London Theatre Guide – a cat’s eye view of West End theatre

londontheareguide

I’m Winston. The Theatre Cat.

TheatrePaws

I’ve spent my whole life around Theatre. And not just chasing mice. I’m free to wander onstage, backstage, front of house and right through the box office.

Want to bag front row seats for Miss Saigon on the day for twenty quid? Fancy a gamble on the Book of Mormon Lottery? Missed out on City of Angels at the Donmar Warehouse?

Maybe you want to avoid wasting money on a complete turkey, but don’t have time to plough through endless reviews?

You need to know what to ask, how to ask for it and most importantly, HOW TO GET IT!

Want to know how to get house seats – or even what they are? Fancy snooping in Wardrobe or seeing where the actors hang out after the show? Then I’m your new best friend.

Let me take you on a trip around the West End.

paw
Love from Winston

WINSTON’S HOT 5

Billy Elliot

BILLY ELLIOT THE MUSICAL – Victoria Palace
www.billyelliotthemusical.com
I have seen Billy Elliot literally five times. I’ve cried every time and once laughed so hard that once a little bit of wee came out. It’s a bit rude (there’s swearing), but then it’s set in a northern mining town during the Miner’s Strike, so there’s a lot to swear about. Normally I don’t like rude words when there are young kids around, but it’s all in context. Accordingly a little parental guidance is advised. Billy Elliot is the inspirational story of a young boy’s struggle to dance, against the odds, in a time and place where boys wear boxing gloves, not ballet shoes. With music by Elton John, sensational choreography and a powerful storyline, the marketing tells you “this astonishing theatrical experience will stay with you forever.” And it really does.

Cat fact: Avid Musical Theatre fans will notice that the current Mrs.Wilkinson is played by Ruthie Henshall www.ruthiehenshall.com, star of Chicago in London and on Broadway and, for those old enough to remember that far back, the sublime Crazy for You at the Prince Edward Theatre. A DVD of Billy Elliot is came out for Christmas 2014, but that can never replace the thrill of seeing it live.

LES MISERABLES – Queen’s Theatre
www.lesmis.com

Les Mis - Production Shot - Tavern 1418x945On paper it shouldn’t work: Les Mis (as it’s affectionately known) is three hours of singing prostitutes, stolen bread and misplaced candlesticks. The critics hated it, but audiences worldwide simply adore ex-convict Jean Valjean, who is hunted for decades by the ruthless policeman Javert after he breaks parole. Sat against a backdrop of 19th-century France, Les Misérables features the songs “I Dreamed A Dream”, “Bring Him Home”, “One Day More” and “On My Own” – and it’s simply brilliant. Even Susan Boyle couldn’t ruin it. If you still haven’t seen it – and how is that possible? – go immediately. It’s stunning.

Cat fact: There are over 40 cast recordings of Les Misérables currently orbiting the planet. Of particular note is the “Les Misérables Live! Dream the Dream 2010 Cast Album (25th Anniversary)” featuring Gareth Gates and John Owen-Jones. 7m30s into the Prologue, John Owen Jones appears to get something delicate caught in his zip and his normally rock-solid voice cracks wider than the Grand Canyon. The cat recommends instead starting with the 10th Anniversary Cast recording from the Royal Albert Hall. You know, the one where a jealous member of the chorus tries to shoot Cosette 1m42s into “Castle on a Cloud”.

THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME – Gielgud TheatreCIOTDITNT
www.curiousonstage.com
The National Theatre’s smash hit literally brought the house down at the Apollo Theatre when the roof collapsed in December 2013. Since then, the show has moved into a new home at the Gielgud Theatre, where it is once again thrilling audiences with the tale of a boy with Aspergers Syndrome who turns detective after finding a dog murdered in the neighbour’s garden. Marianne Elliott’s dazzling multimedia production is even better on the Gielgud stage.

