To be able to return to university, after a decade of immersing yourself in an intense and hectic career, is like being given a cherished gift. I was given that opportunity to return for a year to university life in 2014 and best of all, to my university of choice in London, through the Chevening scholarship programme. So of course my travelling soul perked up. In addition to looking forward to the academic studies, I was looking forward to exploring London’s nooks and corners as well as travelling around the UK. I had actually mapped out lists of places I simply had to visit during my year there before I even left Sri Lanka. Arriving in London during the chilly fall season, to a room on the top floor of a building whose lift was undergoing repairs that term, resulted in old injuries from a road traffic accident acting up. Having to undergo osteopathy to deal with the pain, and experiencing limitations in my mobility, dampened my travel plans. So, I had to shift the expectations of my mind to let go of travel plans and simply enjoy the moment as it came wherever I was, when I could.
That is when I looked again at London, all the attractions that I had wanted to sample, and see which ones were still feasible for me. What I immediately focused upon was the theatre. Of all the cities I have lived in or travelled to, London for me is most synonymous with the theatre. You practically come across a theatre (s) on every street in the west end. As a huge fan of the theatre, I prioritized experiencing not just different theatre offerings but also different theatres.
So, here’s my list of six theatre favourites from the twelve I had the opportunity of experiencing and some tips on discounts, where applicable, as theatre experiences are quite expensive.
- The National Theatre:
This lovely theatre on the South Bank, supported by the Arts Council England, is my favourite not only because it puts on great plays but also offers great discounted tickets. I enjoyed Tom Stoppard’s The Hard Problem at Dorfman theatre, an adaptation of Carol Ann Duffy’s Everyman at Olivier theatre and the ultra-long George Bernard Shaw play Man and Superman, with Ralph Fiennes, at Lyttelton theatre. The theatre’s £15 travelex and £20 Friday rush tickets make the experience more affordable. For those interested in theatre productions, the Sherling High-Level Walkway in the Dorfman theatre offers visitors a glimpse into the production workshops and there are regular free exhibitions held in the Lyttelton lounge and Wolfson gallery at Olivier theatre. A further bonus is that all three theatres at the National are very accessible.
- Theatre Royal Haymarket:
I liked the origins of this lovely theatre with its modest beginnings and tumultuous history – a theatre started in 1720 by John Potter, a carpenter, without the royal patent required then for being able to run a theatre but which soon built its reputation as a professional theatre. Located close to Piccadilly, it is quite easy to reach. I watched the moving play by Hayhurst, Taken at Midnight, with Penelope Wilton and Pomerance’s The Elephant man with Bradley Cooper. The only hitch is that accessibility is only for the stall seats, which are very expensive. I had to climb up two flights of stairs to reach the more affordable upper circle seating area so it was good that I waited till my leg had recovered fully in spring to go to this theatre. While there weren’t discounted tickets on offer like the National Theatre, booking in advance might help with access to the cheaper priced tickets available.
- Theatre Royal Drury Lane:
The historic theatre, the oldest theatre in England still in use since the 17th century, is worth visiting. While the popular, long, running musical at this theatre currently is Charlie and the chocolate factory, I went here for a concert of Celtic Woman. Here too, one needs to climb up the stairs to go to the relatively cheaper seating areas.
- Lyceum Theatre:
With a history going back to 1772, the theatre became the first in England to incorporate a balcony projecting over the circle, when it re-opened in 1834. After a fire destroyed the theatre, the present building was re-opened in 1907. I went to see the Lion King musical, my favourite musical, with one of my best friends and her daughter back in 2010 during an earlier brief visit to the city. My friend’s kid loved it so much that she declared she was going to be Nala when she grew up. The musical, a definite must-see with kids, is currently in its 16th year and still going strong.
- Royal Opera House:
The beautiful Royal Opera House is located in Covent Garden. The present theatre was built in 1858, after the first built in 1732 and the second built in 1808 was burnt down by fires. Experiencing this beautiful building and a ballet or opera performance inside is a must-do for the London visitor or resident. For those with UK student IDs, there is a special package called the ROH student, where highly discounted tickets for certain performances are provided. I understand these discounts are often sponsored by ROH patrons. One of the two ballet performances that I went to see was the Paul Hamlyn Christmas Treat, Alice in wonderland, for which the tickets were subsidized by the Helen Hamlyn trust fund. My stall seat ticket was at the token cost of £1. The place is easily accessible and does not have difficult stairs to navigate.
- Arcola Theatre:
I was searching for smaller theatres that staged small productions on contemporary issues and came across Arcola Theatre at Dalston, in the east of London. The theatre has small, cosy studios and there is very much a relaxed atmosphere there with audience members often interacting with each other. I went for three performances at Arcola and each was unique and focused on contemporary issues. From a musical about a cancer patient going through a transformative experience at her clinic (Happy Ending) to a triad of short plays on women and the Arab revolutions (The Singing Stones) to the ultra-controversial (Sex workers’ opera), the Arcola offerings are bold and thought-provoking and generally draws extreme reactions from the audience. The tickets are priced around £10 to £20, though there is a ‘pay what you can’ tuesday evenings and the Arcola Passport for £50 allowing you a choice of 5 performances.
Bonus tip for groups: It is also worth it to contact the theatre and see if there are special group discounts. I went to see Miss Saigon at Prince Edward Theatre at a discounted group package of £10 pounds per ticket. Not sure if the discounts are for student groups but definitely worth checking out, if in a large group.
To check which shows are available this week or the official ticket prices, click this link to London Theatres.
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