Getaway: London's West End is theater lover's draw

Frank Scheck

There's something about visiting London's West End that stirs excitement even in a theater critic like me who routinely sees hundreds of shows a year in New York.

This year there is even more cause for celebration, as the district celebrates its 100th anniversary.

While the West End, also dubbed "Theatreland," increasingly resembles Broadway with its emphasis on splashy, audience-friendly musicals, there is also a dizzying array of provocative new dramas and imaginative revivals of classic works on display this year, thanks to a highly encouraging commercial and artistic climate.

The scene features musicals, ranging from the homegrown "Billy Elliott," adapted from the hit film and featuring an Elton John score; "The Sound of Music," a revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's classic; and "Dirty Dancing," based on the sexy 1987 movie; to such Broadway imports as "Jersey Boys," "Hairspray," "Spamalot," "The Lion King" and "Wicked." (In general, tickets for these shows seem to be easier to come by in London than for their U.S. productions.)

One of the most intriguing shows in town is "Brief Encounter," the Kneehigh Theaters' acclaimed multimedia adaptation of the Noel Coward story that inspired the classic David Lean film. It is being performed in the Cinema Haymarket, the very same movie theater where the film premiered more than 60 years ago.

Another to seek out is "Marguerite," now receiving its world premiere at the Haymarket Theatre Royal (where Oscar Wilde's "An Ideal Husband" premiered in 1893). This musical melodrama set in occupied Paris during World War II was co-written by "Les Miserables" creators Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, and features a gorgeous musical score by Michel Legrand.

The West End theaters themselves boast an intimacy and venerable history that lend immeasurable atmosphere (if not necessarily comfortable legroom) to the overall experience.

But the theater scene in London is not limited to these venues. The National Theatre, the sprawling, multi-theater complex on the South Bank of the Thames, could arguably be described as the world's most important single theatrical venue. Highlights of this summer's programming include "Never So Good," a historical drama starring Jeremy Irons as British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan, and "Afterlife," the newest work by Michael Frayn, the award-winning playwright of "Noises Off" and "Copenhagen."

Nearly as important are such famed smaller venues as the Almeida, the Royal Court, the Donmar Warehouse and the Old Vic, the influence of which cannot be overstated. The latter, now under the artistic direction of actor Kevin Spacey, is showcasing a well-received revival of Shaw's "Pygmalion," while the Donmar has a production of the modern classic "The Chalk Garden" starring the beloved British actress Penelope Wilton.

Some of the city's best theatrical experiences are available only in the warmer months. The Open Air Theater in Regent's Park, for instance, is an outdoor showcase for Shakespearean productions. This summer, in addition to such plays as "Twelfth Night" and "Romeo and Juliet," it will be presenting a revival of the musical "Gigi" starring the Oscar-nominated Topol ("Fiddler on the Roof").

Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, an architecturally faithful recreation of the venue in which most of the Bard's plays premiered, is presenting "King Lear" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream," among other works. It also offers a wonderful permanent exhibition dealing with the working life of Shakespeare and his contemporaries in London.

As part of its anniversary celebrations, the West End is serving up a series of special events. Of particular note are "Kids Week in the West End" (Aug. 15-29), offering free tickets and various events for children; and "Open Rehearsal" (Sept. 27-Oct. 2), featuring free backstage tours. (For more information, go to

While the West End has a discount TKTS booth located in busy Leicester Square, you might want to avoid the lines and the hassle by procuring tickets in advance of your trip through companies including Keith Prowse Agency (800-669-8687; You can also, surprisingly, sometimes buy day-of tickets at the theaters. Regular prices run from about $40 to $120.

There are tours available that showcase the West End itself, the best being "Through the Stage Door," a highly entertaining look at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, the world's oldest operating playhouse. The tour is conducted by actors in costume and constitutes a show all by itself. It's offered twice daily except for Sundays, and at a mere $18 ($14 for kids) it's the best theatrical bargain in town.

Frank Scheck reviews theater in New York for the New York Post and Hollywood Reporter.

(Find more travel features and the Get Away with Fran blog at

If you go

STAYING THERE: Montague on the Gardens (15 Montague St.; is a delightful boutique hotel in Bloomsbury just around the corner from the British Museum. A special package, "It's Showtime," includes accommodations with full English breakfast, pre-theater dinner and tickets to a show of your choice (based on availability), priced from about $642 for two.

The Athenaeum Hotel (116 Piccadilly; is an elegant, five-star property a short walk from the theater district. Rates are from about $300 per night for two.

EATING THERE: Gastropubs in London are casual, reasonably priced and geared toward foodies. One such venue is Great Queen Street in Covent Garden (32 Great Queen Street; entrees from about $18), serving modern British cuisine.

Some restaurants feature pre- and post-theater restaurant menus. At Axis (One Aldwych;, located underneath the chic One Aldwych Hotel, try creatively prepared British classics such as veal rump or lemon sole; two-course pre-theater menu about $30, three-course about $35.

Bonding with Bond, James Bond

James Bond fans visiting London will not want to miss "For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming and James Bond," at the Imperial War Museum (Lambeth Road; Running through February 2009, the large-scale exhibition is timed to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Fleming, creator of the world's most famous secret agent.

Fleming's own wartime service in the British Naval Intelligence and his subsequent career as a journalist and travel writer are chronicled, with the exhibition clearly showing how his personal experiences helped shape his fictional creation.

Displays include such artifacts as the desk, chair and typewriter on which Fleming wrote the James Bond novels (the items borrowed from Goldeneye, Fleming's home in Jamaica) and numerous original manuscripts. There is also a large collection of props from such Bond films as "From Russia With Love" (Rosa Klebb's knife-tipped shoes); "Thunderball" (the flying jet pack) and "Die Another Day" (Halle Berry's instantly iconic orange bikini).