Theater immersion: seven plays in six days

Stage: The West End is a great place to experience English theater, and it's also the perfect place to stay while in London.

April 04, 1999|By Susan Spano | Susan Spano,los angeles times

Theater is not a luxury of progress. It is integral to our identity as a nation," British Prime Minister Tony Blair once said. This explains why I love to see plays in the sprawling English capital, why I take in at least one whenever I pass through the city, and why in January I spent a whole week glutting myself on London theater.

For play-going, I prefer it to New York, because the English put their money where their mouth is, lavishing millions on the arts. Two great dramatic institutions are among the chief beneficiaries: The Royal National Theatre, led by Trevor Nunn, in a modern complex on the south bank of the River Thames; and the Royal Shakespeare Company, which spends part of every winter at the Barbican Center in London under the artistic direction of Adrian Noble.

London's commercial theaters are concentrated in the West End, an amorphous region between Piccadilly Circus and Covent Garden. It may well be going the way of New York, because, as on Broadway, ticket prices are rising and serious drama struggles to survive. But the pace of change is slower in England. Currently, the best seat for the hit revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!" at the Lyceum Theatre is priced at $63 (as compared with $85 for "Cabaret" in New York), and there seemed no dearth of serious drama in the West End in January, including Tom Stoppard's "The Invention of Love" and Conor McPherson's "The Weir," not to mention Michael Frayn's heady new drama, "Copenhagen" (which transferred to the West End shortly after I saw it at the National).

Then too, the history of the London stage is colorful and long, so virtually every playhouse in the West End has a story to tell about memorable first nights, ghosts, assassination attempts, hidden tunnels and tragic fires. Some, like the Royal Opera House, are being remodeled, while others, like the Haymarket, are preening in the wake of recent renovations.

That the acting and directing is more accomplished in London could be disputed. But you can't argue that an almost collegial spirit prevails. You can follow the work of tightly knit theater companies and watch theatrical dynasties unfold (as in Shakespeare's "Two Gentlemen of Verona" at the RSC, directed by the son of Sir Peter Hall); see English movie stars on stage (like Cate Blanchett, appearing in David Hare's "Plenty" this spring); and ponder why we in the United States don't appreciate older actresses on the order of Dame Judi Dench.

Above all, the atmosphere is simply more cozy and convivial than in New York. London seems to make one willing to be more spontaneous about going to the theater. Curtain times are slightly earlier, so you don't starve waiting for dinner when the play ends. And it's easy to snag last-minute tickets at the Half Price Ticket Booth in Leicester Square, or at the box offices themselves.

Plan ahead for tickets

If you go to London specifically for theater, you may not want to take last-minute chances about obtaining seats for the most popular shows. For this reason, I bought tickets before I left Los Angeles for "The Invention of Love," "Oklahoma!" and Eduardo de Filippo's "Filumena" (starring Dench) from Albemarle of London, for $67, $79 and $67 respectively. Albemarle is a booking agency with an excellent Web site that includes excerpts of reviews and seating charts. But they charge a whopping 23 percent service fee. Once in London, I found I could have gotten a half-price ticket for a weeknight performance of "The Invention of Love" in Leicester Square. Still, the seats Albemarle reserved for me were all super, and on other nights I saved money by purchasing a $9 standing-room ticket for Stephen Sondheim's "Into the Woods" at the Donmar Warehouse, and by standing in a long line outside the National to claim a prized $32 ticket for a sold-out performance of "Copenhagen."

With theatrical immersion as my goal, I decided to stay in the West End. Hotels here are relatively rare and rooms are dear, but this put me right in the midst of the marquees and stage doors. I could walk to the theater, stopping afterward for a bite to eat.

Staying in the West End also taught me something about London, which I'd always considered endearing but dowdy. Now it's become unquestionably cool, with a pulse of its own, hip-looking couples, trendy shops and salons, and chic, sleek restaurants and bars totally unlike the dartboard-and-meat-pie pubs of yore.

A Los Angeles-based theatrical agent friend recommended the Covent Garden Hotel on Monmouth Street, where I splurged on a $312 room for my first night in town. It lies a half block away from a cheerfully chaotic intersection called the Seven Dials, a hundred years ago the hub of London's worst slum. Now the neighborhood is a delight, with pedestrian-only streets that end in surprises -- like the bakery and New Age shops of a triangular square called Neal's Yard -- as well as curbside flower stalls, theaters and beckoning restaurants.

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