The Best Places to See the Best Theatre in London
When American visitors ask what they should see in London, I deflect. All right, when they insist, I lie. Strangers, civilians, have no idea how hard it is to recommend theatre to those one doesn't know. My new test, when asked, is to enquire what three shows my tormentors most recently enjoyed. No point, after all, in suggesting an obscure contemporary play by the newest 12-year-old wunderkind if what they most loved in the last five years was Mamma Mia! I've had several disasters encouraging new friends to savor the joys of Sondheim when they'd really prefer Strindberg.
So there are pitfalls in being a theatre critic, not least that we see so much that our vision is necessarily skewed by the huge burden of baggage we take into the theatre with us, all the productions we've seen before this one. A Shakespeare virgin of my acquaintance recently almost danced out of the Globe, thrilled by a production which was so bland that, had she asked me in advance, I would have dissuaded her from seeing. When you've seen three Macbeths in six months, it's kind of hard to get excited about a fourth, no matter how promising the cast or director. Yet, if it's your first ever Thane of Cawdor, what riches! How I should love to see Macbeth or any of the great Shakespeare plays for the first time.
Then, if there's nothing at the National that I think might appeal, I look at the Almeida and the Donmar. Every actor wants to work at these two small, unassuming performance spaces because, simply, they provide the opportunities to work on the most interesting plays with the best directors. This is the final season for Michael Attenborough — son of Richard, nephew of David (yes, they are an overachieving family) — and he's overseen the building of his drafty Islington theatre into a powerhouse of theatrical strength and innovation. There is not a ticket to be had at the Almeida, and it's one of the places I go without knowing anything about the play except that it's at that theatre. Book in advance — a long way in advance.
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