Even before William Shakespeare persuaded his band of itinerant performers to put down roots on the southern shore of the river, Londoners were keen to make room in their busy lives for diversions and merriment. The authorities in the 1600s took a dim view of the theatre, deeming it to be subversive. They banished it to the south bank but Londoners still took to their boats in their thousands to see the Bard. The 18th century brought with it a more relaxed attitude with theatres being established in what is now the West End.
Today there are more than forty venues in what it is now called Theatreland. Most are over a hundred years old, full of history and character with many a tale to tell. Musicals have become the lifeblood of the West End with all the legendary productions of the last seventy years having had extended runs and it seems that we are now entering into a sort of second golden age that rivals the Andrew Lloyd Webber years of “Cats”, “Miss Saigon” and “Phantom of the Opera”.
“Billy Elliot” is playing at the Victoria theatre while “The Book of Mormon” is scandalizing and delighting audiences at the Palace theatre. Tributes to two 80s icons are running at the Adelphi and the Lyric respectively with “The Bodyguard” reprising the Whitney Houston film role and “Thriller” moonwalking through the legacy of Michael Jackson. The biggest thrills, however are reserved for the young and young at heart. Two novels from celebrated children’s author, Roald Dahl have been adapted for the West End stage. The Cambridge theatre based “Matilda” has been conquering both the West End and Broadway for two years now while Charlie and the Chocolate Factory began its run recently at the Theatre Royal.
There are also many venues outside the West End:
The O2 Arena
The O2 Arena has risen from exhibition hall status to take its place as the nations top entertainment venue. All the big international tours touch down at this giant dome on the Greenwich peninsula. From Cirque du Soleil to Beyonce to Walking With Dinosaurs, the O2 is more than capable of handling the biggest indoor events. Apart from being a concert venue there is a music club, cinema, restaurants and bars all under one roof making the O2 an entertainment destination in its own right. The infrastructure attracts adventurous sightseers who like nothing better than to climb the outside of the giant dome in order to enjoy spectacular all round views of London.
TheO2, Peninsula Square, London, SE10 0DX. 020 7536 2600.
Home to two orchestras and a prominent theatre company, the Barbican Centre is Europe’s biggest performing arts venue. The site of the venue was at the time controversial, being neither in the West End nor the South Bank, yet it has thrived on being on the edge of the Square Mile.
The fact that City workers can enjoy Shakespeare, Mozart and Picasso without moving too far from their desks has proven to be a vindication of the Barbicans initial vision that involved bringing culture to the people wherever they were. Jazz concerts, modern dance and installation art are all featured on a monthly basis as the sheer space and range of facilities continue to draw performers who require a little more than a good address and a cramped venue.
Silk Street London, EC2Y 8DS. 020 7638 4141.
This arts and media centre on the banks of the Thames is well known for presenting challenging programmes and thought-provoking productions. West London culture lovers have always had the advantage of being able to see imaginative works-in-progress here before they transition to the West End, yet there is more to the Riverside than that. The space doubles as a TV studio, movie theatre and bar/restaurant with a terrace that is great for views of Hammersmith bridge and the river. Vintage films, edgy drama and good food in unpretentiously cool surroundings are what downtime in London is all about.
Crisp Road, Hammersmith, London W6 9RL. 020 8237 1111