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.
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.
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