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

In Praise of Tourists

De Witt sketch of an Early Modern Theatre
De Witt sketch of an Early Modern Theatre

In 1596, a Dutch traveller Johannes de Witt visited the Swan playhouse, and drew a sketch and wrote in his diary about the trip. And it’s lucky that he did! This is the best resource we have of what the theatres of Shakespeare and his contemporaries looked like.

Yet flip forward a few hundred years and I feel that tourists don’t get the appreciation they deserve. A ‘production for tourists’ says less-then-impressed Dominic Cavendish reviewing Richard II at the Globe, as if all visitors to London want to do is see a Beefeater, snaffle a Ye Olde Hog Roast and drop in for twenty minutes of gawping at Elizabethan Theatre. (And even if you do fancy a bit of of ye olde fayre does that mean you can’t appreciate good theatre too?)

When I was in Paris – as a tourist – I went to the Comédie Française to see Troïlus et Cressida.

I wasn’t quite sure how I’d handle Shakespeare in French (I can make polite conversation, do well with food & drink and read OK) but I was desperate to see inside the theatre and I was slightly familiar with Troilus and Cressida from attending an original pronunciation production in the pelting rain at Shakespeare’s Globe. (Not my favourite night I’ve ever spent in a theatre but…interesting.)

I absolutely loved it! I splashed out for a really good ticket, and it was an absolute bargain. I was personally guided to my luxurious red velvet seat and settled down to somehow I understood and enjoyed every moment of the play. To this day it’s one of the best Shakespeare productions I have ever seen. So although I was a tourist, I think I was still a pretty exemplary member of the audience and I definitely had and appreciated a high-quality experience.

To be fair, I have on several occasions seen tourists – from both the UK and abroad – nip into the Globe for a ten minute flash of a play and then depart, no doubt feeling they’ve ‘done’ the Globe. (I’m ashamed to admit that certain members of my family, not tourists at all, have also done this. ‘What was the play?’ I asked. ‘Don’t know.’ ‘Did you like it?’ I said. ‘Don’t know really, we only stayed for a few minutes.’ I seethed silently.) But is this better than not visiting the theatre at all? I’m still undecided on that. I’ve many times led tourists on backstage tours and I have to say that 99.9% of the time it’s a delightful and for me as a guide, often an enlightening experience. I’ve met wonderful people from all over the world, many of them passionate about theatre and with the most fabulous stories to tell of their experiences in their home-town theatres, both professional and amateur.

Frankly I’m thrilled that so many tourists want to come to London and have a taste of our theatre and I welcome any visitors with open arms. And tourists – in return, just google the story of the show before you see it and try to stay to the end. (Unless it’s awful, in which case leave quietly at the interval with my Londoner’s blessing.)

For more visit the Backstage Theatre Tours website

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!