West End theatre
West End theatre is a common term for mainstream professional theatre staged in the large theatres of "Theatreland" in and near the West End of London. Along with New York's Broadway theatre, West End theatre is usually considered to represent the highest level of commercial theatre in the English-speaking world. Seeing a West End show is a common tourist activity in London.
Total attendances first surpassed 12 million in 2002 and then 13 million in 2007, setting a new record for the West End. In 2013, ticket sales reached a record 14.5 million. Famous screen actors regularly appear on the London stage.
The Theatre in London flourished after the English Reformation. The first permanent public playhouse, known simply as The Theatre, was constructed in 1576 in Shoreditch by James Burbage. It was soon joined by The Curtain. Both are known to have been used by William Shakespeare's company. In 1599, the timber from The Theatre was moved to Southwark, where it was used in building the Globe Theatre in a new theatre district formed beyond the controls of the City corporation. These theatres were closed in 1642 due to the Puritans who would later influence the interregnum of 1649.
After the Restoration (1660), two companies were licensed to perform, the Duke's Company and the King's Company. Performances were held in converted buildings, such as Lisle's Tennis Court. The first West End theatre, known as Theatre Royal in Bridges Street, was designed by Thomas Killigrew and built on the site of the present Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. It opened on 7 May 1663 and was destroyed by a fire nine years later. It was replaced by a new structure designed by Christopher Wren and renamed the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.
Outside the West End, Sadler's Wells Theatre opened in Islington on 3 June 1683. Taking its name from founder Richard Sadler and monastic springs that were discovered on the property, it operated as a "Musick House", with performances of opera; as it was not licensed for plays. In the West End, the Haymarket Theatre opened on 29 December 1720 on a site slightly north of its current location, and the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden opened in Covent Garden on 7 December 1732.
The Patent theatre companies retained their duopoly on drama well into the 19th century, and all other theatres could perform only musical entertainments. By the early 19th century, however, music hall entertainments became popular, and presenters found a loophole in the restrictions on non-patent theatres in the genre of melodrama. Melodrama did not break the Patent Acts, as it was accompanied by music. Initially, these entertainments were presented in large halls, attached to public houses, but purpose-built theatres began to in the East End at Shoreditch and Whitechapel.
The West End theatre district became established with the opening of many small theatres and halls, including the Adelphi in The Strand on 17 November 1806. South of the River Thames, the Old Vic, Waterloo Road, opened on 11 May 1818. The expansion of the West End theatre district gained pace with the Theatres Act 1843; which relaxed the conditions for the performance of plays, and The Strand gained another venue when the Vaudeville opened on 16 April 1870. The next few decades saw the opening of many new theatres in the West End. The Criterion Theatre opened on Piccadilly Circus on 21 March 1874, and in 1881, two more houses appeared: the Savoy Theatre in The Strand, built by Richard D'Oyly Carte specifically to showcase the comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan, opened on 10 October (the first theatre to be lit by cooler, cleaner electric lights), and five days later the Comedy Theatre opened as the Royal Comedy Theatre on Panton Street in Leicester Square. It abbreviated its name three years later. The theatre building boom continued until about World War I.
During the 1950s and 1960s, many plays were produced in theatre clubs, in order to evade the censorship then exercised by the Lord Chamberlain's Office. The Theatres Act 1968 finally abolished censorship of the stage in the United Kingdom.
"Theatreland", London's main theatre district, contains approximately forty venues and is located in and near the heart of the West End of central London. It is traditionally defined by The Strand to the south, Oxford Street to the north, Regent Street to the west, and Kingsway to the east, but a few other nearby theaters are also considered "West End" despite being outside the area proper (e.g. The Apollo Victoria Theatre, in Westminster). Prominent theatre streets include Drury Lane, Shaftesbury Avenue, and The Strand. The works staged are predominantly musicals, classic and modern straight plays, and comedy performances.
Many theatres in the West End are of late Victorian or Edwardian construction and are privately owned. The majority of them have great character, and the largest and best maintained feature grand neo-classical, Romanesque, or Victorian façades and luxurious, detailed interior design and decoration. On the other hand, leg room is often cramped, and audience facilities such as bars and toilets are often much smaller than in modern theatres. The protected status of the buildings and their confined urban locations, combined with financial constraints, make it very difficult to make substantial improvements to the level of comfort offered. In 2003, the Theatres Trust estimated that an investment of £250 million over the following 15 years was required for modernisation, and stated that 60% of theatres had seats from which the stage was not fully visible. The theatre owners unsuccessfully requested tax concessions to help them meet the costs. Several incidents followed from 2004 onwards of falling plasterwork or performances being cancelled because of urgent building repairs being required culminating in the partial collapse of the ceiling of the Apollo Theatre in December 2013. Of these earlier incidents, only one led to people being hurt, but at the Apollo Theatre 76 people needed medical treatment for their injuries.
