A few weeks ago, while most people were braving the Canadian cold, I was across the pond braving the damp chill of Mother England. It was my second time in the Queen’s country and as always I was struck by the giddy joy of the bookworm in the bookshop. London has long been a theatrical culture – even the Changing of the Guard smacks of theatrics – and the West End is both a madhouse and a wonderland. Having grown up in Toronto, I was reminded of my youth, when there were more shows then there were weeks of the year.
...there were so many pauses in the dialogue that I began to wonder if the actors had forgotten their lines.
We began our theatrical excursion with Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones, in their penultimate performance of Driving Miss Daisy. I’ll admit I napped through some of it and it wasn’t because of the jet lag. A beautiful, if meandering production, there were so many pauses in the dialogue that I began to wonder if the actors had forgotten their lines. Perhaps the most impressive part of the production was the speed in which it disappeared: Ms. Redgrave and Mr. Jones gave their final performance on Saturday night; by Sunday morning, the marquee had already been changed and the posters in the window replaced. Their replacement? Christmas with the Rat Pack, a holiday amusement complete with celebrity impersonation.
The sheer popularity of theatre in London has led to some impressive methods of increasing accessibility, many of which could stand to be adopted on our side of the ocean. I had touched down at Heathrow desperate to sleep with whoever I had to in order to see the Donmar Warehouse production of Richard II starring Eddie Redmayne (currently starring in the film My Week with Marilyn). The show is one of the unsung gems of Shakespeare’s canon and is rarely performed.
Donmar Warehouse reserves 30 tickets for the day of the performance – 10 seats and 20 standing room only.
Sadly, the production was sold-out, something I clearly wasn’t good-looking enough to change. Fortunately, there was another option. Donmar Warehouse reserves 30 tickets for the day of the performance – 10 seats and 20 standing room only. Anxious for one of these prizes, I headed to the theatre an hour before the box office opened – only to find myself the 25th person in line. The happy ending is that I took the standing ticket (for the low price of £7.50); the happier ending is that the production was probably one of the finest I’ve ever seen.
Donmar isn’t the only company offering day seats and standing tickets: it’s standard practice at several theatres, both in on and off the West End. Early morning line-ups are, I’m told, a typical sight for limited runs and even long running shows, such as Matilda The Musical. But the quest for accessibility doesn’t stop there. Many theatres are built to accommodate the physically disabled. Hearing impaired theatre-goers can find captioned performances while the visually impaired can often find special audio-described performances, complete with a “Touch Tour” one hour before curtain. I spoke to an usher at the Donmar who informed me that a Touch Tour is exactly as it sounds: ticket holders are permitted to navigate the set and use their hands to help understand what it looks like.
With apologies to composer Elton John, the show would have been a lot better without the songs...
Of course, no trip to the West End would be complete without a splashy musical (at least for me). We elected to take in Billy Elliot, the movie-turned-musical that swept all the awards when it first came out. With apologies to composer Elton John, the show would have been a lot better without the songs, which delayed the action and were most forgettable. The show did provide me with a flashback to Montreal’s Schwartz’s: The Musical. There, giant bottles of condiments were made to dance during a fantasy sequence; Billy Elliot performed a similar stunt with an oversized wardrobe after Billy and his cross-dressing friend explore the joys of raiding their mother’s closet (I imagine that description alone will either sell you on the show or make you desperate to avoid it).
London is an expensive jaunt but for the budding theatre-lover, I’d say it’s a good investment if you can make it. I didn’t get into the off-West End area this time around, and there was plenty of theatrical wonders I didn’t get to see, so it’s safe to say I’m going to invest my Chanukah gelt until I can cross the Atlantic again. In the meantime, if any of you are going, remember that Richard II runs until February 4. It’s worth the trip alone, even if the flight involves screaming infants. Just get to the theatre early.