Small theatres

You probably know that we’re surrounded by big-name theatres at the Strand Palace. The Lyceum, home to the all-conquering Lion King musical, is just around the corner, and beyond that you’ll find the Theatre Royal, the Novello, the Aldwych… the list goes on and on. But London’s theatre scene isn’t just about famous productions in huge auditoriums. We’re also walking distance from some great small theatres showing innovative new comedy and drama, and fresh takes on modern classics. And more than one of them comes with a genuinely great bar and restaurant attached, which the big theatres – as much as we love them – usually don’t. Grab a bite to eat, see a thought-provoking show, dissect it over a drink and be back at your hotel within minutes. What’s not to like?

Donmar Warehouse

This 251-seat independent theatre has been through several incarnations. Originally a private rehearsal studio, it spent just over a decade in the hands of the Royal Shakespeare Company, before being bought and rebuilt by producer Roger Wingate in 1990. Its first creative director was none other than Sam ‘American Beauty’ Mendes, who established a reputation for eclecticism that continues today. Coming up are Privacy, a new work by Olivier-nominated James Graham, and a new adaptation of Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons by celebrated Irish playwright Brian Friel. If you’re on a budget, most performances have a small number of standing tickets at £7.50.

  • Address: 41 Earlham Street, WC2H 9LX
  • Walking time: 8 minutes
  • Look out for:
    • Southampton street, built on the site of Bedford House (demolished 1705) and the subsequent Bedford Estate.
    • Covent Garden Market and St Paul’s Church.
    • Floral Street, renamed in 1895 in reference to the trade in flowers at Covent Garden.

Arts Theatre

This small venue between Covent Garden and Leicester Square opened in 1927 as a members-only venue, which allowed it to sidestep censorship laws and back productions that lacked the obvious commercial appeal to make it into West End theatres. From 1956 to 1959 it was run by Peter Hall (later Sir), who founded the RSC and went on to direct the National Theatre. Ghost Stories, a notoriously scary piece from The League of Gentlemen’s Jeremy Dyson, is running until August, alongside short stints by cabaret legend Eve Ferret and a new production of Philip Glass’s opera In the Penal Colony.

  • Address: 6-7 Great Newport Street, WC2H 7JB
  • Walking time: 8 minutes
  • Look out for:
    • Bedford Street, built on the site of Bedford House (demolished 1705) and the subsequent Bedford Estate.
    • Garrick Street, named after actor David Garrick (1717 – 1779). The Garrick Club was founded in 1831 and still has premises here.

Cottlesloe / Dorfman and The Shed

Okay, this is technically the National Theatre. But the Cottlesloe was introduced as a smaller, more flexible space to give a platform to new plays by up-and-coming writers. At time of writing it is reaching the end of a major refurbishment, from which it will emerge as the Dorfman, which promises ‘even greater creative freedom’ and capacity to run learning activities during the day. In the meantime we have The Shed, a striking red pop-up on the riverfront which has continued to stage new, innovative work in an intimate 225-seat space. May sees the debut of Hotel, a new play by award-winning playwright Polly Stenham, who burst onto the scene in 2007 at just 19 years old.

  • Address: Upper Ground, South Bank, SE1 9PX
  • Walking time: 10 minutes
  • Look out for:
    • Exeter Street, site of the old Exeter House (demolished 1676), Exeter Exchange (demolished 1892) and Exeter Hall (demolished 1907)
    • The Savoy, site of the old Savoy Palace, London residence of the Lancasters.
    • Aldwych, which derives from the Old English for ‘old trading town’ – the ancient Anglo-Saxon town Ludenwic stood here centuries ago.

Soho Theatre

Most comedy-loving Londoners have found themselves at Soho Theatre at some point. As well as full shows by breakthrough performers, you’ll often find established stand-ups using the upstairs room to trial material for upcoming tours – and what those shows lack in polish they make up for in value and intimacy. While the theatre’s programme tends to be comedy-heavy, it isn’t all straight stand-up; this April it has been running Never Try This At Home, a satire on 70s children’s TV, and school-themed sketch comedy from young trio WitTank. You can also catch some new writing – Philip Ridley’s dramatic monologue Dark Vanilla Jungle, running until April 13, has had four-star reviews from The Independent, the Financial Times and Time Out. And the bar’s fantastic too.

  • Address: 21 Dean St, London W1D 3NE
  • Walking time: 15 minutes
  • Look out for:
    • Bedford Street, Southampton Street and Garrick Street (see above).

Young Vic

It’s a bit of a walk, but the Young Vic is more than just a theatre – it also boasts buzzing bar and restaurant on one of Southwark’s liveliest streets, where local arts and media types flock to tuck into the famous soft shell crab burger. Its 2006 refurbishment won it a RIBA London Building of the Year prize, and it now boats three performance spaces: the 420-seat main auditorium, and the smaller Maria and Clare rooms at 150 and 70 seats respectively. Productions focus on modern and older classics, with some new writing in the mix too. Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge is currently running, followed by The Valley of Astonishment, a theatrical exploration of synaesthesia by innovative team Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne.

  • Address: 66 The Cut, SE1 8LZ
  • Walking time: 19 minutes
  • Look out for:
    • Exeter Street, The Savoy, and Aldwych (see above).
    • The National Theatre, Royal Festival Hall and BFI Imax.
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