So our London theatres are outdoing their rivals over the pond. Just. According to the Society of London Theatre, 22 million people bought tickets to shows in the Big Smoke in 2013, compared to 15 million on Broadway, and fewer than seven million elsewhere in New York.
Let’s not get too triumphal; we’ve only just managed to claw ahead. Although Nick Allott, the managing director of the Cameron Mackintosh theatre empire, also says Londoners enjoy shorter queues for the lavatories in the West End.
Actually, you can say anything about the West End, be it tickets, audiences, plays or indeed, lavatories, and stand it up. When I was on the arts beat at the BBC, it was something of a game one could play with (say) the editor of the Today programme.
The cry was typically thus: “Millard! Is the West End dying? We need a story about the West End suffering from recession/illiteracy/parking restrictions/supermarket opening hours” (select at will).
Or “Millard! Is the West End flourishing? We need a story about the invasion of American television stars/Andrew Lloyd Webber/Cameron Mackintosh/all three.” And the story would be researched and lo! It would be found to be thus.
The pleasing truth about our theatre in recent years is that it has become a unique and extraordinary cultural phenomenon. As Tamara Rojo, the artistic director of the English National Ballet pointed out to me recently during Soho Create (a festival focusing on the delights of this ancient London quarter) it is the combination of a plethora of subsidised houses alongside a wealth of privately funded enterprises that makes it so miraculous.
According to Rojo, who is Spanish, producers on the Continent have so much public money sloshing about that they lack any financial impetus to fill houses, and therefore put on tosh; whereas New York, being almost wholly reliant on tickets and sponsorship, is more or less wholly unable to offer something resolutely challenging or innovative.
Days out in London
Days out in London
1/10 Little Angel Theatre
Little Angel Theatre, near Angel underground station (Northern line), Islington. London’s only puppet theatre exudes charm. Everything about it is tiny so it becomes a magical experience for children of all ages (and their entranced parents). This summer’s shows include The Puppet Whisperer, Three Little Pigs, A Real Fairy Story and Pinocchio. The churchyard next door is laid out as a mini-park with picnic potential. www.littleangeltheatre.com
2/10 National Gallery
Because the National Gallery is free it’s useful to be able to drop in for frequent short visits rather than boring children by trying to get them to gaze at paintings for too long. My younger son fell in love with Henry Rousseau’s Tiger in a Tropical Storm when very young and for years we never went to central London without popping in to say hello to ‘Felix’s tiger’. You can do that with any painting – art history in tiny doses. Open daily 10.00-6.00 www.nationalgallery.org.uk
3/10 London Zoo
Always a stalwart family visit. Lots to see and do – although most of the largest animals are now (rightly) at Whipsnade where there’s more space. Animal adoptions and talks are good. So is the newish penguin enclosure and the gorilla section. It’s open daily from 10am to 6pm and a family ticket costs £67.90 if bought online in advance. www.zsl.org/zsl-london-zoo
An adventure for a wet day. Take the DLR to Island Gardens and walk through the iconic 1,217 feet long Greenwich foot tunnel beneath the Thames – originally built in 1902 to get workers to the docks. Once you’re in Greenwich (if the rain has stopped) you have the restored Cutty Sark, Greenwich Park and The Royal Observatory to choose from. Or try the Maritime Museum if the weather remains iffy. And you can, when you’re ready, return to central London via the DLR from Cutty Sark. www.royalgreenwich.gov
National Maritime Museum
5/10 V&A Museum of Childhood
Easy to access because it is very close to Bethnal Green underground station (Central line). It’s not a children’s museum but because it’s full of toys and evocative childhood artefacts from the past there’s plenty here to interest children. The building with its central, marble tiled space with café and shop is appealing too. It’s open daily from 10.00 to 5.45 and admission is free. www.museumofchildhood.org.uk/
6/10 St James’s Park
