West End theatre is a popular term for mainstream professional theatre staged in the large theatres of London's "Theatreland". Along with New York's Broadway theatre, West End theatre is usually considered to represent the highest level of commercial theatre in the English speaking world. Seeing a West End show is a common tourist activity in London.
Total attendances first surpassed 12 million in 2002, and in June 2005 The Times reported that this record might be beaten in 2005. Total attendance numbers surpassed 13 million in 2007, setting a new record for the West End. Factors behind high ticket sales in the first half of 2005 included new hit musicals such as Billy Elliot, The Producers and Mary Poppins and the high number of film stars appearing. Since the late 1990s there has been an increase in the number of American screen actors on the London stage, and in 2005 these included Brooke Shields, Val Kilmer, Rob Lowe, David Schwimmer and Kevin Spacey.
Theatre in London flourished after the English Reformation. The first permanent public playhouse, known simply as The Theatre, was constructed in 1576 in Shoreditch by James Burbage. It was soon joined by The Curtain. Both are known to have been used by William Shakespeare's company. In 1599, the timber from The Theatre was moved to Southwark, where it was used in building the Globe Theatre in a new theatre district formed, beyond the controls of the City corporation. These theatres were closed in 1642 during the interregnum.
At the restoration in 1660, two companies were licensed to perform, the Duke's Company and the King's Company. Performances were held in converted buildings, such as Lisle's Tennis Court. The first West End theatre, known as Theatre Royal in Bridges Street, was designed by Thomas Killigrew and built on the site of the present Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. It opened on 7 May 1663 and was destroyed by a fire nine years later. It was replaced by a new structure designed by Christopher Wren and renamed the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.
Outside the West End, Sadler's Wells Theatre opened in Islington on 3 June 1683. Taking its name from founder Richard Sadler and monastic springs that were discovered on the property, it operated as a "Musick House", with performances of opera; as it was not licensed for plays. In the West End, the Haymarket Theatre opened on 29 December 1720 on a site slightly north of its current location, and the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden opened in Covent Garden on 7 December 1732.
The Patent theatre companies retained their duopoly on drama well into the 19th century, and all other theatres could perform only musical entertainments. By the early 19th century, however, music hall entertainments became popular, and presenters found a loophole in the restrictions on non-patent theatres in the genre of melodrama. Melodrama did not break the Patent Acts, as it was accompanied by music. Initially, these entertainments were presented in large halls, attached to public houses, but purpose-built theatres began to be established in the East End at Shoreditch and Whitechapel.
The West End theatre district became established with the opening of many small theatres and halls, including the Adelphi in The Strand on 17 November 1806. South of the River Thames, the Old Vic, Waterloo Road, opened on 11 May 1818. The expansion of the West End theatre district gained pace with the Theatres Act 1843; which relaxed the conditions for the performance of plays, and the Strand gained another venue when the Vaudeville opened on 16 April 1870. The next several decades saw the opening of many new theatres in the West End. The Criterion Theatre opened on Piccadilly Circus on 21 March 1874, and in 1881, two more houses appeared: the Savoy Theatre in The Strand, built by Richard D'Oyly Carte specifically to showcase the comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan, opened on 10 October (the first theatre to be lit by cooler, cleaner electric lights), and five days later the Comedy Theatre opened as the Royal Comedy Theatre on Panton Street in Leicester Square. It abbreviated its name three years later. The theatre building boom continued until about World War I.
Among the noted performers who began their careers in the early days of West End theatre are Robert William Elliston, John Liston, Nell Gwynne, and later Henry Irving, Ellen Terry, John Lawrence Toole, Nellie Farren, Marie Tempest, Seymour Hicks, Ellaline Terriss, and Marie Brema.
During the 1950s and 1960s, many plays were produced in theatre clubs, in order to evade the censorship then exercised by the Lord Chamberlain's Office. The Theatres Act 1968 finally abolished censorship of the stage in the United Kingdom.
Now rebranded - by Westminster council and the Society of London Theatre - as "Theatreland", London's main theatre district, which contains approximately forty venues, is located in the heart of the West End of Central London, and is traditionally defined by The Strand to the south, Oxford Street to the north, Regent Street to the west, and Kingsway to the east. Prominent theatre streets include Drury Lane, Shaftesbury Avenue, and The Strand. The works staged are predominantly musicals, classic or middle-brow plays, and comedy performances.
Beyond the West End are the Royal National Theatre and Old Vic, in Southwark; and the Barbican Theatre, in the City of London. London also has many smaller theatres, both around the West End and its periphery.
Many theatres in the West End are of late Victorian or Edwardian construction and are privately owned. The majority of them have great character, and the largest and best maintained feature grand neo-classical, Romanesque, or Victorian façades and luxurious, detailed interior design and decoration. On the other hand, leg room is often cramped, and audience facilities such as bars and toilets are often much smaller than in modern theatres. The protected status of the buildings and their confined urban locations, combined with financial constraints, make it is very difficult to make substantial improvements to the level of comfort offered. In 2004, it was estimated an investment of £250 million was required for modernisation, and the theatre owners unsuccessfully requested tax concessions to help them meet the costs.
