Image Credit: Supplied

A trip to London can never be complete without a customary ride on one of those red double-deckers and the fabled London Underground rail network. Ditto for the iconic landmarks such as the Big Ben, London Eye and Madame Tussaud’s — to name only a few.

However, if you do not want to restrict your wanderlust to merely what those few printed pages of the travel agency’s brochure had to say about this fabulous metropolis, then put on your walking shoes and get on the trail of West End — the hub of London’s theatre circuit — and beyond.

From soaking up Shakespeare’s timeless classic Macbeth at the National Theatre in South Bank, to sampling what is fast gaining currency as Immersive Theatre at The Vaults in Waterloo, off West End, to slurping up a slice of life on the cheeky side in the form of Fringe Theatre at Arcola in Hackney … the range on offer is amazing.

Or for that matter, just take a two-hour train ride from the hustle-bustle of London to laidback Manchester and see for yourself how performing arts, namely theatre, can be showcased in an age and time when much of our entertainment has gone online.

Gulf News tabloid! offers you a layman’s guide to exploring the sights and sounds of the British stage.

42nd Street

Producers: West End revival

Director: Mark Bramble

Cast: Sheena Easton, Tom Lister, Clare Halse, Jasna Ivir, Norman Bowman, Stuart Neal, Graeme Henderson, Christopher Howell

Based on the original classic movie-musical by the same name, released in 1933, 42nd Street is the story of a rank outsider, a rookie from small-town America, Peggy Sawyer, who turns up for audition for a role in the chorus for a new Julian Marsh spectacular called Pretty Lady. However, when leading lady Dorothy Brock is sidelined from the show with a freak injury, the mantle falls on Peggy who pulls off a stunning success as Dorothy’s replacement. After its phenomenal success in Broadway, 42nd Street is living up to its top billing in West End as well.

Playing at: Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London

Runs until: October 20

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie

Producer: Sheffield Theatres

Director: Jonathan Butterell

Cast: John McCrea, Josie Walker, Mina Anwar, Tamsin Carroll, Lucie Shorthouse

Jamie’s burning desire to be a drag queen places him in direct confrontation with not just his father and his high school teacher, but society at large. Things come to a pass just before the prom night when Jamie’s class teacher puts her foot down and says Jamie can’t perform. With a compassionate mother and some of his classmates standing by him, Jamie, played so very energetically by John McCrea, finally wins the argument. Along with McCrea, Jamie’s classmate Pritti Pasha, brilliantly played by Lucie Shorthouse, steals our hearts with her poignant portrayal of an expatriate Asian who doesn’t lose her bearings even in the midst of a London milieu.

Playing at: Apollo Theatre, London

Runs until: October 6


Producer: Arts Council England and Vicky Hawkins

Director: Rufus Norris

Cast: Rory Kinnear, Anne-Marie Duff

William Shakespeare’s intense political and psychological revenge-tragedy finds an apt stage representation through this drama that grips you and keeps you mesmerised for all of those three hours. This deft production, coupled with some fine performances by its lead pair Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff, should be on every theatre connoisseur’s must-watch list. The darker moments of Shakespeare’s theatrical masterpiece come alive on stage with their profound outpouring of a sense of guilt and atonement that simply linger on and are even disturbing at times.

Playing at: National Theatre, London

Runs until: June 23


Producers: Arts Council England and Manchester City Council

Director: Matthew Xia

Cast: Shane Zaza, Ryan Gage, Harry Attwell, Shanaya Rafaat

On the 200th anniversary of the famous Gothic novel by Mary Shelley, a stage adaptation of Frankenstein comes alive in all its intense interplay of a psychological and moral dilemma. Shane Zaza as Frankenstein is quite convincing with his portrayal of a hapless being trapped in his own grandiose ambition as a scientist whose tryst with a supernatural power almost verges on necromancy. Shanaya Rafaat as Elizabeth strikes a chord with her poise and elan. What is truly remarkable is the manner in which the dark and intensely scary world of the narrative has been recreated within the limited scope of a stage that isn’t too big.

