London’s Legendary Theatres from Shakespeare to Pub Theatres
London itself includes over 230 theatres ranging from the huge glittering ones in Theatreland to the tiny theatre groups in various communities across the City. The history of theatre and of course all the famous theatres in London make for a theatrephiles seventh heaven.
There are over 40 venues in the home of London’s most famous theatre district the West End, “Theatreland” which is located in and near the heart of the West end of London. It is traditionally defined by The Strand to the south, Oxford Street to the north, Regent Street to the west, and Kingsway to the east, but a few other nearby theatres are also considered “West End” despite being outside the area. For example The Apollo Victoria Theatre, in Westminster). Prominent theatre streets include Drury Lane, Shaftesbury Avenue, and The Strand.
Famous Theatres in London – Theatre District History
Drury Lane was originally an early medieval lane called Via de Aldwych, which probably connected St. Giles Leper Hospital to the fields of Aldwych Close It is said that the lands were owned by the Hospital but had been in the distant past granted to the Danes as part of a peace treaty developed by Alfred the Great in Saxon times.
Around 1500 Sir Robert Drury built a mansion called Drury House. Years later the house became the Queen of Bohemia a public house, supposedly named after the Earl of Craven’s mistress. By the 1800s the Lane had become one of London’s worst slums and inhabited by prostitutes and gin joints.
The term “Drury Lane” is often used to refer to the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, which has in different incarnations been located in Drury Lane since the 17th century. By the way, Drury Lane is a short walk from either Piccadilly Station or Trafalgar Square.
The history of the London West End has been inextricably linked to the theatre for hundreds of years. From the opening of the first West End venue in Drury Lane in 1663, locals and visitors to the capital flocked in droves to the West End to be entertained and enthralled by the various shows on offer.
The London theatre tradition has continued to go from strength to strength over the years, and today the West End is the largest theatre district in the world, with many major international stars treading the boards night after night. To this day no other place in the world hosts the variety and quality of shows like the West End.
The famous Andrew Lloyd Weber (he of Cats, Phantom, Le Miz fame) owns 7 London theatres in the West End or “Theatreland”. They include Theatre Royal Drury Lane, The London Palladium; the Cambridge Theatre the Adelphi Theatre (co-owned with the Nederlander Group); the Gillian Lynne Theatre, The Other Palace and Her Majesty’s Theatre.
Not so famous Famous Theatres in London in pubs
Totally unique to London the theatre pub
The modern pub theatre is a relatively new phenomenon but it has a very old pedigree. Inn yard theatres, common in Shakespeare’s day but much older, were the first enclosed performance spaces.
In Shakespeare’s day plays produced within Inn’s was commonplace. From the middle ages actors, bards and performance artists travelled through England in troupes staying at inns and taverns across the country. Often a landlord would allow them to put on a show in the courtyard in exchange for their rooms. The landlord would charge the patrons and in this way get back the cost of the rooms.
Some of these older pubs and taverns had galleries which can be seen today in the last remaining galleried pub the George Inn in Southwark. Built in 1677 it’s London’s last galleried pub. There was also profit to be made on the food and drink served at the tavern as well.
Sadly by the time of Elizabeth the First purpose-built theatres came into existence and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre was one of the many that were built but the tavern or inn theatre died out until its resurgence in modern-day England.
London Pub Theaters Today
Theatre pubs are often pretty small holding perhaps 60 or so people and the stage is within touching distance of the audience. However, this is a brilliant place to see new works, talented but raw acting and the occasional celebrity either on stage or in the audience.
How to See a Play in a Pub
A lot of theatre pubs don’t advertise so the best place to find them is either to check out the links below or take a look at Time Out online.
Pub theatre tickets are generally under £20 which is a great cheap way to see a potentially awesome theatre show.
List of London Pub Theaters
Above The Stag Theatre is an award-winning theatre in Vauxhall, London with a focus on producing LGBT+ themed work including new writing, musicals and revivals. We are the only full-time professional LGBT+ theatre in the UK.
The Rosemary Branch sits on the border of Hackney and Islington and it was, in a previous life a real Victorian music hall where Charlie Chaplin once graced the stage. It is said to present an “eclectic mix of music and theatre, encouraging “emerging” talent”. Winner of many awards that include Best Fringe Theatre Award, BEst Neighbourhood Theatre and Most Welcoming Theatre the Rosemary Branch has been around for over 20 years.
Located on the edge of Regent’s Canal this Pub is quite a famous London Theatre and it has been operating since 1979. Some of the biggest names in comedy, like John Oliver, started their careers here. The theatre is a small 60 seat one above the Bridge House pub which is great for drinks or dinner before the show.
A small pub theatre not far from Earl’s Court Station they pride themselves on new writing and neglected works from the 19th and 20th centuries. The pub itself has a great selection of craft beers for that pre or after show drink.
Unlike many pub theatres that are located upstairs or in the back room, the Barons Court Theatre is located in the cellar/vaults below the Curtains Up Pub. It has been around for about 16 years and has about 60 seats that surround the stage on three sides.
A comedy club and theatre based in an old Victorian pub in Islington (Highbury). It has a rich history of stand-up comedy and ‘Blends the hip and the wholesome – a vibrant British pub offering the warmest of welcomes’
Theatre 503 sits just above the Latchmere pub, in Battersea. It is one of London’s original group of pub theatres. Their Second Look program puts on a groundbreaking but overlooked play from the 1980’s onward every year.
Around for 30 years and one of London’s most respected pub theatres, this Islington pub, near the Angel Tube Station. They consider themselves the “Off-West End home of exceptional, ambitious and challenging theatre, ranging from world premieres of new plays to acclaimed revivals of significant productions from throughout history”.
