London is famous for many things – its museums, historical buildings and cutting-edge restaurants. But one way that London stands out from all the other major cities is its theatre life. If a play makes it in London, it’s made it everywhere. The only comparable place is New York, but the theatres there don’t quite have the rich history (and the crumbling foundations!) of London theatres. The theatrical spaces in Central London cover not just the traditional “West End”, but also the South Bank area and Victoria. They range from 100-person intimate studios to huge auditoriums. Find out more in our Top 10 Biggest London Theatres.
10. Shaftesbury Theatre
This Grade II listed building near Holborn is on the “Statutory List of Buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest”, thanks to a small roof collapse in 1973. At the time, the musical “Hair” was playing there, and it had reached its 1998th performance. The repairs forced the revolutionary hippy show to close, having been on since 1968. When “Hair” first came to the West End, it was blocked by the London stage-censor who was the wonderfully titled Baron Cameron Fromanteel “Kim” Cobbold. In order to get it staged, the producers appealed to Parliament, who simply passed a Bill removing Baron Cobbold’s powers. So the Shaftesbury Theatre effectively ended stage censorship in the UK. Not bad for a 1,400-seater theatre hidden behind New Oxford St!
9. Palace Theatre
A few hundred meters down the road from the Shaftesbury Theatre is the Palace Theatre, another 1,400-seater that tends to stage huge musicals, like “Singing in the Rain” or “Spamalot“. It opened in 1891, and was called the Royal English Opera House, under the patronage of Richard D’Oyly Carte. Over the following years, it showed not just opera but music hall, films and variety shows. During the 1960s, “Sound of Music” ran there for 2,385 performances and it was a long term home to “Les Miserables”, from 1985 to 2004. A great theatre, which has seen some classic musicals. Like the Shaftesbury Theatre, it is a Grade II listed building and an unmistakeable London sight, taking up one whole side of Cambridge Circus.
8. Adelphi Theatre
Next is the 200-year-old Adelphi Theatre, which looks deceptively narrow from its Strand entrance. It actually holds 1,500 people and has recently staged productions like “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat” and “Chicago”. It’s the fourth building to be on the site since its opening in 1809 and this version was built in 1930, its Art Deco style complementing the nearby Strand Palace Hotel. It’s also got its own ghost – the actor William Terriss, who was stabbed to death by his rival in 1897. A plaque on a neighbouring pub blames the death on a stage hand, but it was actually Richard Archer Prince, a frustrated actor who had been mentored by Terriss but had fallen out of favour thanks to his alcoholism and unpredictability. Prince pleaded guilty to criminal insanity and was sent to a mental institution, where he conducted the prison orchestra until his death. Presumably, Terriss wanders the corridors of the Adelphi frustrated at this mild sentence his killer and former protégée received.
7. Victoria Palace Theatre
Some shows run for decades in the West End, so the current offering at the Victoria Palace Theatre – “Billy Elliott the Musical” is a relative newcomer. But still, it’s been on almost every night since 2005, which is a lifetime to some of its audience members! The theatre itself has had several lifetimes, since its first incarnation as a small concert room in 1832. The current 1517-seater theatre opened in 1911, complete with a sliding roof that was opened during the interval to cool the audience down. There have been many memorable shows at the Victoria Palace Theatre, but perhaps the most memorable was the 1934 “Young England“, which fell into the “so bad it’s good” category of theatre. Audiences memorised chunks of dialogue and hollered along with the actors, while laughing heartily. It was a runaway hit and lasted 278 performances.
6. Prince Edward Theatre
Found in the heart of Soho, this theatre holds 1618 people and was named after the future Edward VIII, the King who abdicated after just a few months, in pursuit of love. Similarly romantic stories have been played out on the stage there, such as “Show Boat”, “Mamma Mia” and “West Side Story”, and “Miss Saigon” is opening there next. It’s had a varied past since opening in 1930, with stints as a cinema and a dance hall before being restored to theatrical glory in 1978. “Evita” was the show that re-opened the theatre, with its world premiere being held there, and the tale of the Argentine President’s wife was a massive hit, running for over 3,000 performances and made a star of Elaine Paige, who played the title role.