Playing at: Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

Runs until: April 14

Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre

Opened in 1599, the theatre was rebuilt in 1614 after it was destroyed by a fire in 1613, when a cannon was fired from the roof of the theatre during a live performance.

Julius Caesar was the first Shakespearean play to be staged at the Globe Theatre.

This theatre has an interesting connection with the Indian sub-continent. The wood used to renovate the theatre, after it was destroyed by the fire, was Kashmir willow.

The idea of a ‘box office’ was born out of the Globe Theatre. Members of the audience used to pay in pennies to seek entry into the theatre. All those pennies were collected in boxes at the entry gates. Once each box was filled to capacity, it would be taken inside and the pennies counted. This was how the idea of the ‘box office’ started.

London’s National Theatre charts a new course

For a theatre lover, the National Theatre (NT) on the South Bank of the Thames in London is one landmark that’s unmissable. Steeped in history and Britain’s rich tradition of performing arts, NT is a repository of prized stage shows — showcasing the best talents from all across the globe.

However, NT isn’t all about history, culture and tradition. Moving lock-step with changing times, NT is also an innovator in terms of adaptation of technology and exploration of possibilities to make the appeal of theatre even more alluring to masses far and near.

Two NT initiatives that deserve special mention here are NT Live and the NT Glass, known as Open Access Smart Capture.

NT Live

Stage performances are recorded live, using multiple ultra-high definition 4K cameras in 5.1 channel surround sound for an immersive experience. These recordings are then beamed through satellite networks in designated cinemas across the globe. “This initiative started in 2009 and we have done 60 broadcasts. We are happy to take British theatre to audiences across the globe,” Emma Keith, head of NT Live, said.

NT Live is currently being beamed to 2,500 venues across 70 countries. Responding to a query from Gulf News tabloid! on the audience profile for such live broadcasts, Emma said: “With live broadcasts we can reach a slightly younger audience and also cater to those who would normally never go to a theatre.”

Open Access Smart Capture

This is a device that is somewhat similar to what the Google Glass is. This is a novel initiative by NT to make sure theatre stays a relevant medium of entertainment even for the differently-able people. Sharing details of the device, Vicky Kington, head of press at NT, said: “With these smart glasses on, as a person with hearing-impairment enters the auditorium, all details about the play he or she is about to watch are beamed on the glasses, just like the way one would see them on a television screen.” Tests and trials for these glasses are in their final stages and the devices will be available to the public from October, Vicky informed.

‘Immersive Theatre’ eyes a Dubai stage

The entrance to The Vaults Festival at Waterloo is bound to take one by surprise. For the uninitiated, it may even be a bit scary. Shaped like a dungeon, it is one long passage way whose walls and even ceiling are replete with very generous dabs and splashes of bright shades of crayon and paint, with lighting that is more akin to a discotheque than a theatre. Moving down that dungeon-like walkway, you suddenly find yourself in the thick of action. The play Neverland is in progress. And lo and behold, you, the visitor or spectator, is part of the dramatis personae.

Welcome to Immersive Theatre — a world of lived experience and an art form that is “experiential”, as Tim Wilson, director of The Vaults Festival, explained.

All those of you who think that the VR mode is the best thing to have happened to make entertainment more immersive and well-rounded, please think again, for here in the heart of London, we have just been immersed into a world of stage performance that probably can’t get any more real than this.

Asked to comment on the future of this form of entertainment, Brian Hook, producer of Neverland, said: “Given its success among a young audience in London, I think it will be quite interesting to take this to a city like Dubai that always loves to innovate and experiment.”

In Immersive Theatre, members of the audience are given a chance to literally follow any one character of the play and as that character goes through the narrative in all its trials and tribulations, so does the spectator — actually, physically accompanying the character from stage to stage, for there is no one fixed stage. And he or she can come back for the next show and choose a different character to follow. “It’s never the same experience, even if you have been to the same play multiple times,” Brian explained.