'Tis the season to be jolly, and where better to have fun than the theatre? Theatrenow gives a brief guide to surviving the crowds and caterwauling that are an inevitable part of a London theatregoer's Christmas.
Fighting your way through crowded streets full of shoppers, tourists - despite the gloom and doom plenty of people are still coming to London for a seasonal city break - and fellow theatregoers, is an integral part of Christmas theatregoing.
London can look a little like a film set at this time of the year - Salvation Army brass bands on the steps of St. Martin in the Fields overlooking Trafalgar Square, where the huge Christmas Tree, a present from the people of Norway for doing our bit in World War II, towers over a wintry city.
To create the full Christmas effect, rather like American movies where you get the impression that all of London's landmarks are about twenty feet away from each other - the hero will walk out of the House of Commons and find himself miraculously opposite Buckingham Palace for example - you should go to the theatre via Trafalgar Square, even if the playhouse you're visiting is off Piccadilly or on Drury Lane. When you pass any carol singers remember to clunk a coin into the collection box: they are as good as a stage chorus in creating an atmosphere and work for considerably less than Equity rates; in giving them fifty pence you'll feel that inevitable warm glow of goodwill that the whole holiday is all about.
After you've reached the theatre, you have to fight your way through the foyer, at the head of your little group of family and/or friends. Like all the brightest people you'll probably have bought your ticket via the Theatrenow Tickets late availability service, so when some oaf steps on your feet as you battle your way across the foyer, you'll have the compensation of knowing that he's paying at least twice what you have for the same sort of seat.
In the middle of the foyer will be a harassed looking manager, aged either seventeen or seventy - middle aged people have either moved into administration or retired to the country with a large bottle. Older theatre managers come from a more heroic age and can knock back the huge quantities of alcohol required to keep sane in this wonderful but mad business of ours, and still appear sober - if a little flushed.
If the manager concerned is in the latter category then make a point of asking a question ("Where can I buy a program?") and drop in a reference to Larry and Vivien (Olivier and Leigh). This'll bring a smile to his face and make his day as well as establish you as a bona fide theatre person, whatever your age. If it's a young manager then “Nice gear, mate” as you point at his ill-fitting dinner jacket will produce much the same response, especially if you manage a faintly ironic inflection that binds you together in a post-modern mocking of outdated theatrical conventions like dressing up as if it were still the 1930s.
Once you've collected your ticket, made a friend of the manager and reached the Stalls or Dress Circle, buy a program. The correct change is a great help here: people who give harassed usherettes a twenty pound note when they buy a £1.50 ice cream should be forcibly removed from the premises.
Given the unbelievably low pay of front-of-house theatre staff, a seasonal exclamation of "Keep the change!" is in order, and the effect on the usher/ette will be out of all proportion to the value of the money involved. Given that it's likely to be fifty pence at most, standing over the tray with an unforgiving eye while he/she struggles to find five ten pence coins to give you is worse than anything Scrooge ever came up with, so don't do it. It's Christmas!
Getting to your seat is easy if you make a point of booking an aisle seat, like most seasoned theatregoers. As there's no point in sitting down until the last moment (unless you enjoy getting up and sitting down again every few seconds as everyone else tries to get past you to take their seats) you can go to the bar and stay there till the last possible second as an act of charity to your fellow theatregoers - "No point going in yet, we'll only get in their way, dear" - rather than a reminder of how much a stiff gin and tonic helps you get through the show.
Enjoying the play:
You're in the theatre to have fun - whether its Ayckbourn or Shakespeare, panto or Pinter - so try to ignore the fact that the seat was clearly designed for a nineteenth century ten-year-old with legs amputated at the knee, and enjoy the show.
Turning off a mobile phone is essential, of course: even if people have adjusted their ring tones to sound like Silent Night or God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen the only music people want to hear is from the orchestra pit, not the bottom of zipped up and inaccessible handbags or briefcases.
If you are at the panto then make sure you join in the fun. Normal inhibitions about making a noise other than laughter or applause can be left behind: actors like nothing more than hearing grown men and women cry out "Look behind you!" - unless you're reacting to his father's ghost in Hamlet.
After the ball is over...
A good play, panto or musical will leave you feeling great in a way that only live entertainment can do. Translate that feeling into Christmas cheer: is your mother taking forever to put her coat on? Has auntie dropped her glasses under her seat and has that ghastly man who was blowing his nose all through the quiet scenes accidentally kicked them twenty yards further along the row? Does it transpire that that last piece of chocolate that you couldn't find has, with all the precision of a guided missile, worked its way past your lap and onto the seat, where it spent Act Three gently melting into an excruciatingly embarrassing stain on your trousers/dress? Ignore! Tis the season, etc, so grit your teeth, give the sort of determined smile with which Joan Collins must have read her reviews for Over The Moon, and carry on.
The Show Must Go On, and when it comes to the family's Christmas theatre outing the show ain't over till the restaurant cash till rings. Contrary to continental rumors London is full of restaurants open 'til late, although the best of them can cost enough for dinner for four to refurbish a small West End theatre.
Theatre restaurants are headed by The Ivy, of course - as they were for most of the twentieth century, but there are plenty of others, too. The best bet, not least for choice and lack of crowds, is to have eaten at one early, before the show. This leaves you free to soak up some real Christmas atmosphere before piling into a cab/car/train/tube home.
The Salisbury pub, in St Martin's Lane and literally a stone's throw from the Albery, Wyndhams, the Duke of Yorks and the Coliseum, used to be one of London's best known theatre pubs, and remains one of the best-preserved examples of a Victorian public house - all wonderful glass screens and brass cherubs - in London. For most of us Christmas means a Victorian Christmas (or perhaps a Regency one - all those picturesque stagecoaches) and when in comes to experiencing a taste of Victorian London a couple of pints in the Salisbury, in front of their real fire, is the next best thing to a time machine.
So have a great trip to the theatre, take advantage of the inevitable week or so off work to catch-up with all those shows you've read about, make the most of our discounted tickets and, as Barbara Streisand memorably sang, Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas Now.
—by Paul Webb Theatrenow