A LETTER FROM LONDON: Recommended London Theatres; Books Worthy of the Morley Prize

By Ruth Leon
12 Feb 2013

The National Theatre
The National Theatre

The monthly missive from Across the Pond offers perspective on a handful of London's essential theatrical institutions, James Hogan's Ivy and Joan, the year's most engaging theatrical books and the influential musical Salad Days.


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.

Recommending is full of pitfalls. But if it's someone I know, someone whose theatrical knowledge is sound and wide-ranging, then I always start by looking at what's on at the National Theatre. Under director Nick Hytner, the choice is always extensive and exciting. Of course there are a few duds in every season, you'd expect that, but overall, its three auditoria, all performing plays in rotating repertory, present a staggering array of first-class theatre from contemporary to classic, from comic to tragic, from experimental to traditional. The National Theatre is one of this country's less heralded national miracles. Without a fuss it goes on, from week to week and from year to year, consistently producing the best theatre to be found anywhere in the world. It's even possible to access the Travelex £12 tickets for every show in the Olivier Theatre, but it's not easy, as canny Londoners snap them up almost as soon as they go on sale.

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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