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London Theatre: Exploring West End’s History

Theatres will soon be opening to full capacity, meaning that many will be booking tickets to the nation’s favourite productions and spending their evenings amongst the glitz and glam. 

West End is a prime spot for theatregoers, home to the many beloved classics and latest upcoming shows. But the theatres themselves have their own stories to tell. So, we’re looking at some of London’s finest theatres and how they’ve made West End what it is today. 

How did the West End come about?

Before we dive into London’s theatres, let’s take a look at West End as a whole.

Other than Broadway, West End represents the highest level of commercial theatre. Home to a total of 39 theatres, it’s an epicentre for cultural entertainment, boasting its own collection of shops and restaurants as well as theatres. The size of each theatre varies. The largest theatre is the London Coliseum, which has 2,359 seats, and the smallest is the Arts Theatre, which has 350. 

So how old are West End theatres? The oldest theatre site - Theatre Royal Drury Lane - was built in 1663. This building alone is an indication of West End’s thriving history, having welcomed theatregoers for over 300 years. 

West End is also a short distance from Stay Central, which offers both short and long-term accommodation at affordable prices. Our well-equipped rooms are perfect for catching a late night theatre performance. Take a look at our website to see our accommodation options. 

London's West End History

5 of the top theatres in West End, London

West End is an extraordinary place to spend a day or two with family and friends. You can grab a drink and enjoy a meal together before catching your favourite theatre performance, in one of London's most vibrant locations. 

Now that we’ve taken a brief look at West End itself, let's look at five of its historic theatres. 

 

Covent Garden - home of Theatre Royal Drury Lane

Theatre Royal Drury Lane History

As mentioned above, Theatre Royal Drury Lane is the oldest theatre site in the West End - and the world’s oldest theatre site that’s in continuous use. The building has undergone many renovations over the years. However, the front of house areas are exactly as they would have been in 1663. You can clearly imagine walking through this majestic theatre when it first opened, taking in all its finery. 

Theatre Royal is a Grade I listed building based in Covent Garden. It has a capacity of 2,196, making it the third largest theatre in West End. Known for its extravagant set pieces, it’s hosted a variety of renowned shows, including Oklahoma!, My Fair Lady and Miss Saigon. This particular musical is known for its famous helicopter which landed at almost every performance at Theatre Royal Drury Lane. 

Another interesting fact about the theatre is that it is supposedly haunted. As the oldest theatre site, it’s no surprise that the Theatre Royal maintains a spooky presence within its walls. The most popular tale is the Man in Grey, who’s been spotted wearing a grey cloak fading in and out of the Upper Circle. Have no fear though - this ghostly gent is a good luck charm for any new shows performed at the theatre. 

Inside a theatre - exploring West End history

History of Lyceum Theatre, London

The Lyceum Theatre is one of the most prominent theatres in the UK. This Grade II listed building is a blend of different styles and eras, marking the many different eras of West End’s history. The pillared entrance is the only remaining part of the original building, burnt down in 1830. It has a capacity of 2,100. 

One interesting note in the theatre’s history is that Bram Stoker was its business manager from 1878. He wrote his infamous novel Dracula within the theatre’s walls. If you take your own stalk to the back of the theatre, you’ll see his name engraved in stone. 

The Lyceum opened as a ballroom and concert hall after WWII, where bands and artists such as Prince, Rolling Stones and Queen played. In 1996, the theatre was refurbished and reopened for stage productions, showing musicals such as Jesus Christ Superstar and The Lion King

The London Palladium History

First opened in 1910, The London Palladium is ripe with history. This Grade II listed building still retains most of its original features, its intimate feel adored by many theatregoers despite its larger size. The theatre has a capacity of 2,886, making it the fifth largest theatre in London. 

The Palladium has made its mark in pantomime, musicals and TV alike. It has hosted the Royal Variety Performance 43 times, and is also known for the show, Saturday Night at the London Palladium which launched in 1955 to worldwide popularity. This show is credited with igniting ‘Beatlemania’, following The Beatles’ performance at the theatre which cemented their place in stardom. 

When it comes to musicals, the London Palladium has shown a large variety of classics. Its long list includes The Sound of Music, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Cats and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. Today, the theatre is owned by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s company, LW Theatres. 

Exploring West End Theatres - inside a theatre

History of the Dominion Theatre, London

The Dominion Theatre’s history starts as a mega cinema with three tiers of seating. Today, the theatre’s capacity is 2,069. 

The Dominion Theatre is an Art Deco building, a movement known for its sleek and decorative style. The theatre is usually at the forefront of technological developments. In the 10th century the theatre utilised large-screen colour productions. More recently, a new flying system has been installed to help with set changes. This system allows the theatre to host larger productions, whereas their building management system has helped reduce the building’s carbon footprint. 

Since its switch from cinema to stage, the Dominion Theatre has hosted a variety of productions, including Beauty and the Beast, Grease, The Prince of Egypt and We Will Rock You. With the latter came a gold 20ft statue of Freddie Mercury placed on the theatre’s exterior, but this was ‘nicked’ from the Queen drummer Roger Taylor. Apparently, Brian May was not impressed. 

If you’re feeling hungry after watching a production, the Dominion Theatre has some great restaurants nearby. From 3AKE to The Coral Room, The Flying Horse and more, you certainly have plenty of choice when it comes to fine dining. 

Seating inside a theatre building

History of Apollo Theatre, London

The Apollo Theatre is known for its three tiers, as the view from the third tier balcony is said to be the steepest in London - if you’re not a fan of heights, you’ve been warned! 

The Apollo Theatre is named after the Greek god of the arts, and is known for hosting new and upcoming productions, usually lighter, comedic stories and thrillers. Its show history includes Rain Man, Jerusalem and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. During a 2013 performance of the latter, the roof of the theatre collapsed, bringing down a lighting rig and part of the balcony. 

The theatre reopened in 2014 with a performance of National Theatre’s Let The Right One In. The collapse happened due to old materials which had been in place since the theatre’s opening in 1901. This resulted in issues guidance for other theatre companies to carry out checks to ensure that the historic buildings are well maintained. 

Now, the Apollo Theatre is home to Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, a popular musical that’s a must-see for everyone. 

The Apollo Theatre is located on Shaftesbury Avenue, West End’s renowned theatre street. Apollo is one of the many theatres sitting on this road, including the Sondheim and Lyric Theatres, home to Les Miserables and Six respectfully. These popular theatres are a short distance from Stay Central, where you can find affordable accommodation that’s ideal for couples, groups, and single travellers. Whether you’re staying in London for a few nights or even a week or more, take a look at our website to see what rooms are available.

Inside a Theatre Building

See a West End production in London

If you’re planning on visiting London’s theatreland this year, then Stay Central can offer you the perfect room. Whether you’re looking for a short or longer-term stay, you’ll find everything you need in our well-equipped accommodation, including bed and breakfast packages. We’re based in Bloomsbury, central London, which means we are easy to find and centrally located, whether you’re arriving directly from the West End or returning from a few evening drinks. Take a look at our website or get in touch today to find out more.

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