I’m so happy I found Found111: a shout-out for pop-up theatres

 

111 Charing Cross Road
111 Charing Cross Road in its pre-theatre days. https://schauwerte.wordpress.com/

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. (Bug was 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…

St Martin's School of Art
Before the theatre… St Martin’s School of Art, 2006. By Tarquin Binary (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Performance art at Brunel University
‘Plethora’ moving into the Brunel University pergola and almost freezing to death in the process.

 

Performance art at Brunel University
Doing a jigsaw in the rain at the outdoor house
The Pergola, Brunel University
The Brunel University Pergola. Does it remember being a performance space? Image © Copyright Basher Eyre and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

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!

5 Reasons to Love Theatre

View from the Royal Box, London Palladium.

1- Where else can you go with lots of friends, on a date, or all alone and still have a great time?

2- Theatres can look like this..

.View from the Royal Box, London Palladium.

or like this…

 

.Jerwood Theatre Upstairs Royal Court

…and both can be amazing…

3- Even when theatre is bad it is often very very funny…

4- The architecture. Literally something incredible for every taste…

Young Vic theatre exterior

National Theatre flying buttresses looking like a giant cubist composition

Richmond Theatre facade

5- You can feel all this in just two hours… 😊😀😲😢😳😥🙄🤗

 

So many reasons to love theatre!

 

#LoveTheatreDay

 

 

Backstage Tours: Killing the magic of theatre or bringing it alive?

View of the London Palladium stage from the Royal Box.

In The Stage online, Flyman asks how we preserve the magic of theatre while letting the audience see backstage. It’s true that audiences have increasing opportunities to see behind-the-scenes, whether through taking a backstage tour, checking out backstage clips on YouTube or visiting the Sherling High Level Walkway at the National Theatre, with its views into the construction workshops and paintframe. But does all this backstage access kill the magic and spoil the surprises of a theatre production?

Under the Almeida stage
Under the Almeida stage

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.

 

For more on backstage tours visit www.backstagetheatretours.com

You never forget your first Pantomime

It was the first time, and it wouldn’t be the last.

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.

There’s audience participation:

‘he’s behind you!’

‘oh no he isn’t! oh yes he is!’

There’s the panto horse, the chase, the dancers, the Principal Boy (britches and boots clad girl), the Dame (fabulously frilly-gowned gent). You get so used to the well-loved cliches of pantomime that you forget there was a time when they were fresh, unlearned, unfamiliar.

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…

 

Written for the WordPress Weekly Discover Challenge: Opening Line

Ironically, my first time. And, hopefully, like my first trip to the theatre, not the last!

Image: Aladdin Pantomime, Nottingham Playhouse 2008, by KlickingKarl (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

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