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.
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
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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
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!
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.
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?
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.
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 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!