An intimate theatre with only 75 seats located in Nottinghill The Gate was founded in 1979. They want to push the boundaries of theatre and have created a space for what they call “radical, inventive thinking to surprise, delight, challenge and inspire”.
Located above the Horseshoe Pub in Hampstead Village, Pentameters has been around since 1968. It’s a small 60 seat theatre it is considered one of the most respected fringe theatres in London.
The Etcetera sits above the Oxford Arms on Camden High Street. Called one of London’s best pub theatres the Etcetera is a founding member of Camden Fringe and plays host to the London Horror Festival every year.
On the London Fringe scene for over 30 years the 100 seat Tabard is a very popular pub theatre located in Chiswick. The Tabard is an intimate, 100 seat theatre close to Turnham Green tube station It opened in 1985 above the Tabard Pub, a popular and historic local landmark. It quickly built a strong reputation for new writing. Over the years the Tabard Theatre has played a key role in the development of London Theatre, highly acclaimed for its professional work.
Located in Highgate Village the Gatehouse is what you think of when you think English pub culture. The earliest mention of this pub is from 1670 but the owners claim it has been a pub since 1337. It has been a jazz club, music hall and even a folk club once playing host to Simon and Garfunkel. It has 140 seats and is the last pub (going North) in Camden.
The White Bear is an independent fringe theatre that works to present challenging and risk-taking theatre. They focus on new writing and “lost classics”. Located in South London on Kennington Park Road they have recently undergone a complete renovation. Extensive upgrades including full air conditioning, brand new lighting and sound equipment and excellent soundproofing of the theatre.
All pub theatre photos are from the theatres’ website
The Most iconic famous theatres in London
A total throwback to the days of music hall legends who performed here includes Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin and more. Located in East London it is undergoing a renaissance hosting new theatre productions, variety shows, comedy and of course that brilliant British institution the “panto”.
Built in what is called “Brutalist” style the Barbican Centre in the City of London contains, two theatre, 3 movie houses and a concert hall. Not only that but is is the base of the London Symphony Orchestra and holds a library, shops a conservatory and art galleries.
On a beautiful summer day, there is nothing better than enjoying theatre under the stars in a lovely park. Every summer the Open air theatre produces a variety of plays from Shakespeare to comedy and dramas.National Theatre
Moving down to London’s cultural hub on the South Bank, the National Theatre is, in effect, four theatres in one. A range of different auditoriums stages contemporary adaptations of classics, new plays and musicals, while bars and restaurants provide a buzz around the whole complex.Sadler’s Wells
Islington in North London is home to the Sadler’s Wells Theatre, which is famous for dance performances on an international scale. Whether it’s contemporary, circus, ballet, Bollywood or family shows, the world of dance has flocked here for many years.
The original Globe theatre was built in 1599 but was destroyed by fire. Its Elizabethan majesty has been faithfully reproduced in this modern reconstruction.
The unique open-air auditorium, with upright box-style seating, plays host to many of Shakespeare’s classics from May to October each year.
This beautiful period theatre in Waterloo is rich in history and one of the best-loved theatres in London. At 192 years old it has played host to some of the greatest acting talents in the UK, including Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Maggie Smith and Peter O’Toole.
The Young Vic is the country’s leading home for younger theatre artists, especially directors. They present seasons of work by new directors in tandem with productions by some of the great directors of the world.
Home to Lloyd-Weber’s Phantom of the Opera for 30 years this is a grand old famous London Theatre. Your mouth will be hanging open if you get to attend a performance here. From its lavish marbled interior to the red velvet seats this is an all-round theatre experience.
The oldest theatre in London it has been rebuilt and restored several times since it was built in 1662. Located in Covent Garden the theatre has hosted such famous performers as Nell Gwynne and Noël Coward.
A small theatre found on London’s Shaftesbury Avenue, the St Martin’s Theatre it is an iconic venue because it has hosted over 25,000 performances of Agatha Christie’s murder mystery play The Mousetrap. Opened in 1916, St Martin’s has spent over 40 of its 100 years hosting the world’s longest-running play.
The classic façade of the London Palladium has survived since 1868, and the current impressively-tiered auditorium was built around it in 1910. But the Palladium is world famous thanks to its hosting of the annual Royal Variety Performance, and it became a staple part of British culture in the 1950s and 60s thanks to Sunday Night at the London Palladium.
Originally called the Prince’s Theatre it was built in the 1800s and became known over the years as London’s Folies Bergère until it was rebuilt in 1937. In 2004 after an extensive restoration and refurbishment it was officially opened by the Prince of Wales.
Attending one of the Famous Theatres in London
If you are not actually staying in London you may wish to stay overnight and take in a show. There’s nothing that speaks to a Theatre fan than a trip to the West End of London to see a great performance or even hit up one of the pub theatres for a brilliant Fringe experience.
London’s West End has always got some of the best shows around, from the usual suspects like Book of Mormon, Phantom and Wicked to the more dramatic like Sweat. Whatever you want to see a night in London at a famous London Theatre is well worth the price tag.
There are a few companies offering show tickets, along with a great hotel stay including breakfast. Show and Stay offers breaks at 4* hotels including breakfast for ranging from 200 and upwards for two tickets to say Book of Mormon and the hotel with breakfast.
London Theatre Breaks are very similar and you can take your pick of the top London shows from Wicket to the Lion King.
There’s also the Virgin Experience which gives you 4 days in London over the weekdays with theatre tickets that have great deals as well.
So for all, you theatre nerds planning a visit to London go check out some of those famous London Theatres and enjoy the show!