All about...Theatre in London

I wanted to write something about theatre in London as it's such a major part of the cultural fabric of city life, both in the West End and beyond. While I'm a fairly regular theatre goer myself and even worked as an usher for a while (I once got to give Sir Ian McKellan his wallet back when he dropped it in the aisle), there's one particular theatre connoisseur who's unique insights will give you a much better flavour of the London theatre scene. Alex Head is an actor and playwright and has been an active participant in London theatre for over a decade. He also happens to be my other half. So over to Alex...

Tell us about you and theatre...what's the story? 

Well, I didn't really discover theatre at all until I did a GCSE and A Level in Drama and even then the teaching was very limited. We were taken to see a few shows in London (I grew up in Essex) but not really anything that exposed us to the real variety of theatre, just musicals and once, Stomp, which wasn't exactly inspiring from a dramatic point of view!

Eventually I started reading playwrights, so I started with the likes of Tennessee Williams and Neil Simon. Then, occasionally I'd go to the Royal Court and buy their programme playtexts, which were £2 each at the time. By the time I moved to London I had a bit of knowledge, but I think just living here and being interested in theatre really opens your eyes to all the possibilities and helps to mould your tastes.

I studied a two year acting diploma and then I worked in several theatres in various roles for 10 years, and I've been writing and acting in shows throughout this time too. [Alex's short play, How We Met, was recently voted the best play at the Love Bites Again night in Sydenham].

What was was your first experience of theatre in London?

I believe it was watching a play called How To Curse by Ian McHugh at The Bush Theatre [sounds very highbrow!] wait, it was We Will Rock You!! No, no, going back even further, it was Of Mice and Men, on a school trip, I was probably about 14 or 15. It was very good, though it had Matthew Kelly in it, which I remember thinking was really odd at first but he was actually amazing!

How many plays do you think you've seen in London over the last decade?

Hmm it's got to be a few hundred I guess...200 perhaps! And you've kept a programme from every one you've seen? Yep! I also collect playtexts - I get them from the theatres themselves when they're selling them alongside the production, but I also love the Royal Court and National Theatre bookshops, they're my go-to places.

What's the best thing about working as an usher?

Being an usher at venues that put on lots of different shows each year is such a great way to develop your taste in theatre and find out what you do and don't like, so it's a great place to start your theatre education.

For someone who's never been to London, how would you describe the theatre scene? 

Vast and diverse - obviously you have the West End [there are about 40 theatres in the West End alone] but there are so many types of permanent and temporary venues in non-traditional spaces across the city so it's changing all the time. It's always worth straying outside of the West End to find other things. There are some great venues that champion new writers such as The Arcola, The Almeida and The Royal Court, which have helped launch the careers of some excellent writers. I always keep an eye on The Stage and What's On Stage - they give you a good head's up about new things to go and see. There's been a huge expansion of discount schemes for young people in recent years, which can only be a good thing in terms of making theatre much more accessible.

Theatre seems to be more popular than ever in London. Why do you think it has such an enduring appeal, especially as it's competing with so many new films every week?

It's the uniqueness of watching something in a live environment - no two performances will ever be the same. And there's something so exciting about getting to experience something that's live and not just something that anyone can watch on TV any night of the week - think about Harry Potter and Hamilton, people are literally waiting years to go and see them.

This kind of hysteria for tickets isn't even a new phenomenon though, when Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth had several runs a few years ago, tickets were like gold dust. People have loved going to the theatre for thousands of years, so it's not going to disappear any time soon!

Any advice for first-time visitors to London looking to experience theatre for the first time? Because there's just so much on all the time, right!

Well, it's down to individual taste - if you're into Shakespeare, obviously you can't go wrong with The Globe on the Southbank [standing tickets are a fiver and are often available on the day]. If you're looking for something a bit different and want to see some new writing, The Royal Court in Sloane Square is a great place to go for this. But if you're looking for a classic West End experience, go for one of the musicals, they're always fun and exciting. Most ticket websites tend to have the same sorts of offers, though many shows actually sell a certain number of reasonably priced day seats so don't be afraid to leave it to the day you're going, especially if you can pop in early to the box office.

What do you think has been the biggest surprise West End hit over the last decade?

It really surprised me that The 39 Steps, adapted from John Buchan's novel,  lasted as long as it did [it ran in the West End for nine years, closing in 2015], not because it was bad, I really enjoyed it, but because it started off as a fringe production and was quite fun and silly in tone, which it unusual for the West End.

Likewise, it's a similar story with The Play That Goes Wrong - it started off as a fringe production and has now made it to Broadway and attracted the attention of a big name producer [J.J. Abrams, no less!]. It's amazing how the Mischief Theatre Company have had so many hits in the West End in such a small amount of time. [We've see all three together -The Play That Goes Wrong, Peter Pan Goes Wrong and A Comedy About A Bank Robbery - and I can confirm that they're all amazing!]

...and what's been the best play you've seen in London in the last 10 years?

