London Theatres and the West End
Alongside Broadway in New York, the West End is the home of some of the English-speaking world's best theatre. Millions of theatregoers experience a range of classic and new works on London's stages, as well as some of the world's most famous and skilled actors. Seeing a West End show is a must for any theatre enthusiast or visitor to London.
The History of the West End
Theatre has been a staple in London since the English Reformation and Elizabethan times. The first permanent playhouse in the city was built in 1576. Located in Shoreditch, The Theatre was soon joined by the Curtain. Both theatres were used by William Shakespeare until 1599, when The Theatre was dismantled. It was replaced by The Globe Theatre in Southwark, which used some of The Theatre's remains in its construction. Puritans would eventually facilitate the closure of many venues in the fledgling theatre district in Southwark during the middle of the seventeenth century.
Theatre performances were largely licensed after the Restoration in 1660. Performances were mainly confined to converted buildings. It was during this period that the West End began to develop. The first theatre in what is now the West End was the Theatre Royal, which was built in 1663 on the site of the current theatre of the same name on Drury Lane. Other theatres elsewhere in London also emerged during this period, including Sadler's Wells Theatre in Islington in 1683. The Theatre Royal was eventually joined in the West End by the Haymarket Theatre in 1720 and the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden (now the Royal Opera House) in 1732. For the most part, drama was strictly controlled and only permitted in patent theatres until the 19th century. Where plays were not permitted, venues staged operas and musicals.
By the 18th century, the West End saw a growing number of small theatres and music halls. The Adelphi opened in 1806, while the Old Vic Theatre was founded across the River Thames in 1818. The theatre district expanded quickly with the Theatres Act, 1843, which eased restrictions on plays. The Vaudeville Theatre opened in 1870 and led the way for several new theatres in the West End. The Criterion Theatre near Piccadilly Circus opened its doors in 1874, while curtains were first raised at the Savoy Theatre and the Royal Comedy Theatre in 1881.
The World's a Stage
West End stages features a range of classical and new works, including grand musicals productions and entertaining comedy performances. London's theatre district is also renowned for long-running productions. Some of the West End's longest running musicals include Les Miserables and Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats. The longest non-musical production was Agatha Christie's The Moustrap, which has been performed in the West End continuously since 1952. Other major productions that have graced West End stages have included The Phantom of the Opera, Starlight Express, Mamma Mia!, The Lion King, Buddy - The Buddy Holly Story, We Will Rock You, Miss Saigon, Chicago, and Wicked.
In addition to commercial productions in the West End, London's theatre scene includes numerous off-West End and non-commercial theatres. Major non-commercial theatres in London include the Royal National Theatre, the Globe Theatre, the Old Vic and the Young Vic theatres, Royal Court Theatre, Almeida Theatre, and the Barbican Arts Centre. Many productions in intimate fringe theatre spaces also showcase new and innovative theatre talent and works. While some smaller theatres are found above pubs, other theatre companies have established themselves in unique spaces in former industrial sites such as the Menier Chocolate Factory.
Getting to the West End
The centre of the West End is known as Theatreland. The district is bordered by The Strand, Oxford and Regent Streets, and the Kingsway. Most theatres are found on Drury Lane and Shaftesbury Avenue, as well as The Strand. Some West End theatres are also found outside Theatreland, including the Apollo Victoria Theatre near London Victoria railway station. Theatreland includes some 40 venues, many of which date back to Victorian and Edwardian periods. Theatres in the West End often feature lavish interiors and opulent facades, often reflecting neo-classical, Romanesque and Victoria influences.
Thanks to one of the world's most comprehensive transportation systems, theatres in the West End are easily accessible on the London Underground. Tube stations are within a short walk of many of London's top theatres. From Covent Garden to Southwark and Embankment to Piccadilly Circus, the London Underground is the best way to get to unforgettable stage performances in and around Theatreland.
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