enjoying a second life as tables in new riverfront bar Understudy. And have a nice craft beer while you are there!)

With so many great tours to choose from, several bars and restaurants, lots of public exhibition spaces and that great South Bank location, it’s easy to make a day of it at the National Theatre!

Find more backstage tour info at www.backstage tours.com

 

 

 

Wilton’s Music Hall: History Tour

Wilton's Music Hall upper level and stage with panto set
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The way inside…

Where? Wilton’s Music Hall, London

When? Tours run on Mondays at 6pm

What was on? It was panto season! Their first family pantomime, Dick Whittington & His Cat

How?  Book on their website

How long? 1 hour

Cost? £6

Duration? 1 hour

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Wilton’s Music Hall and Mahogany Bar

Wilton’s Music Hall is one of those places I’ve always intended to visit but never quite made it. Until now! I wish I’d made the trip a long time ago as it’s a wonderful space with a fascinating history. Situated between Tower Hill Gate and Shadwell stations, it’s easy enough to find but still has this tucked away, secret feeling that makes visiting really special.

We started in the historical Mahogany Bar before moving into the hall itself. I took the opportunity to treat myself to a mulled wine (delicious!) and we discovered that this historic bar played a large part in the history of Wilton’s. The bar was purchased by Henry Wilton several years before he bought up neighbouring land and property to open the music hall in 1869.

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Beautiful interior of Wilton’s

Sadly Wilton’s, like other smaller suburban halls, was a victim of its own success. The acts became famous and hit the bright lights of the West End, the new and improved transport links meant that audiences followed suit. For many years Wilton’s was kept as a Methodist Mission with a school and soup kitchen, which ironically ensured the hall’s survival to this day.

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The tours are devised by Wilton’s resident researcher and historian and our marvellous guide had an absolutely encyclopedic knowledge of the hall. I was particularly struck with the depth, quality and detail of the research and there has to be the roots of several PhD’s waiting here. I’d urge any academic or student searching for a thesis topic to check it out, or indeed anyone with a interest in theatre history who would like to find out more! There is now a history room including a 3D model of the building, a display of excavated items and an introduction to some of the characters associated with the music hall. There are also some very interesting articles on the website 

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Upper level and set for the panto on stage!

At the end we were able to wander about and take photos (a real bonus) and most of us took the chance to explore the upstairs bar too – not to get a drink (yet) but to look into some of odd little nooks, crannies and spaces that came about from converting the terraced houses into the music hall.

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Stairs up to the cocktail bar

A booklet about the history of Wilton’s is currently being published and will soon be available. I’ll be dropping back in to pick up one of those. Happily, the future now looks bright for Wilton’s and it has a full and buzzing programme of theatre, music, events, and more!

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Wilton’s sits inside a series of terraced houses so there are lots of little nooks and crannies

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Verdict: Wilton’s Music Hall is a magical little place and this tour is a fascinating insight into the history of the hall, the local area and music hall generally.  I will definitely be returning!

Check out backstagetheatretours.com for more theatre tour reviews!