London is home to a vibrant theater scene with traditions dating back to the 1600s, when the first theater in the city opened its doors. Since then, theatergoers have flocked to the city to experience some of the world’s finest performing arts. Here’s how to plan the perfect London theater trip.
Get your bearings.
There are (at last count) 38 theaters in the West End, London’s hub for commercial theater. If you’ve been to shows on Broadway in New York City, you’ll find familiar glittering marquee lights and big-ticket productions that range from Shakespeare to Sondheim. But there’s one difference to note—tickets to shows in London’s West End are often far less expensive than to the same show on Broadway. Don’t miss Mark Rylance’s tour de force in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem at the Apollo Theatre, and tap your toes to the music of the Olivier-winning Six, a musical history lesson that presents the six wives of Henry VIII as Beyoncé and Ariana-esque pop divas. The West End adds one more venue this fall: the 600-plus seat @sohoplace theater will be London’s first new-build West End playhouse in 50 years.
Turn on to the Off-West End.
Similar to “off-Broadway,” Off-West End refers to theaters in the city of London that include such gems as the Royal Court Theatre, the Young Vic, the Donmar Warehouse, and the Almeida Theatre in Islington. In contrast to the West End giants, these stages can provide fabulously intimate venues where every seat is face to face with the action. Successful Off-West End plays often transfer to larger West End venues, so catch a production on an Off-West End stage for a top-quality performance without the crowd and the high ticket price—not to mention you can say you saw it first.
In an age where budget cuts frequently decimate performing arts, the London theater scene thrives thanks to an alternative to big box-office blockbusters—state-funded theater. The Arts Council England (ACE), England’s “national development agency for creativity and culture,” funds independent, nonprofit venues that stage shows which might never have been played if left to subsist on commercial revenue alone. Thanks to ACE, you’ll find a wide variety of new plays, in addition to the box-office blockbusters in London, with emphasis on young talent, diversity, and sustainability.
At the ACE-supported Hampstead Theatre, audiences can currently catch the premiere of modern-genius dramatist Roy Williams’s The Fellowship, which explores Black British identity through the children of the Windrush generation. Another bright example is the National Theatre on London’s South Bank, with three theaters staging performances including Richard Bean and Oliver Chris’s new comedy Jack Absolute Flies Again, an homage to Sheridan’s The Rivals. Travelers who leave London craving an encore can enjoy National Theatre Live, broadcast to local venues in 65 countries, and at-home performances via the new National Theatre at Home streaming platform.
See Shakespeare brought to life.
On the bank of the River Thames, the open-air, 360-degree Globe Theatre is a faithful reconstruction of the original Globe playhouse where William Shakespeare’s company staged his plays. The iconic circular building, whose shape Shakespeare called a “wooden O”, is actually an icosagon, or 20-sided polygon, built to emulate the bard’s original playhouse from its English Oak boards up to its thatched roof. Plays in the Globe Theatre go on rain or shine, so come prepared with hat and sunscreen for sunny days or waterproof gear for drizzly weather. Cast yourself as a groundling with a £5 standing-room ticket in the Pit, or enjoy a bench seat in the galleries or heavens. Of course, the Globe isn’t the only place to see Shakespeare—you’ll find both classic stagings and imaginative retellings at venues like the National Theatre and even in the West End.
Let the experts guide you.
With so many options, it’s easy for anyone to feel overwhelmed. On Cal Discoveries Travel’s “Inside the London Theatre Scene” tour, travelers enjoy eight performances, specially researched and selected by London theater professionals, over a period of two weeks. In 2022, the handcrafted itinerary included August Wilson’s Jitney, one of 10 plays in the playwright’s iconic Century Cycle, as well as Shakespeare’s comedic classic Much Ado About Nothing, this time set in a post-WWII Italian riviera.
Go with like-minded travelers.
Live theater is a collective experience, so why not keep that camaraderie after the applause is over? Bring a buddy, or make a new one, and compare your thoughts on the play. Who knows—you might gain a perspective you didn’t consider before, or pick up on that British humor you couldn’t quite laugh at in real time. Cal Discoveries Travel crafts its bespoke Eureka trips with lifelong learners in mind, and the community aspect of its tours is one reason travelers return to Cal Discoveries trips again and again.
Context is key.
Understanding the background and intent of the plays you see is a great way to deepen your London theater experience. As the London theater critic for the international edition of the New York Times, tour lecturer Matt Wolf knows his way around London theater and shares that knowledge with travelers in order to enhance their experience. On the London Theatre Scene tour, Wolf takes Cal Discoveries theatergoers behind the scenes through small-group Q&As with special theatrical guests: the actors, writers, directors, and other professionals involved in the plays they’ve just seen. Imagine being thrilled by an actor’s showstopping performance, then discussing the role with the same actor over tea the next morning! Past traveler Jim S. raved about the “first rate theatre experience, especially with Matt Wolf’s vast knowledge of the current London theatre scene and the wonderful guests from each of the shows.”
Last, but not least: it’s not an intermission, it’s an interval.
(And the most popular interval snack? Ice cream.)
Interested in a trip inside the London theater scene? Check out Cal Discoveries Travel’s two-week tour.