It seems a few people caught my post on the 7 ways to get a cheap theatre seat in London. Well, it occurred to me not long after posting it that there is in fact an eighth way: don’t go to the West End at all!
Yes, the West End is known for its glitzy productions, its star casting, and its impressive old architecture. But let’s be honest, that can all too often be translated as a cheap as chips touring set, the latest reject from a talent show, and poor seating and leg room. And that’s why it’s also worth considering looking a bit further afield at the fringe productions.
Think ‘fringe’ means dodgy acting and cheap productions? Think again. Here are seven off-West End theatres that should be on your radar.
#1 – National Theatre
Expect to see… A bit of everything. The National might be causing some controversy with its 2017 season for being a bit too modern, but it’s known for its huge range of productions. You’re more likely to come across plays than musicals, but there are three theatres inside that concrete block near Waterloo, and each offers something different. Regardless of what you’re seeing, expect very high production values and often impressive staging as the technology inside is second to none. It’s also on a bit of a star casting stint, with Andrew Garfield, Nathan Lane, Imelda Staunton and Bryan Cranston all expected to appear this year.
Expect to pay… Anything between £15 and £65. Every performance has a range of prices between those figures, and there’s some very fair scaling of prices depending on where in the auditoriums you are sitting. Also keep an eye out for the Travelex-sponsored productions as roughly a third of the seats available are only £15!
Highlights this year include… The epic two-parter Angels in America, Stephen Sondheim musical Follies, Cranston’s UK theatre debut Network, and an adaptation of Disney’s Pinocchio.
Find it… Just by Waterloo bridge on South Bank, a ten minute walk from Covent Garden.
Find out more… Over at the National Theatre website.
#2 Donmar Warehouse
Expect to see… Mainly plays. The Donmar has become known over the years for its star casting, but that hasn’t detracted from the fact that they pretty much always put on some jolly good productions. Each production almost always sells out way ahead of time, so getting a ticket can be very difficult, but if you can get one, grab it. It’s an intimate little venue that practically puts the actors right in your faces, and is a great experience even if you end up seeing one of the very rare duds.
Expect to pay… Between £10 and £40. Because the venue is so small, you’re guaranteed an OK view even if you do only pay a tenner, and in a weird quirk, the more expensive seats typically sell before the cheaper ones.
Highlights this year include… Gemma Arterton’s turn in Saint Joan, Lenny Henry taking centre stage in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, and a new musical Committee… written by Donmar favourite Hadley Fraser. It’s all gone a bit political!
Find it… Literally just by Covent Garden. It’s actually closer to walk to from the tube station than pretty much every theatre nearby.
Find out more… Visit the Donmar Warehouse website.
#3 Menier Chocolate Factory
Expect to see… Plays throughout the year and a sell-out musical around Christmas time. The Menier likes to put on a real variation of productions, but tends to stick to revivals of successful plays. It’s well known for its Christmas musicals (although they are often showing for a good couple of months either side of the Christmas period) and previous examples have included Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl and the Tony-award winning production of The Color Purple. A lot of their productions transfer into the West End, so it’s always worth seeing them here at a fraction of the price.
Expect to pay… A random amount. Menier has an odd pricing system in that the cost of the ticket rises the nearer you are to the date of the production. Still, despite that little quirk, don’t expect to pay any more than £40 unless you’re going for one of their meal deal options.
Highlights this year include… A residency by theatre legend Trevor Nunn, who will be putting on productions of Love in Idleness and Lettice and Lovage. Outside of that, it’s hard to tell as the Menier typically leaves it quite late to announce their shows.
Find it… Over by London Bridge. It is a little bit out of the way, but it’s pretty well served by public transport.
Find out more… Visit the Menier Chocolate Factory website.
#4 Southwark Playhouse
Expect to see… Primarily musicals. While there are two spaces in theatre (cleverly known as The Large and The Small), it’s The Large that has had the real attention in recent years, with some highly praised revivals of musicals. Of all the venues on the list, this is perhaps the most rough around the edges, but it’s the grittiness that adds to its charm, and leads directors to think of creative ways to use the space.
Expect to pay… A pittance. For the quality of the productions, the ticket prices are an absolute steal, with previews costing £14 per seat and usual performances a less-than-extortionate £28 per seat. And for those prices, it’s well worth a gamble!
Highlights this year include… The Life starring Sharon D. Clarke in April, and Working later on in the year, which includes music by man of the moment Lin Manuel Miranda among others.
Find it… Over by Elephant & Castle tube station. It’s perhaps a little bit out of the way, but if you get the right production, the extra couple of stations on the journey won’t matter.
Find out more… Visit the Southwark Playhouse website.
#5 Almeida Theatre
Expect to see… Very serious plays. The Almeida is perhaps one of the lesser known theatres on the list to casual theatregoers, and that’s perhaps because it’s primarily a playhouse. Its most recent production is of Hamlet and stars Andrew Scott, and that’s very typical of the venue’s programming. However, despite being a quirky little venue not much bigger than the Donmar Warehouse, it sticks to its guns and strives to stage its productions to a very high standard.
Expect to pay… Between £10 and £39.50. Typically the cheaper tickets here are met with pretty heavily restricted views, so if you want an uninterrupted view, you’re looking at about the £30 mark.
Highlights this year include… The aforementioned Hamlet starring Andrew Scott, and a series of three contemporary plays by leading playwrights The Treatment, Ink and Against.
Find it… Just around the corner from Kings Cross (which seems to be developing its own army of pop-up theatres) in Islington.
Find out more… Visit the Almeida Theatre website.
#6 Young Vic Theatre
Expect to see… Some very artistic versions of some classic and contemporary plays. If there’s a theatrical equivalent of the Tate Modern, this is it. Completely separate from the nearby Old Vic (which typically puts on very traditional revivals) the Young Vic has a habit of turning plays on their head to create something that challenges the audience’s perception. Every so often they’ll pop a musical into the schedule for good measure.
Expect to pay… There are multiple spaces within the theatre, but within the Main House, you’ll pay between £10 and £38, with plenty of seat available at a couple of price points in-between those amounts.
Highlights this year include… The return of Billie Piper in Yerma after her sell-out run last year, a revival of Life of Galileo by film director Joe Wright that promises to be a visual treat and the return of Juliet Stevenson in Wings after her turn in Happy Days a few years ago.
Find it… About half way between Waterloo station and Southwark tube station.
Find out more… Visit the Young Vic website.
#7 Open Air Theatre
Expect to see… Some family friendly productions, and plenty of weather. Open Air Theatre normally puts on 4-5 productions each year, and usually throws in a very family friendly show, a Shakespeare or similar and a more grown up musical. Slightly different to all of the other venues on the list, this is an open air theatre (clue’s in the name) so is an altogether different experience to your normal trip to the West End.
Expect to pay… Anything between £25 and £55. The lowest price might not be quite as low as some of the other venues, but the highest price is still considerably less than the £80+ pounds being charged by many.
Highlights this year include… The massively critically acclaimed production of Jesus Christ Superstar coming back for a second stint, Drew McOnie’s new revival of On the Town and a family friendly version of Oliver Twist.
Find it… Smack back in the middle of Regent’s Park, attempting to battle the weather.
Find out more… Visit the Open Air Theatre website.