In 2012, gross sales of £529,787,692 were up 0.27% and attendances also increased 0.56% to 13,992,773 year-on-year In 2013, sales again rose this time by 11% to £585,506,455, with attendances rising to 14,587,276. This was despite slightly fewer performances occurring in 2013.
The length of West End shows depend on ticket sales. Musicals tend to have longer runs than dramas. The longest-running musical in West End history is Les Misérables. It overtook Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats, which closed in 2002 after running for 8,949 performances and 21 years, as the longest-running West End musical of all time on 8 October 2006. Other long-runners include Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera and Willy Russell's Blood Brothers which have also subsequently overtaken Cats. However the non-musical Agatha Christie play The Mousetrap is the longest-running production in the world, and has been performed continuously since 1952.
- The Mousetrap – opened 25 November 1952 at the Ambassadors Theatre, now playing at the St Martin's Theatre – 63rd year
- Les Misérables – opened 8 October 1985 at the Barbican, now playing at the Queen's Theatre – 30th year
- The Phantom of the Opera – opened 9 October 1986 at Her Majesty's Theatre – 29th year
- The Woman in Black – opened 15 February 1989 at the Strand Theatre, now playing at the Fortune Theatre – 27th year
- Blood Brothers – opened 27 August 1988 at the Albery Theatre, later transferring to the Phoenix Theatre and closed on 10 November 2012 – 24 years
- Cats – opened 11 May 1981 at the New London Theatre and closed on 11 May 2002 on its 21st anniversary
- Mamma Mia! – opened 6 April 1999 at the Prince Edward Theatre, moving later to the Prince of Wales Theatre and now playing at the Novello Theatre – 17th year
- Starlight Express – opened 27 March 1984 at the Apollo Victoria Theatre and closed on 12 January 2002 – 17 years
- No Sex Please, We're British – opened 3 June 1971 at the Strand Theatre and closed on 16 January 1987 – 16 years
- The Lion King – opened 19 October 1999 at the Lyceum Theatre – 16th year
- Chicago – opened 18 November 1997 at the Adelphi Theatre, transferring later to the Cambridge Theatre and the Garrick Theatre and closed on 1 September 2012 – 15 years
- Stomp – opened 25 September 2002 at the Vaudeville Theatre, later transferring to the Ambassadors Theatre opening on 27 September 2007 – 13th year
- Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story – opened 12 October 1989 at the Victoria Palace Theatre, transferred to the Strand Theatre in October 1995 and closed on 19 May 2002 – 12 years
- We Will Rock You – opened 14 May 2002 and closed on 31 May 2014 at the Dominion Theatre – 12 years
- Billy Elliot the Musical – opened 11 May 2005 at the Victoria Palace Theatre and closed on 9 April 2016 – 10 years
- The Black and White Minstrel Show – opened in 1962 at the Victoria Palace Theatre and closed about 1972 – 10 years
- Miss Saigon – opened 20 September 1989 at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and closed on 30 October 1999 – 10 years
- Wicked – opened 27 September 2006 at the Apollo Victoria Theatre – 10th year
- The 39 Steps – opened 20 September 2006 at the Criterion Theatre and closed on 5 September 2015  – 9 years
- The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) – opened 7 March 1996 at the Criterion Theatre and closed on 3 April 2005 – 9 years
- Jersey Boys – opened 18 March 2008 at the Prince Edward Theatre, transferred to the Piccadilly Theatre on 15 March 2014 – 8th year
- Jesus Christ Superstar – opened 9 August 1972 at the Palace Theatre and closed about 1980 – 8 years
- Me and My Girl (revival) – opened 12 February 1985 at the Adelphi Theatre and closed on 16 January 1993 – 8 years
- The Sound of Music – opened 18 May 1961 at the Palace Theatre and closed about 1968 – 7 years
- Evita – opened 21 January 1978 at the Prince Edward Theatre and closed on 8 February 1986 – 7 years
- Thriller – Live – opened 21 January 2009 at the Lyric Theatre – 7th year
- There's a Girl in My Soup – opened June 1966 at the Globe Theatre. Closed in 1973 after over a thousand performances – 6½ years
- War Horse – opened 3 April 2009 at the New London Theatre and closed on 12 March 2016 – 6½ years
- Oliver! – opened 30 June 1960 at the New Theatre (now the Noël Coward Theatre) and closed about 1966 – 6 years
List of West End theatres
- If no show is currently running, the play listed is the next show planned (dates marked with an *).
