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My top 10 Theatres in London (well, everyone else is doing it)

If there’s a bandwagon to be jumped on… There’ve recently been a number of influential critics and bloggers listing their top 10 theatre venues (including Mark Shenton, Michael Coveney and RevStan), and the Londonist have also made a list of their top 10 fringe venues, so I thought I’d add my own fuel to the fire! There’s lots of lovely venues and London, and I’ve had the luck of working, reviewing and just attending shows in some really wonderful places – from the sublimely programmed to the most relaxing to the place with the best cafe. So, below (in no particular order) are my top 10 London venues:

1. Theatre503

Easily one of my favourite London venues, Theatre503 mixes excellent programming, an inclusive work ethic and a rather grimly pleasant pub below. Their new writing focus isn’t unique in London, but what they get in is always interesting and often inspiring – their content certainly seems to be more playful and more off-the-wall than other new writing venues, with international new companies often popping in for a week or two as well as local companies doing 1-2 week runs. I even like the pub, whose patrons seem to be rather at odds with the thesp-y crowd, but the drinks are cheap enough (they seem to always have deals on wine) and the atmosphere convivial. It’s also nice how it still feels like a hidden gem, tucked away in the depths of Battersea and not easily accessible by Tube. Yep, it can be hit-and-miss, but I will always love pootling along for something here. Only main issue here is leg room – I’m a tall lad – and can’t really squeeze in anywhere but the front row.

2. The New Diorama

A tiny new venue in the middle of an industrial park, the New Diorama has plenty of reasons to have disappeared without a trace already, but a great work ethic and a string of exciting shows have made them one to watch. Working on establishing strong relationships with companies, the New Diorama’s varied programme, including classics, new writing and physical theatre, means there’s always something to watch. It’s still a pig to find, oddly scurried away between big office buildings as it is, and there’s barely enough room to sit, but I do like their oddly clinical bar and how warm and friendly the staff are. It’s also a lovely space – very tall theatre, with a large square space perfect for larger casts and more physical shows – which means most of the work in here is very active, bouncy and complex, making a change from squeezing into another fringe black box. Although the (completely unrelated) giant walking woman graphic outside does get on my nerves.

3. Lyric Hammersmith

Very few theatres venues can purport to be ‘cool’, but in my mind the Lyric Hammersmith is the epitome – on the roof above Lyric Square, relaxing in their oh-so-trendy roof garden with cafe food, coffee or a glass of wine from their in-house Cafe Brera, there is a definite New-York vibe about it. It’s easily one of the best theatres in London to relax in before a show – and the shows themselves are at the cutting edge of the industry, combining some of the very best homegrown talent (Sean Holmes runs the place, Simon Stephens and Ferdy Roberts of Filter are Artistic Associates) with international talent and touring companies. It feels like a venue with a finger jammed firmly on the pulse, and it’s a great place to hang out – what more could you possibly want? Well, they’re adding even more facilities now, including a ‘teaching’ section… The sky’s really the limit here.

4. Rose Theatre Kingston

Just barely London in my mind, the Rose has still endeared itself to me fully, and I always love an evening there. It manages to combine everything I love about regional theatre and London theatre while avoiding the pitfalls – it’s definitely a part of the local Kingston community, with local projects and groups being allowed in, while also having some of the top talent in the country working with them to create really amazing productions. I’m in love with the performance space – a huge open space, it seems to endear itself to shows in need of a deep thrust and plenty of space above and to the sides; I now really can’t imagine an Ibsen working anywhere else. It’s friendly, relaxed, open, yet produces top shows with performers – what more could you ask? Well, it could be easier to get to (Zone 6?!? 10 minute walk from the station?!?), but then I sit in one of their love-seats (a really cute touch) and remember why it’s worth it.

5. The Rose Bankside

So often confused with the above, but couldn’t be more different… The Rose Bankside is possibly the oddest space I’ve ever worked in, being a combination archaeological dig site, museum and theatre – the oldest theatre site in London, no less! Pieces here play on the balcony overlooking the foundations of the Rose, which are waterlogged, and the whole space seems to be the basement of the big office building above. There’s no bar (unless one of the nice volunteers is serving drinks), no toilets and it’s damp (and incredibly cold, come winter) – it’s possibly the least inviting space in London, although that doesn’t seem to deter the string of companies putting on shows: normally Shakespeare or something particularly weird that fits the bizarre space (and shows here do have a tendency to be a bit mad, which is right up my alley). It’s so very strange, and must be seen to be believed. And if they get the funding together for their big plans, it has huge heights to ascend to.

6. Southwark Playhouse

Possibly one of the widest known and most respected Off-West End venues, the Playhouse has been at the very pinnacle of London fringe theatre for quite some time now. They always manage to programme some of the very best shows in London while still managing to mix the hugely well-respected and the up-and-coming performers and companies – it’s quite an achievement for a venue that seems to teeter on the edge of health and safety, perched as they are in the damp and dripping arches under London Bridge station. Like the Union and the Old Vic Tunnels, their under-station/train line location is perfect for the dark and mysterious, although the Playhouse seem to have grasped this concept more fully. Combine all that with a very nice bar and easily accessible location and it’s easy to see why this is a favourite.