Explore St James’s Park with its pretty lake, fabulous water bird population (including the famous pelicans if you’re lucky) and enjoy the best views of Buckingham Palace from the bridge across the lake. There is also a small sand pit and play park for youngest children. Best to do this fairly early in the morning before the tourists arrive. Picnic brunch on a bench perhaps? www.royalparks.org.uk
7/10 Unicorn Theatre
Unicorn Theatre in Tooley Street near London Bridge is the capital’s only purpose built children’s theatre. It presents shows and other activities for young people aged 2-21. This summer’s offerings include When I Think About The Universe I Laugh For No Reason and the Watch This Space festival. www.unicorntheatre.com
8/10 Thames Path
Start from Embankment underground station. Cross the Golden Jubilee footbridge. Then walk the Thames Path on the south side of the Thames to Tower Bridge (about a mile and a half). Pass, and maybe pop into, Royal Festival Hall, National Theatre, Millennium Bridge, Tate Modern, with view of St Paul’s across the river, Shakespeare’s Globe and Southwark Cathedral. www.thames-path.org.uk
9/10 Horniman Museum
Out of the centre, at Forest Hill (Overground or 185 bus from Victoria) but well worth the journey. Lots of activities, a hands-on aquarium, famous apostle clock (strikes at 4pm), traditional and modern displays and no child ever forgets the walrus. Horniman Gardens next door are lovely to picnic in and it’s all free. www.horniman.ac.uk/
10/10 Kensington Gardens
Always a favourite with children. Talk to Peter Pan’s statue, take in the Diana fountain and, of course, picnic by the Round Pond. A couple of hours in Kensington Gardens could work well with a visit to one of the South Kensington museums on the same day. You can walk from one to the other in fifteen minutes or so. www.royalparks.org.uk
London theatres however represent something of a Goldilocks solution, wherein both subsidised and private exist in perfect symbiotic harmony. She has a point. Take a show like War Horse; a daring combination of live action and puppetry; it started off in 2007 at the National, where it cantered along very nicely, on and off, for two years, at which point it went into the West End where it broke the record for the highest weekly gross for a play.
So lots of money back to the National and lots of people encouraged into the theatre-going habit, who might then go and see Relative Values down the road at Shaftesbury Avenue. Or something daring at the Almeida. Where they might bump into people who have just been to see Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – and loved it – and who also want to stretch their theatrical legs a little. And so on.
Except that, without wanting to confuse my nursery rhyme icons, the West End is in danger of killing the goose that stirs the perfectly cooked porridge. Ticket prices are now so steep they only seem designed to attract tourists, who are by nature revelling in a one-off treat in the first place.
Because if you want to indulge in a theatre-going habit, or if you would like to take the kids to Charlie before it goes stale and transfers to a longish run at the “New” Wimbledon Theatre (where I saw The Nutcracker, aged five, and is therefore not really New at all), you will need to sit down and have a serious talk to your bank manager about it. Particularly if you are in a group larger than two, or if you want to have supper beforehand, or need to factor in a babysitter.
A premium seat for the Almeida’s production of King Charles III, now at the Wyndham’s, costs £87.50. Un-premium seats could still cost you a choking £57.50. The cheapest seat is £17.50, right up in the gods. Which is all right, sort of. I’ll be there in September with my two oldest children, but having coughed up £60 for the pleasure, you can be sure there will be no ice cream in the interval.
And the show had better be good. As the former director of the National Theatre, Sir Richard Eyre once said to me, probably in the course of one of my “Whither the West End?” stories: “£60 is what you would pay for a pair of shoes. But you know the shoes will fit.” There is no such guarantee with the theatre, which is one of the things that makes it so magical.
Chancing upon a stunning show nobody else has seen is one of the thrills of sitting in the stalls before the curtain rises. But unless you are a student and can stand all day waiting for returns, or camp out in Leicester Square at the half-price ticket booth, you can’t chance it. You dare not. So you go for the tried and tested, or the copper-bottomed five-star review.
Which is all, dare I say it, a bit Broadway.