Sure, London has some of the world’s finest theatre, but shit me it’s expensive. Top price seats to most West End shows start at £70 each, if you’re lucky, and ‘premium’ seats for the most popular shows, like Hamilton and Harry Potter & The Cursed Child, can be well over £200. Factor in that often a trip to the theatre is a treat or a gift so you’ll usually be buying at least two at a time…well, for that money you may as well have yourself a little mini-break. Pop over to Lisbon or somewhere.
And don’t even think about pinning your hopes on the ticket lotteries. I have it on good authority that each performance for Hamilton gets about 10,000 entries, so your odds are about 1 in 400. They’re still worth entering though, gives you something to do when you’re having a wee. Moneysavingexpert.com has a great list, and the TodayTix app is absolutely worth downloading. You can set it to automatically enter lotteries for Matilda, Harry Potter & The Cursed Child, Everyone’s Talking About Jamie, Mamma Mia and other productions on shorter runs. Within a few days of downloading I’d scored two £25 Band A tickets to see Matilda on a Friday night, so it does happen sometimes!
I’d also recommend signing up to mailers from LoveTheatre and the like. I never actually buy from these sites because they put a service charge on everything and it’s always cheaper to get them direct, but often they alert you of preview sales, where tickets to the first couple of weeks of a new production go for about half price. I found out about previews for the Adrian Mole musical this way and got top-price tickets for £39.50 each. (I loved Adrian Mole as a child but even I admit the show is going to be either really good or really shit. Seemed to get good reviews on fringe though so fingers crossed!)
But I do think people often forget that there is SO MUCH more to London theatre than the West End. So much even than the ‘off’ West End theatres like Victoria’s The Other Palace theatre, notable for its truly excellent in-house restaurant, The Other Naughty Piglet; the Leicester Square Theatre, a popular warm-up venue on the comedy circuit (the last time I went I saw Bill Bailey for about £15); The Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square, which offers concessionary rates to anyone under 25; and the Above The Stag Theatre in Vauxhall, the UK’s only full-time LGBT+ theatre. (There’s a very comprehensive list of over eighty of these wonderful institutions here.)
I lived in Islington for six years and still regret not making the most of the fact that the wonderful Pleasance theatre was only a ten minute walk away. I only went a handful of times, despite its acts being consistently excellent and tickets costing as little as a fiver. Mike and I went on a date there once in the early days and saw a magic comedian who made Mike get on the stage and have a total arse made of himself. It was the best £6.50 I spent all year. It’s worth signing up to their mailer because if you are incredibly lucky (and nimble-fingered), you can sometimes get tickets to work-in-progress shows for really big names, like Jimmy Carr, Dara O’Briain and Frankie Boyle, and even those tickets never cost more than £15 each.
Also in Islington is the Old Red Lion Theatre just around the corner from Angel tube station, which just goes to show what you can do with a spare bit of attic and a can-do attitude. It’s literally three rows of wooden benches and a stage you could piss across, and it is handily above a pub so you can do the whole night there. My fondest memory of it is going to see and then unknown production called The Play That Goes Wrong, which has been running on the West End now for years and has spawned a number of spin-offs. (I’ve seen it on the big stage too and it’s still hilarious. Essential for anyone who used to love Fawlty Towers. They’ve got a magic-themed one coming at Christmas and I can’t bloody wait.)
But not all shows in pub back rooms are created equal, because there is a bit of a trend for ‘free’ comedy shows that should be avoided at all costs. Pubs do it to get the punters in – and of course you must go early to secure your spot, and of course you must have a drink or two to pass the time – but you’ll inevitably end up standing or squished up against some bearded mouth-breather with no concept of personal space, and at the end a hat goes round and you end up putting in as much as you’d have paid for a ticket elsewhere because you don’t want to be a dick. Much better to go somewhere like the Pleasance where at least you’re guaranteed a seat and the beer isn’t total piss. Also to be avoided are the West End comedy clubs, though if you must go at least try not to wear nice shoes. They’re sticky, overpriced and seem to take pride in only selling two types of wine (‘shit red’ and ‘shit white’), and after the show they empty out to become the world’s most depressing nightclubs.
If you want a nice comedy club, other than the Pleasance, try Up The Creek in Greenwich, which is genuinely lovely and is tacked onto a brewpub that does lots of teensy-batch beers, if you’re into that. Alternatively, the Soho Theatre covers theatre, comedy and cabaret, and is priced pretty keenly too. (Book a table on the ground floor of wine bar 68 & Boston round the corner to get the night off to a good start – they do a selection of decent bottles for £20 each.)
For cabaret, Cellardoor in an refurbished public lav is a great call, but it’s pretty rammo and gets pretty hot in the summer months. I had my 25th birthday there and in all the pictures I am so sweaty it looks like I’ve dunked my head in a bucket, which is sad because compared to now I look very fresh and young. I’d have some framed if I wasn’t so damp. It’s more of a bar with incidental entertainment than a show per se, but if you’d like a sit-down-and-shut-up type evening then Udderbelly on the Southbank is a good place to look. Some shows are definitely better than others though, so do your research first. The Vaults Waterloo always has some wacky stuff on too (in fact, I went to its Game Of Thrones immersive dining experience last week and it was WILD. Wrote about it here.)
For dance, hit up Sadler’s Wells’ two theatres (in Clerkewell and Holborn), which does everyone from ballet to flamenco. They stage quite a few Matthew Bourne productions and a few wildcards – the best thing I’ve seen there is Les Ballets de Trockadero de Monte Carlo, an all-male ballet troupe. (And by that I don’t mean they are all male ballet dancers doing male ballet dancer things, I mean they are male ballet dancers pretending to be ballerinas. It’s bonkers but brilliant.)
Finally, if music is more your thing, try Live at Zedel, an amazing underground art deco restaurant and performance space off Piccadilly Circus with sweeping ceilings and a very reasonably priced French menu. Its programme is really a mix of everything but it’s mostly music, and some of the late-night performances are free! For an extra classy night of cocktails and jazz, sister speakeasies Nightjar and Oriole are gorgeous bars (in Old Street and Smithfield respectively) worth dressing up for.
Author: Emily Gibson
Emily is an urban adventurer, blogger and
glutton foodie on an epic quest to uncover the best things to eat, drink and do in London. She lives in East London and loves ceviche, cycling and magic shows. Lifelong nemeses include beetroot, beards and wine served in tumblers.