- If the next show planned is not announced, the applicable columns are left blank.
The following have been announced as future West End productions. The theatre in which they will run is either not yet known or currently occupied by another show.
- The Naked Magicians, Trafalgar Studios
- An American in Paris, Dominion Theatre
- Dreamgirls, Savoy Theatre
- Murder Ballad, Arts Theatre
- School of Rock, New London Theatre
- An Inspector Calls, Playhouse Theatre
- The Dresser, Duke of York's Theatre
- The Entertainer, Garrick Theatre
- The Libertine, Theatre Royal, Haymarket
- Love's Labour's Lost/Much Ado About Nothing, Theatre Royal, Haymarket
- The Miser, Garrick Theatre
- My Family: Not the Sitcom, Vaudeville Theatre
- Nice Fish, Harold Pinter Theatre
- No Man's Land, Wyndham's Theatre
- Peter Pan Goes Wrong, Apollo Theatre
- This House, Garrick Theatre
London's non-commercial theatres
The term "West End theatre" is generally used to refer specifically to commercial productions in Theatreland. However, the leading non-commercial theatres in London enjoy great artistic prestige. These include the Royal National Theatre, the Barbican Centre, the Royal Court Theatre, the Shakespeare's Globe, the Old Vic and Young Vic, the Hampstead Theatre, the Almeida Theatre, and the Open Air Theatre. These theatres stage a high proportion of straight drama, Shakespeare, other classic plays and premieres of new plays by leading playwrights. Successful productions from the non-commercial theatres sometimes transfer to one of the commercial Theatreland houses for an extended run.
The Royal Opera House is widely regarded as one of the greatest opera houses in the world, comparable with the Palais Garnier, La Scala and the Metropolitan Opera House. Commonly known simply as Covent Garden due to its location, it is unique among West End venues in many ways, not least in having three resident performance companies, the Royal Opera, Royal Ballet and a resident symphony orchestra. It has three performance spaces (the Main Auditorium, Linbury Theatre and Clore Studio) and hosts guest performances from other leading opera, ballet and performance companies from around the world.
Likewise, the London Coliseum is the resident home to the English National Opera. The theatre is also the London base for performances by the English National Ballet, who perform regular seasons throughout the year when not on tour. The theatre is also the largest in the west end, with 2359 seats spread over four levels.
The Peacock Theatre is located on the edge of the Theatreland area. Now owned by the London School of Economics and Political Science, it is used in the evenings for dance performances by Sadler's Wells, who manage the theatre on behalf of the school.
Other London theatres
There are a great number of theatre productions in London outside the West End. Much of this is known as fringe theatre which is the equivalent of Off Broadway Theatre in New York. Among these are the Bush Theatre and the Donmar Warehouse. Fringe venues range from well-equipped small theatres to rooms above pubs, and the performances range from classic plays, to cabaret, to plays in the languages of London's ethnic minorities. The performers range from emerging young professionals to amateurs.
There are many theatres located throughout Greater London, such as the Lyric Hammersmith, Rose Theatre, Kingston, New Wimbledon Theatre, the Rudolf Steiner Theatre in Westminster, the Ashcroft Theatre in Croydon, Secombe Theatre in Sutton and the Churchill Theatre in Bromley.
There are a number of annual awards for outstanding achievements in London theatre:
- Laurence Olivier Awards
- Evening Standard Awards
- WhatsOnStage Awards
- London Critics' Circle Theatre Awards
- National Dance Awards
- West End Cares Awards
- West End Frame Awards
- Culture of London
- List of London venues
- List of West End musicals
- List of notable musical theatre productions
- Musical theatre
- Great West End Theatres
- List of former theatres in London
- Christopher Innes, "West End" in The Cambridge Guide to Theatre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 1194–1195, ISBN 0-521-43437-8
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- Society of London Theatre – trade body for the London theatre industry