Cat Fact: This talk of Curious Dogs is all well and good, but it’s a curious cat that haunts the Gielgud Theatre. Back when this theatre was called The Globe, a cat named Beerbohm, named after actor Herbert Beerbohm Tree, lived here. His paw-trait is still there in a corridor near the stalls. Beerbohm (the cat, not the actor) had a very unprofessional habit of wandering on-stage during scenes, much to the surprise of whoever was performing at the time. A hasty improvisation would follow – quite a feat if you’re mid-Mad Scene from King Lear. I can only imagine the carnage if he was still alive today…  

 WINSTON’S ONE FOR THE FAMILY 

matilda11111Matilda is the best family show in London by a mile. Probably best for age 7+ as there are scary moments, but it’s in another league to Charlie and the Chocolate factory. Irreverent, clever, naughty. You’ll never want to grow up.

http://uk.matildathemusical.com/

WINSTON’S ONE FOR DATE NIGHT

2Fortunately I’m very good at first dates – I’ve had hundreds. If you want to impress, you can’t beat this heart-warming, bittersweet love story that celebrates the power of music, performed live on stage by an extraordinary cast of actor-musicians. Winner of two 2014 Olivier Awards, 8 Tony® Awards and a Grammy® this is the show everyone’s falling for.

Getting Started

google

If you google West End Theatre, you won’t be short of search results. You’ll find a mixture of sponsored links to private ticket agents, followed by Wikipedia and, if you’re lucky, decent sites like www.officiallondontheatre.co.uk . Spending just a little time now will ensure you don’t get ripped off, and have an unforgettable trip for all the right reasons.

Make sure the site you’re booking through is a STAR member. Clicking on the site’s logo (below) should take you through to a verification pop-up or the main STAR website. Beware sites that look official but aren’t!

z

Even STAR members will normally charge fees, possibly including a “normal” booking fee and then postage. No site should ever charge fees of more than 25% of the face value on the ticket. If you’re lucky enough to be able to visit the theatre in person, you can normally avoid booking fees completely. Box offices inside the theatre normally open from 10am on days when there is a show (later on Sundays).

Day Seats

Some nice West End Theatre producers (yes, they do exist) offer true theatre fans the chance to buy a last minute ticket at a great price through a system known as “Day Seats”. Not all shows do this, but some truly great seats can be snapped up by queuing at the box office on the morning of the performance.

miss saigon
Miss Saigon Day Seats
A limited number of Day Seats are available at £20 each on the day of the performance from 10am, only in person at the Theatre box office. Tickets will be limited to 2 per person and Photo ID will be required.
See more at: www.miss-saigon.com/ticket-tips/

book of mormon

Book of Mormon Lottery
Twenty-one tickets for each performance are sold through an on-the-day lottery at the theatre for £20 each. Entries accepted 2½ hours prior to each performance. Names drawn at random with a limit of one entry per person and up to two tickets per winner. Tickets subject to availability. All entries checked for duplication. Winners must be present at the time of the draw and have valid ID.


Other shows offering day seats include:
The Curious Incident the Dog in the Night Time, Urinetown, The Scottsboro Boys, Billy Elliot and Wicked. Refer to individual Theatre websites for the most up to date information.

Theatremonkey www.theatremonkey.com/dayseatfinder.htm also offers excellent information about day seats, including tips from those who have recently queued.

Winston’s top tip: Always take both cash and credit/debit card, photo ID, and be prepared to queue early – often from 8am. Check in advance with the box office if you can to see what time people start arriving and remember that day seats are normally limited to 2 per person!

It’s 10am…I have my day seats. What shall I do until tonight?
You’re spoilt for choice in London. If you’re in and around Soho, check out the Algerian Coffee Store just along from the Prince Edward Theatre…you won’t find tables and chairs, but it’s worth popping in for the aroma alone. From there, a leisurely mooch though Chinatown and down Charing Cross Road will take you parish church of the Royal Family – St Martin in the Fields. There are often free lunchtime recitals here, and underneath you’ll find a lovely refectory-style café, restaurant and shop.

Check out the National Gallery, Portrait Gallery and then if you have a bit of sandwich left over, you’re a short stroll away from the quite lovely St James’s Park. The swans, ducks, pelicans and squirrels will gladly relieve you of any leftovers.

A little further away, near the Dominion Theatre, is the British Museum. Wherever you are from in the World, you’ll find something we’ve stolen from your country…but being generous Brits, we won’t charge you to get in to see it. That’s just for starters. Why not check out The Natural History Museum, Science Museum, V&A, Tate Modern, Tate Britain…the problem you’ll have in London is simply fitting it all in!

