The best stagey outings in London (that are not going to the theatre)
As someone who is obsessed with theatre, going to see a show is (predictably) one of my favourite outings. But Londoners are very lucky to have lots of other theatre-related things to see and do around the capital as well, and I’ve collected some of my favourite ones here.
Theatre history in London goes way back, all the way to Roman times. Londinium, as London was know then, was established in the year 43 CE, and within 30 years the city had its first theatre. The amphitheatre was a wooden open air structure that could seat 7,000 people, who would come to watch something very different from the theatre of today: one of the popular forms of entertainment was watching people fight wild animals. Not much is left of the amphitheatre today, but you can visit its remains, which are located underneath the Guildhall Art Gallery, for free.
Another historical theatre curiosity is the Temple to Shakespeare, which was built in 1756 for the famous actor-theatre manager David Garrick in the grounds of his house. It’s thought to be the only shrine to William Shakespeare in the world, and Garrick used it to exhibit his collection of Shakespeare relics alongside a specially-commissioned statue of the famous playwright. The temple is now home to an exhibition about Garrick himself and also serves as a venue for concerts and events. You can visit the Temple, which has beautiful views across the Thames, for free on Sunday afternoons from late March until late October.
More Garrick and Shakespeare can be found at Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey, where a large number of playwrights and performers are buried or commemorated. Famous people who have their final resting place here include Garrick and the celebrated actor Laurence Olivier, and you can find memorials for the likes of Oscar Wilde and William Shakespeare.
The church with the strongest link to the theatre, however, is Saint Paul’s in Covent Garden, which is also affectionately known as the Actors’ Church. Appropriately, the building was designed in the early 1600s by Inigo Jones, who was famous both as an architect and a theatre set designer. The first recorded Punch and Judy performance took place in the church portico, a legacy that still lives on through Iris Theatre, a company that puts on performances in the church garden every summer. Inside the building, there are memorials for many famous theatre folks including Peter O’Toole, Vivien Leigh, Noël Coward and Charlie Chaplin.
Aside from Saint Paul’s there are of course many other theatre-related sights to be seen in the West End, which you can explore on one of the many walking tours on offer. A good example is Diane Burstein’s Theatreland Walking Tour that takes in London’s oldest theatre, ghost stories, anecdotes about famous West End characters and more. This tour usually runs once a month over the summer, but there are other companies to choose from as well.
For more indoorsy entertainment, the Victoria & Albert Museum has a gallery dedicated to theatre and performance which has some amazing pieces on exhibition. In the permanent collection you’ll find costumes, model boxes of stage sets, posters, actors’ knick-knacks and portraits, and much more. They regularly host temporary displays and theatre-related family events as well. The V&A is also home to the National Video Archive of Performance, which holds recordings a large number of stage performances that have taken place since 1992. They sometimes organise public screenings of some of the most popular shows they have in the archive.
My last one is a bit of a cheat: House of MinaLima exhibits some of the graphic design from the Harry Potter films rather than the plays, but it’s too much fun not to include it on this list. Collaborators Miraphora Mina and Eduardo Lima are responsible for the graphic art you see in all the Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts films, from the Daily Prophet to Hogwarts text books. With four floors of goodies which you can browse for free, the tiny exhibition space can get pretty packed on weekends. It’s definitely worth a visit though, for Potterheads and graphic design aficionados alike.