We take a look at some of the most interesting and surprising facts about the plays and musicals of London’s famous West End theatre, from the longest-running show to the superstitions of stage actors
1. The West End, also known as Theatreland, is the main theatre district in London. It is normally defined as the area between Oxford Street to the north, The Strand to the south, Regent Street to the west and Kingsway to the east ‒ although some of the 40 or so venues considered West End theatres lie outside these limits.
2. Much like Broadway in New York, the West End is considered a showcase for some of best theatre in the English-speaking world. It features musicals, comedies and straight plays, both classic and modern. As well as the most successful British productions, international hits frequently grace the stages of Theatreland. A notable example is Hamilton, a smash-hit Broadway musical that came to Victoria Palace Theatre at the end of 2017.
3. The late 16th century saw the beginnings of London’s theatre scene as we know it today. The first permanent public playhouse was built in 1576 in Shoreditch (and was even used by Shakespeare). The first theatre in the West End opened in 1663, but it wasn’t until the 1800s that the area really began to establish itself as Theatreland.
4. The oldest theatre in the area is Theatre Royal on Drury Lane, which opened in 1812. It was built on the site of the first West End theatre, which was destroyed in a fire in 1672. Two further structures followed the first, making today’s Theatre Royal the fourth incarnation.
5. Theatre Royal is not the only theatre to have been remodelled. Almost all of them have been rebuilt at least once, which is hardly surprising considering most are more than a century old. Thanks to careful conservation and occasional renovation most of London’s famous theatres are architecturally stunning and give a glimpse into the grandeur of the city’s past.
6. The longest-running play on the West End is The Mousetrap. Having been performed continuously since 1952, it is also said to be the longest-running play in history. A murder mystery written by Agatha Christie, it has a surprise ending that the audience is traditionally asked not to reveal. Its home has been St Martin’s Theatre since 1974.
7. The West End is famous for its musicals, which always form a significant portion of its offerings. Many run for decades. The longest-running musical is Les Misérables, which opened in October 1985. The Lion King and Mamma Mia! both opened in 1999 ‒ and are celebrating 20th anniversaries this year.
8. Among many British theatre actors, it is considered very bad luck to say the name Macbeth in a theatre. It is referred to as ‘the curse’. Use of the word has been blamed for various accidents and odd occurrences over the years. Instead, thespians are known to refer to The Scottish Play and The Scottish King. (If you are rehearsing for, or playing in, Macbeth itself it is of course acceptable to use the name.)
9. Each year, the Society of London Theatre recognises excellence in the industry with the Laurence Olivier Awards. In 2017, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child became the most awarded play ever, nominated for 11 awards and winning nine, including Best New Play. The record for the most Olivier awards received for a musical is held jointly by Matilda (2012) and Hamilton (2018). Both won seven awards including Best New Musical.
10. Although shows tend to sell out far in advance, there are various ways to get last-minute tickets. Pop into the theatre in the morning and you may be able to snap up a returned ticket or a ‘day seat’ (many shows hold a few tickets to be sold on the day of every performance). Or pay a visit to the Tkts booth on Leicester Square where there is usually a good choice of tickets to a variety of shows, available for that day, the next or the one after and often with a discount; you can only buy in person, so be sure to look up shows and prices before you go.