A Theaterlover’s London
If you love theater, two destinations come to mind—New York, of course, and also London. If you’re planning a trip to London, like I recently did, indulge your “culture vulture” side and enjoy the London stage, but from a different vantage point—behind the scenes.
To set the stage—so to speak—for your theaterloving experience, choose a hotel that’s in the very center of the West End, London’s theater district equivalent to Broadway. For me, that meant the Savoy. This historic hotel first opened its doors in 1889, the vision of Gilbert & Sullivan impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte. The hotel was built next to the Savoy Theatre, and is only a few steps from Covent Garden and many London theaters including The Royal Opera House, Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, the Novello, and the Coliseum, home of the English National Opera.
The Savoy has always been a home away from home for stage celebrities; the famous chef Auguste Escoffier created dishes for such stars as Sarah Bernhardt, Lily Langtry, and Dame Nellie Melba (not to mention the Prince of Wales). The hotel today is still a favorite place for actors, conductors, opera singers, and the like.
“Was that you-know-who?,” in fact, I whispered to the hotel’s head of security while he was showing me around on an impromptu tour. “Yes,” he whispered back, “but I’m not allowed to mention names.” Since I had, literally, bumped into this well-known artist (or rather, he bumped into me, but let’s not quibble, since I certainly wasn’t complaining), my question was allowed to be confirmed, but I was also told that the Savoy staff guards their guests’ privacy zealously, which is why—if you keep your eyes open—you may catch a glimpse of some well-known you-know-whos but nobody will ever mention their names to you (and no, I’m not about to tell you either, since the Savoy also prides itself on the fact that the guests guard each other’s privacy as well).
So, once you tear yourself away from your star search, head out of the hotel toward Covent Garden, just a couple of blocks away. This one-time flower market is no longer home to “Eliza Doolittle,” but the street market atmosphere is lively and festive, and is also the location of two of my favorite spots in London—the magnificently restored Royal Opera House and the small gem of the Theatre Museum.
The Royal Opera House is the third theater to be located on this site, the first one dating back to the early 18th century. In the late 19th century, the theater became the Royal Opera House, and in 1946 became the country’s first permanent home for opera and ballet, now housing both the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet. Since the Opera House was restored and reopened in 1999, it now has two performing spaces in addition to the historic main auditorium.
Until the restoration, the Opera House opened only just before a performance, but now you can take tours of the backstage and the front of house areas as they are prepared for the evening’s performance. The tours include an introduction to the history of the theater, the background of its redevelopment, and a look at the different aspects of the current productions. The Opera House is a working theater, so you may even catch sight of dancers of the Royal Ballet in class or a run-through of backstage technology. There are dining options at the Opera House as well, and don’t miss the wonderful gift shop.
For a different backstage look at the West End, sign up for a theater walking tour, either through one of the many London tour companies, or through the Savoy (which includes champagne and the “Theatre Tea” in the price), which is led by playwright/author/theater critic Paul Webb. Webb is a theater insider whose tour is chock-ful of anecdotes about the different theaters and performers through the centuries. Webb also gives tour-goers an overview of which shows are opening and closing that month, your best bet for star-gazing, and which shows he personally recommends you see during your stay.
Just steps away from the Opera House is the Theatre Museum (formally known as the National Museum of the Performing Arts, a division of the Victoria and Albert Museum). The Theatre Museum traces the story of the performing arts in Britain from the 16th century to the present, and houses the largest collections of documents, artifacts and works of art on this subject in the world. There are costumes, designs, manuscripts, books, video recordings—including the National Video Archive of Performance—posters, and paintings. All the live performing arts are represented here, including drama, dance, opera, musical theater, circus, puppetry, music hall, and live art. On my last visit, in addition to its permanent collections, the museum was featuring exhibitions focusing on the British theatrical Redgrave family, choreographer Kenneth Macmillan, and dance photographer Chris Harris. As a former dance critic, I was mesmerized by such objects as the original pointe shoes of Marie Taglioni, one of the earliest ballet stars.
If you love the performing arts, you will, of course, want to take in a play or musical, opera or ballet while you’re in London, but getting a look at the inner workings of the city’s vibrant performing arts scene only adds to the experience.
If You Go
The Savoy is located on The Strand in London’s West End. For more information, visit www.fairmont.com.
The Royal Opera House is on Bow Street, at the Covent Garden tube station stop. For more information, visit www.royaloperahouse.org.
The Theatre Museum is on Russell Street, also at the Covent Garden tube station stop. For more information, visit www.theatremuseum.org.