“All the world’s a stage,” said Shakespeare, “And all the men and women merely players.” Nowhere is that truer than in London’s West End, where dozens of theaters crowd the streets and you’re as likely to spot an A-lister sipping coffee in a café as singing in the limelight. Enjoying a top show is essential for any visit to the English capital — and this year’s productions are its biggest, glitziest and most star-studded ever.
That means they’re also the most popular. Some tickets are already hard to find, even at prices approaching $200 a seat. The most sought-after tickets right now are for “The Audience” at the Gielgud Theatre until June 15. This new play imagines the weekly meetings between Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren, re-enacting her Oscar-winning role) and a succession of British Prime Ministers, from Churchill to Cameron.
The play’s the thing
Another British acting legend, Julie Dench, reunites with “Skyfall” co-star Ben Whishaw in the virtually sold out “Peter And Alice” at the Noel Coward Theatre until June 1. In this moving play set in 1932, the woman who, as a girl, inspired “Alice in Wonderland” (Alice Lidell) meets the man who inspired “Peter Pan” (Peter Llewelyn Davies). It’s part of a fantastic season for the Michael Grandage Company, which is producing plays starring big-screen names like Daniel Radcliffe and Jude Law, with some tickets available on the day for as little as $15.
If you don’t mind fighting with Londoners for tickets, you won’t find a quirkier or more British play than “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” at the Apollo Theatre all summer. The stunning “War Horse” is also still selling out more than four years after it opened.
For many visitors, the West End is all about musicals, and there’s no shortage of brand new song-and-dance smashes to choose from. Most eagerly awaited is probably “Charlie and The Chocolate Factory,” directed by the legendary Sam Mendes and opening on May 17 at the Theatre Royal.
In September, the Shaftesbury Theatre will somehow recreate the attack on Pearl Harbor nightly in a new musical version of the classic romance “From Here To Eternity.” With lyrics by Sir Tim Rice, tickets are selling fast amid rumors over who will take Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr’s roles on stage. Even less is known about “Golden Voice,” a small British musical about a fame-hungry singer that opens at the Arts Theatre on June 12.
New to the West End this year are two musical transplants from New York. The multi-award winning “The Book of Mormon” from the creators of “South Park” has taken London by storm. You can find it by following the long lines of hopefuls waiting for tickets outside the Prince of Wales Theatre every night. “Once,” the charming Ireland-set musical featuring music played by the actors on stage, is doing roaring business at the Phoenix Theater.
New shows are always exciting, but don’t neglect productions that have already proved their worth. They’re less likely to suffer opening-night problems, and it can be much easier to get tickets — and even heavily discounted bargains on quieter days (see tips below). London’s Time Out still rates “Matilda,” “Jersey Boys” and “Billy Elliot” among the top five shows in town. “Les Miserables,” “A Chorus Line,” “Spamalot” and “The Bodyguard” are reliably entertaining.
London in the summer can be delightful (and mostly rain-free), so why not take the risk of booking tickets to “The Sound of Music” in the Regent’s Park’s glorious Open Air Theatre, from the end of July to early September? And if all else fails, you’re absolutely guaranteed to find a seat at that oldest of old faithfuls, the longest-running play in the world: Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap.” It’s celebrating its 60-year diamond anniversary at St Martin’s Theatre.
If you don’t want your West End night out to cost more than your flight to London, try some of these money-saving suggestions:
- Book early. The minute you’ve got your visit planned, scout out the shows you’re interested in. The best and cheapest tickets always sell out first.
- Before you choose your seats, check out the new Seat Plan website. It’s like Seat Guru or Trip Advisor but for West End theaters, with reviews revealing which seats have the best views and which are cramped or obscured.
- Never buy from touts on the streets (you risk getting fakes), and avoid ticket shops that aren’t part of the Society of Ticket Agents and Retailers. Look for their distinctive STAR logo.
- If you can’t plan ahead, wander down to the TKTS half price ticket booth in Leicester Square. They always have discount tickets (although not all half price) for shows coming up that night and a few days ahead.
- Even sold-out shows might have tickets available on the day — an increasingly common policy to combat scalpers. If you don’t mind splitting up your party, ask about single tickets; you can always meet up at intermission. Last-minute returns sometimes also appear just before the curtain rises. Having cash can help here.
- Try your hotel. Concierges at fancy hotels can work miracles, and VIP packages are often available — if you don’t mind paying through the nose for fancy champagne and canapés.
by Mark Harris
Photos: Dame Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw play real-life inspirations behind ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Peter Pan’ in ‘Peter and Alice.' (Photo by Johan Persson, www.perssonphotography.com)
Luke Treadaway plays Christopher, the central character in 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time' at The Apollo Theatre. (Photo by Dave M. Benett/Getty Images)
Actor Douglas Hodge and director Sam Mendes rehearsing for ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.’ (Photo by Helen Maybanks)
Actors including Sir Patrick Stewart (third from right) and Hugh Bonneville (far right) participated in a 60th Anniversary Gala performance of Agatha Christie's 'The Mousetrap' at the St. Martin's Theatre last November. (Photo by Dave M. Benett/Getty Images)