London Theatre and Theaters

London is a great city for people who love the theater. The West End alone has more than 40 theaters, and other theaters, large and small, dot London’s map. At any time, London productions might range from glitzy Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals to intimate two-person dramas. London theater-goers can often watch some of the world’s most acclaimed actors trod the boards.

London’s reputation as a theater-rich city can be traced to the support and appreciation for the arts during the Elizabethan era. It was the time of the great English playwrights Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare. Elizabet’’s reign saw the construction of the first permanent theaters in London; these included The Theatre (1576), the Rose (1587), the Swan (1595), and the theater that would most famously be linked with Shakespeare, the Globe.

While people from many walks of life may have enjoyed the plays, theater folks had a bit of an unsavory reputation, and London authorities outlawed performances within the city. The Globe, which was built in 1599, was located in Southwark because the district was outside the reach of the city fathers. One of London’s newest theaters certainly has the oldest roots. After many years of planning and fundraising, a reconstruction of the original Globe, formally named Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, opened in 1997.

Built only yards away from the location of the original Globe, the new theater was the first London structure to include a thatched roof in more than 300 years. Building codes had not allowed such roofs since the Great Fire of London in 1666. The Globe’s season runs May to October; some plays are staged with all-male casts as they were in Shakespearean times.

While often not the original buildings (fires and the London Blitz took their toll), some of London’s current theaters trace their origins back to royal charters and licenses.

Four different buildings have served as the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane; the first opened with the blessing of King Charles II in 1663.

The Theatre Royal Haymarket (or Haymarket Theatre) was founded in 1720.

Three different theaters have stood at Covent Garden‘s Royal Opera House, which first opened in 1728.

Situated on the South Bank next to Waterloo Bridge, the National Theatre (the honorific “Royal” was bestowed by Queen Elizabeth II in 1988) can have as many as eight plays running in repertory in its three theaters—the Olivier (named after the company’s first artistic director, Sir (later Lord) Laurence Olivier, the Lyttelton, and the Cottesloe.

Is the play that you want to see sold out?

Fear not, the National Theatre’s box office reserves a limited number of tickets that are sold on the day of the performance. Queue up early, as these tickets are only available in person; there is a limit of two tickets per person.

In addition to the National, the South Bank is the home of the Royal Festival Hall and the Hayward Gallery. Culture vultures, feel free to congregate.

London Theatre box office numbers, websites.

by Katie Calvert