House Seats
house seat

All theatres, even those with Sold Out shows, have House Seats. House Seats will almost always be the best seats in the theatre, and are held for the Producer and Front of House manager to use on the day of performance. Some will be held to use in the event of problems such as double bookings, but for long running shows, with the Producer or Front of House manager’s say-so, the box office may release them for sale just before the performance. Exact timings vary, but it’s always worth asking the box office team when (and if) house seats may be released for sale.

Winston’s little guide to reviews

ironmask
Behind The Iron Mask: A legend in it’s time for possibly the worst reviews in the history of West End Theatre


“I would quite happily have volunteered for death myself to help speed things up”
Lyn Gardner’s Guardian review for Behind The Iron Mask at the Duchess Theatre

Everyone loves a good review, but the bad ones can make delicious reading too – often more fun than the show itself. But do you really want to waste your hard earned cash on a flop? If you have time and you’re passing through Leicester Square, head to the handy little reference library on St Martin’s Street (opposite the tkts ticket booth). The library keeps all the reviews for both current and past West End shows.  It’s also an oasis of calm on a hectic afternoon!

Alternatively, if life’s too short for all that, you can simply visit http://www.westendtheatre.com/category/reviews/

Winston’s top tip: Take reviews with a pinch of salt. The West End’s longest running musical, Les Miserables, was slated by critics when it opened in 1985 but it’s done rather well since then.

Hot tips from a Front of House manager

front of house

What if I’m late?

Check your tickets when you get them! It’s all too easy to arrive at the wrong time, on the wrong day, or even at the wrong theatre. I’ve seen people sitting on Shaftesbury Avenue, forlorn, their tears falling like rain into the gutter having gone to the wrong Apollo. Allow time for traffic, parking and public transport. Latecomers will normally be admitted at a suitable break in the performance (eg the end of a song or scene), but this varies and some shows won’t even admit you if you arrive after curtain-up.

Fancy a tipple?

You’re guaranteed two things at most theatres; to queue for a drink, and to queue for the ladies loo! You can avoid the queue at the bar by pre-ordering your interval drinks. The bar-staff will let you know where to collect them. That way you’ll have time to enjoy the drink AND use the loo (of which there are never enough). If you’re lucky, you’ll often find a pub or bar nearby which will charge considerably less than the theatre, and will have enough toilets for both its regulars and you! Just remember that you may be asked to show your tickets to re-enter the theatre…and in the pub there’s no bell to remind you that Act 2 is about to start!

Suited and booted?

The West End’s  theatres are pretty relaxed – much more so than their Broadway counterparts. Whilst some people may choose to wear jacket/tie or evening dress, you’ll generally find all sorts; jeans, suits, t-shirts, little black dresses and baseball caps. The emphasis is, be comfortable. Notable exceptions to this are Gala performances, and most performances at the Royal Opera House. Overseas visitors often assume that Dress Circle means that you need to dress up – that may have have been the case once upon a time, but now it only means you’re sitting upstairs.

Too Cool for Cats?

Bear in mind that with some theatres being air conditioned (though not all), it’s probably better to wear something cool, but still have a cardigan with you – even in summer!

Buyer Beware!

There is no convention in West End Theatres for naming seating levels. Some theatres may use the term Royal Circle to mean the first level up, for others it could be the second. Similarly, Balcony can mean different things in different venues. The safest bet is always to ask when you book; If you’re booking online, many sites will have a seating plan. If not and you’re still unsure, refer to a site like www.theatremonkey.com . If you’re visiting from the US, then what you may call the Orchestra or Orchestra Stalls, UK theatres refer to as simply “Stalls” – it means the same thing.

Paying a Premium?

The idea for Premium Seats came from Broadway, where canny Theatre Owners and Producers wanted a way for punters desperate to see a sell-out show not to have to use ticket touts. It’s a clever idea – by charging a huge premium on a “normal” top price ticket, the touts stopped buying them, and people with deep pockets and money to burn could find great seats direct from the box office, even at the last minute. Sadly, the idea proved a bit too successful and now, even shows that aren’t sold out have jumped on the bandwagon. NEVER buy premium seats unless you have to – they are no better than “normal” top price seats. Unless it’s a genuine “hot ticket”, save your pennies.

What if something goes wrong?