Red by John Logan about the painter Mark Rothko was incredible, Eddie Redmayne played Rothko's assistant. There's a new production starting soon with Alfred Molina as Rothko again, he was in the production I saw too. August, Ossage Country by Tracey Letts was amazing too, it transferred over from Broadway to The National a few years ago.

...and is there anything that you didn't get to see that you really wish you had?

I would have loved to have seen the recent production of Angels In America at The National. Tickets were pretty hard to come by though!

...and anything you saw that you wish you hadn't?!

We Will Rock You! I wanted my money back, and I didn't even pay to see it! It felt so forced and the humour was really obvious.

Do you have a favourite theatre?

Oh that's very tricky...I've probably seen more plays at The Duke of York theatre than anywhere else, mainly because it gets a lot of excellent transfers from smaller venues so it's a great place to see unexpected gems.

Is there anything about London theatre that could be improved? 

I would personally argue that there should be fewer Shakespeare productions in the West End! There are already other specialist places to see them all the time like The Globe and Stratford so it seems like it's a bit monopolistic as there are just so many other thousands of fantastic playwrights who get less airtime. I think that's a big problem with drama education in the UK, yes Shakespeare was a genius (and don't get me wrong, I love Shakespeare, I'm really looking forward to seeing the Julius Caesar on at The Bridge at the moment) but actually he's really not the most accessible writer for a young person, and there are so many other brilliant plays that could really get young people excited about theatre.

Also, you don't have to pay any rights to put on a Shakespeare play [I didn't know this - it turns out that there's a performance rights limit of 70 years after a playwright dies], so it's much cheaper for production companies to put on, and lots of big name actors want to do a Shakespeare. It means that London theatre is just a bit less diverse than it could be.

West End vs. Broadway?

Well, the main consideration is the cost - in New York, the prices are so much more expensive. In London, you could pay a tenner to see Sir Patrick Stewart, Dame Helen Mirren or Sir Ian McKellan on stage; in comparison, to see a name like that in New York, you need a small fortune - there was a play with Jake Gyllenhal when we were there a few years ago and the cheapest tickets were $150. Broadway does really seem to embrace London shows though - they've loved things like Harry Potter, Matilda and The Ferryman. Just see it in London first!

You're also a big fan of regional theatre, aren't you? Any advice for Londoners wanting to go on a theatre getaway over the weekend? We've been on a couple. 

Yes definitely, if there's something on you want to see, it can make a really nice affordable weekend away all year round. Obviously Stratford-Upon-Avon is the place for Shakespeare lovers [we went there are few years ago and  managed to see two plays back to back, and we also visited Mary Arden's farm. Train tickets from London were under a tenner]. We've also just been to The Hull Truck Theatre to see The Culture by the brilliant James Graham and we went to The Stephen K. Joseph Theatre in Scarborough last year, where famous local Alan Ayckbourn debuts a lot of his shows. One place I haven't been yet but really want to go to is The Festival Theatre in Chichester, their shows get really great reviews and a lot of them end up transferring to the West End. I really liked the look of The Birmingham Rep when we visited last year, but sadly we didn't have time to watch a show.

What's on your wish list for 2018 and beyond?

When they finally announce the dates and venue for All About Eve with Cate Blanchett, that will be up there. I'd quite like to see Amadeus at The National too as I didn't get round to seeing it there the first time it was on. The new run of Red at The Wyndhams', as I've mentioned as well. There are also two Macbeths this year that I'm quite looking forward to, one in Stratford-Upon-Avon with Christopher Eccleston and Niamh Cusack, and one at The National with Rory Kinnear and Ann-Marie Duff (see, I do love Shakespeare!).

What's on the horizon for you this year, are you working on anything?

Well, I'm planning to re-start a play reading group I've run before again soon - we'll get together each month and read through a few different scripts. I've recently started podcasting as well [Alex recorded the 30 Movies Before I'm 30 series] so watch this space, I'll be working on something soon. As always, I'm thinking about ideas for plays to write too!

You mentioned recently that one of your big interests is plays that have been adapted for screen, can you tell us about this?

Oh yes, this is something I'd love to write a book about one day. It's a really fascinating process of how scripts are translated between the two mediums and there's so many great examples - The Riot Club, Moonlight, Closer, Anna Christie, Mojo, Killer Joe, Glengarry Glen Ross...the list is endless, and lots of them start as big hits in London. It also works the other way too - just think about how Legally Blonde and Fatal Attraction became big stage hits.

Finally...what would be your dream role or dream production to work on?

If I could put on any production, I'd put on The Shape of Things by Neil LaBute, one of my favourite writers (and another play that was made into a film). It's a really well-written, well-structured play about a man who falls in love with an artist who makes him start changing aspects his personality, which causes him to clash with his friends. We should so watch it together [laughs ominously]!

Thanks Alex! You can keep up to date with what Alex is working on by following him on Twitter at @AlexHead1987 (he also tweets lots of good tips about shows).  Why not start your own collection of play texts?


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