7. Finborough Theatre

On the other end of the spectrum from the Southwark Playhouse is the Finborough Theatre – also widely known and hugely respected, also one of the premier Off-West End venues, and yet their programming couldn’t be more different: focusing on forgotten classics and unsung writers, Neil McPherson has developed his venue into something almost quaint, a petite living room playing vintage pieces above an excellent wine bar. It can feel a bit twee, but the work is strong, the performers and companies excellent, and everything is so wonderfully close – it’s strange to think that, in a theatre so small, you’re struck by the quality of the work over the minuscule performing area every time. NB: They also do new writing, including hosting the always-interesting Papatango Festival.

8. Soho Theatre

Slap-bang in the centre of Soho, the Soho Theatre is an absolute power house. While it may be better known to most for its impressive comedy shows, the theatre programme is wide and varied, with a burgeoning new writing department, a great reputation for touring shows and a tres-trendy bar – you couldn’t really ask for much more. With three hugely malleable spaces and the young audience central London venues crave, the Soho feels lively and buzzing – and many a theatre could take a leaf out of their book in that regard.

9. Battersea Arts Centre

Ensconced in the old town hall, Battersea Arts Centre is another venue that exudes cool, but in a very bohemian, retro way. Very much on the pulse when it comes to modern theatre, the BAC always seems to have the very coolest theatrical experimentation, from interactive events through performance art to the downright strange. Always buzzing, with multiple venues and plenty of people sitting in the bar (which is basically just the grand stairway), this venue has the feel of an artist’s colony or something similar – I’ve never had a bad evening here. And the fact that they work closely with a number of companies, nurturing and giving them space to play, just adds to how great they are.

10. The Young Vic

The Young Vic is, quite simply, one of my favourite places in London. The theatre is delightful, with a wide, open stage perfect for handling big companies and sets, which is always a pleasure to see. The smaller spaces are not quite so nice, but the programming more than makes up for it – constantly staging some of the best directors, actors and companies in excellent writing both old and new, the Young Vic have found a wonderful balance between the commercialism of a central London venue and the artiness of somewhere more fringe-y. Their outreach work is commendable, if misguided (don’t get me started on their Young Director’s programme) – but the pièce de resistance is their bar, The Cut. It’s not too expensive, they have a lovely selection of teas in the day and drinks in the evening, and their smoking terrace is a fine place to laze away an afternoon before a show. Just heavenly.

SPECIAL MENTION: Hen and Chickens

I’m going to cheat and add one more – because this theatre is, in many ways, both highest and lowest in my estimation of London venues. It’s not really a theatre – it does far more comedy than anything else, and gets in some pretty big names too. And yet it’s cheap, it’s easily hire-able and very affordable, and the programme is therefore incredibly hit and miss. Nonetheless, it’s one of the most valuable stepping stones on the London theatre map – and I will always love going here to see something I’ve never heard of, because I’ve so often been surprised by what I see here.

Having gone through all of those, the following has struck me:

a) It’s very hard to narrow it down to just 10! There’s some many others that deserve an honourable mention… which I won’t start to list now for fear of missing someone out!

b) I’m not surprised that my loyalty is still pretty firmly in the Off-West End/Fringe – after all, respect your roots – but maybe I’ve really drifted away from the bigger Central venues recently… must rectify that. And no West End? For shame.

c) For every theatre I love, there’s one that’s just lost the plot – not making good work, not doing it for passion, not doing anything right… sometimes with an eye to objectivity, more often than not a purely subjective opinion. I was tempted to list these, but I think that might be just a little unfair.

d) My top theatres mostly seem to have nice bars… coincidence?

I’d love to hear from readers about other venues they love – what have I missed out? Do you disagree with any of the choices?

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6 thoughts on “My top 10 Theatres in London (well, everyone else is doing it)

  1. Love that you’ve added Hen and Chickens to the list. I’ve now been previewing there with Ginge Geordie Geek for three years and they couldn’t be more helpful and accommodating. Great location, nice banked seating making great sight lines and an actual dressing room! (which to the thesps probably sounds weird, but in the ocmedy world anything up from a smelly basement is five star luxury!)

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  2. A lovely informative piece. Thanks for this.

    I had a most enjoyable time when I played at The Rose, Bankside a couple of years ago. Behind the secret door, its subterranean car park-museum-cum-theatre feel was a little disconcerting at first. The damp and cold “dressing room” that doubles as a corridor connecting offices storing boxes full of legal documents, could not be more different to those enjoyed at other venues. But it endeared itself to us. And I have never experienced a quietness and weight of history in any other venue played at or visited.

    Looking forward to sampling the delights of those on your list not visited yet.

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    • Thanks very much Francis – I do hope you enjoy some of the others! Agreed that the Rose is ghastly backstage, but I find that’s part of the charm – the last show I did we had half-naked people on stage who nearly got pneumonia and had to run the lighting rig by plugging/unplugging at opportune moments! An experience if nothing else.

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  3. Shocked to see Kingston Rose on this list. It’s a dreadful space with that horrible pit leaving everyone so far away from the stage. It was great to see the set for Here trying to address that. It would be in my top 5 worst theatres. Usually have old people talking or students fiddling with phones when I go as well.

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    • Agree to disagree? I like how wide and open it is. And I have absolutely no beef with an audience texting, chatting quietly or even taking pictures – I like that it’s attracting a changing audience and becoming something an audience can interact with!

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