Front of House staff are there to help and if you’re nice to them they’ll be nice to you. If you are 5’1”, and someone with a beehive and top hat sits in front of you, so long as the theatre isn’t full and there’s time before curtain up, the Front of House Manager may be able to offer you an alternative seat. But bear in mind that if you speak to the FOH Manager as the show is beginning, they’ll have their hands full and it may have to wait till the interval! If you’ve lost/forgotten your tickets, speak to the venue box office as soon as you arrive. They will always try to help, providing they can trace your booking.

Running Times

Sometimes this will be printed on your ticket and will normally include the interval. If not, check online or with the box office. Running times may vary slightly during previews, but for long-running shows will normally be consistent.

Getting home

This is often a concern for London Theatregoers. Fortunately, most lines on the Tube (London Underground) run well past midnight – soon there will be a 24 hour service on some lines at weekends. London’s Night Buses also run frequently through Central London. If you’re travelling further afield, do check as some trains out of London stop running early. London is well served for Black Cabs – if the little orange light on the top is lit up, it means the cab is available. Stick your arm out and wave, and like magic, the cab will stop! It’s not the cheapest way to get home, but if you’re lucky the driver will tell you all about famous people he’s driven and his views on the current government.
www.tfl.gov.uk – to plan your journey to/from the theatre.
www.thetrainline.com – rubbish customer service, but useful train timetables.

Night owls

If you didn’t arrive by pumpkin, and fancy capping off your theatre trip in style, why not try the legendary Joe Allens? You’re almost guaranteed to be eating alongside actors from some of the West End’s finest shows – it’s fun to see who you can spot! It’s a little tricky to find with a very unassuming entrance on Exeter Street, but if you find the Lyceum Theatre (Lion King), you’re almost there. Alternatively, if your taste tends to shabby chic and a good old sing-a-long, there’s normally a pianist playing in the Players Bar at the Charing Cross Theatre until around 2.30am. Drinks aren’t too expensive, and it’s fun to stagger out into the night with show-tunes ringing in your ears.
www.joeallen.co.uk 13 Exeter Street London WC2E 7DT 020 7836 0651
www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk The Arches, Villiers Street, London WC2N 6NL

Behind the scenes

If you’re a curious cat like me, but you’re too big to sneak in through the cat-flap, try a backstage tour. They won’t break the bank, and they offer a fascinating glimpse into a side of theatre most people never see.

http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/discover/backstage-tours

http://www.roh.org.uk/tours/backstage-tour

http://www.reallyusefultheatres.co.uk/specials-vip-hospitality/offers/tours

http://www.eno.org/guidedtours

Winston’s top tip for backstage tours: Wear something old. While most theatres are very glamorous out front, backstage they are generally held together with gaffer tape and a lot of crossed fingers.

Something’s Coming

Cats – London Palladium

From Pussycat Doll to Pussycat Diva: Nicole Scherzinger

From 6 December 2014
www.catsthemusical.com
0844 874 0667
£20 £29.50 £35 £45 £59.50

I’m literally purring with excitement at the news that Cats is back! Nicole Scherzinger (you know, her off the X Factor) is going to play Grizabella. Yep, I was surprised too…but I’ve heard her meaow and boy, can she belt out a show tune. The show starts on 6th December and although the story is as thin as Rihanna’s pants, the dancing is sure to be pretty sensational. It’s at the London Palladium, the iconic theatre that’s played host to Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland and where I once nearly choked on a fur-ball.

Winston’s top tip: Book online through the official site and there are deals to be had for kids – up to three kids pay half price (top three prices only) per full paying adult, Monday-Thurs performances.
Music:  star onstar onstar onstar on star off
Story: star onstar offstar offstar offstar off
Choreography:star onstar onstar onstar onstar on

Useful links

www.tkts.co.uk – great deals on the day and a few days ahead for a huge range of West End shows
www.star.org.uk – only ever book where you see this logo
www.theatremonkey.com – a great online resource for seating plans and honest opinions
www.whatsonstage.com – the buzz about what’s happening in the West End
www.officiallondontheatre.co.uk – encyclopaedic site if you have time to look through it all
www.broadwayworld.com – info and gossip from both sides of the pond
www.dresscircle.co.uk – formerly a “proper shop”, now only online, but still great for Musical Theatre fans
www.timeout.com/london – a useful guide to what to do while you’re in town
www.tfl.gov.uk – plan your journey