The length of West End shows depend on ticket sales. Musicals tend to have longer runs than dramas. The longest running musical in West End history is Les Misérables. It overtook Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats, which closed in 2002 after running for 8,949 performances and 21 years, as the longest running West End musical of all time on 8 October 2006. Other long-runners include Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera and Willy Russell's Blood Brothers which have also subsequently overtaken Cats. However the non-musical Agatha Christie play The Mousetrap is the longest running show in the world, and has been showing since 1952.
|Adelphi Theatre||Love Never Dies||1500||March 9 2010*||Open-ended|
|Aldwych Theatre||Dirty Dancing||1200||September 28 2006||Open-ended|
|Ambassadors Theatre||Stomp||330||October 4 2007||Open-ended|
|Apollo||Jerusalem||796||January 28 2009*||April 24, 2010|
|Apollo Victoria Theatre||Wicked||2292||September 27 2006||Open-ended|
|Arts Theatre||Party||350||March 1 2010||March 13 2010|
|Cambridge Theatre||Chicago||1231||April 27 2006||Open-ended|
|Coliseum Theatre||Repertory theatre||2358|
|Comedy Theatre||The Misanthrope||796||December 17 2009||March 13 2010|
|Criterion Theatre||The 39 Steps||588||September 20 2006||Open-ended|
|Dominion Theatre||We Will Rock You||2163||May 14 2002||Open-ended|
|Duchess Theatre||Ghosts||479||February 11 2010||May 18 2010|
|Duke of York's Theatre||Bedroom Farce||640||March 24 2010||July 10 2010|
|Fortune Theatre||The Woman in Black||432||June 7 1989||Open-ended|
|Garrick Theatre||The Little Dog Laughed||656||January 20 2010||April 10 2010|
|Gielgud Theatre||Avenue Q||937||June 1 2009||Open-ended|
|Her Majesty's Theatre||The Phantom of the Opera||1216||October 9 1986||Open-ended|
|London Palladium||Sister Act||2286||June 2 2009||Open-ended|
|Lyceum Theatre||The Lion King||2100||September 24 1999||Open-ended|
|Lyric Theatre||Thriller - Live||967||February 1 2009||Open-ended|
|New London Theatre||War Horse||1100||April 3rd 2009||Open-ended|
|Noël Coward Theatre||ENRON||872||January 26 2010*||August 14 2010|
|Novello Theatre||Cat on a Hot Tin Roof||1050||December 1 2009||April 10 2010|
|Palace Theatre||Priscilla Queen of The Desert||1400||March 10 2009||Open-ended|
|Piccadilly Theatre||Grease||1232||July 24 2007||Open-ended|
|Phoenix Theatre||Blood Brothers||1012||November 21 1991||Open-ended|
|Playhouse Theatre||Dreamboats and Petticoats||786||January 7 2010||Open-ended|
|Prince Edward Theatre||Jersey Boys||1618||March 18 2008||Open-ended|
|Prince of Wales Theatre||Mamma Mia!||1160||June 9 2004||Open-ended|
|Queen's Theatre||Les Misérables||989||April 3 2004||Open-ended|
|Royal Opera House||Repertory opera and ballet||2262|
|Savoy Theatre||Legally Blonde The Musical||1150||January 12 2010||Open-ended|
|Shaftesbury Theatre||Hairspray||1400||October 11 2007||March 28 2010|
|St Martin's Theatre||The Mousetrap||550||March 25 1974||Open-ended|
|Theatre Royal, Haymarket||Waiting for Godot||888||January 27 2010*||April 3 2010|
|Theatre Royal, Drury Lane||Oliver!||2196||January 14 2009||Open-ended|
|Trafalgar Studios||The Caretaker||380||January 18 2010||April 17 2010|
|Vaudeville Theatre||Private Lives||690||February 24 2010*||May 1 2010|
|Victoria Palace Theatre||Billy Elliot||1550||May 11 2005||Open-ended|
|Wyndhams Theatre||An Inspector Calls||759||December 12 2009||March 13 2010|
It should be noted that the term West End Theatre is sometimes used to refer specifically to commercial productions in Theatreland. However the leading non-commercial (usually government subsidised) theatres in London, such as the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Globe Theatre, the Old Vic, the Young Vic, the Royal Court Theatre, the Almeida Theatre, and the Open Air Theatre, most of which are not located in Theatreland, arguably enjoy greater artistic prestige. These theatres stage a higher proportion of more demanding work, including Shakespeare, other classic plays and premieres of new plays by leading highbrow playwrights. Hit plays from the non-commercial theatres sometimes transfer to one of the commercial Theatreland houses for an extended second run.
The Royal Opera House is one of London's most famous theatres and widely regarded as one of the greatest opera houses in the world, comparable with the Palais Garnier, La Scala and the Metropolitan Opera House, New York. Commonly known simply as Covent Garden due to its location, it is unique to other West End theatres in many ways, not least in having three resident performance companies, The Royal Ballet, Royal Opera and a resident symphony orchestra. It has three performance spaces (19th Century Main Auditorium, Linbury Theatre and Clore Studio) and hosts guest performances from other leading opera, ballet and performance companies from around the world.
Whilst the vast majority of West End theatres are receiving houses (houses that receive productions from elsewhere), there are a number of established producing houses, both within the heart of the West End and in other parts of London. Some of the more famous ones (along with their artistic directors) are listed:
There is a great deal of theatre in London outside of the West End. Much of this is known as fringe theatre which is the equivalent of Off Broadway Theatre in New York. Fringe venues range from well-equipped small theatres to rooms above pubs, and the performances range from classic plays, to cabaret, to plays in the languages of London's ethnic minorities. The performers range from emerging young professionals to amateurs.
There are a number of annual awards for outstanding achievements in London theatre: