London sets the stage for fine performances and inexpensive tickets

April 24, 1994|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,Sun Staff Writer

A friend of mine recently complained that he spent an hour and a quarter on the phone dickering with a sales agent to get a good seat to the New York production of "Angels in America," the Pulitizer-prize winning play.

The seat cost $69.75. I smiled. I saw the same play in London, where a fine seat goes for $20.25.

London theater remains an outstanding value in terms of high standards of acting, variety and choice of material, ease of getting seats and a setting in a civilized city filled with museums, lush gardens and delightful architecture. Even the often maligned British food has made strides in taste in the past decade.

In the seven days I was there, I saw seven plays and two musicals. By visiting the Leicester Square half-price ticket booth, and taking some good advice, I was able to spend an average of $24.92 per seat, always in the front half of the orchestra stalls. London's ticket prices are far lower than New York's or Baltimore's. For the most expensive production I saw, a full-price orchestra seat was $34.50. For the least, another fifth-row center orchestra seat was $15.75 to a David Mamet play.

In late March, the London Theatre Guide, a free brochure universally available in hotel lobbies and other places of tourist accommodation, listed 46 attractions on the boards. They included straight plays, musicals, comedies, operas, ballets, thrillers, a magic show and a whodunit.

By far the best place to hunt for stunning productions of the finest British theater is at the National Theatre on the south bank of the Thames. It is a repertory company with a playing schedule that changes weekly. Its setting is a terraced, poured concrete building, vaguely reminiscent of the architecture of Baltimore's Morris A. Mechanic Theatre. Its setting, overlooking the river, is more like the Kennedy Center. The National has three houses, the Lyttelton, the Olivier and the Cottesloe.

Many of its excellent productions are sold out in advance, but the theater has a policy of selling about 50 seats each day beginning at 10 a.m. It's a high tourist time; get in line 45 minutes early to ensure a place.

The other best advice a London visitor can get is to shop the half-price ticket booth in Leicester Square. This is a pleasant experience, not like the obstacle course of New York's TKTS half-price booth.

Many of the city's excellent plays and some of the musicals are sold at 50 percent off each day. For absolute best selection, visit the booth on a Wednesday matinee day, when the demand for tickets is at the low point of the week. (By comparison, Saturday matinee and evening performances are very well patronized, but there still may be some cut-price attractions available, even on the weekends.)

Another piece of advice is to buy and use a London Transport Travelcard for subways, buses and commuter trains. Prices vary, depending on the area in which you travel. A one-day pass for central London is $4.05, less than a single cab fare.

London's fabled underground, universally called the Tube, is fast, clean and efficient. Its one limitation to a tourist is that you don't see any sights except for escalators and tiled walls.

Take the double decker buses. They arrive with amazing speed (no U.S. transit system comes close to London's), and the upper seats provide a cheap and delightful sightseeing platform.

Don't be afraid to shop for the lowest air fares. I got lucky. British Air is promoting its service from Baltimore-Washington International Airport to London's Gatwick Airport. British Air quoted a round-trip fare of $498, but by scanning the travel pages of local newspapers, I found a Washington travel agent, Euram Tours, with a $425 fare from BWI. I conducted all the arrangements by phone and fax machine from Baltimore.

British Air also has arrangements with London hotels. I booked the Hotel President, which overlooks Russell Square. A March rate was $60.29 per night double occupancy with a breakfast of toast, juice and coffee.

Gatwick is about 35 minutes from London by train, with a $25.80 per person round-trip express into the city.

It's also less frenetic than Heathrow, the better-known airport, which is conveniently linked to London by the Piccadilly subway line.

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