Arts, Music, Culture

Londoners have always been keen on going out to the theatre or concert hall (and before that bear baiting...), maybe it's something to do with the weather. Anyway we pride ourselves on having been the cradle of theatre and classical music. Not only did we open up serious theatre to the public, but it was Salomon's series of public concerts in the 1780s that took good music to the masses. And unlike cricket where our home teams regularly get trounced by small third world countries, no-one could hope to take on London and win on the theatrical or musical front. It's not only the quality but the range, and with prices (theatre from £8, concerts from £6 - for top performers and locations) well below any other capital city, you'd have to be a hardened Philistine to find a reason to stay in.

However, over the past five years that process has started to moulder. Anything that's any good will usually sell out before opening, as well as anything with a 'star' associated with it (actor or playwright). The rest of the west end is dominated by musicals and plays that should never have ever been staged (for example, Riflemind, by Cate Blanchett's other half, at the Trafalgar - clearly a vanity project devoid of any merit, despite an experienced director and leading man). As for the fringe, most shows come and go before an honest reviewer can let the consumer know whether they're worth the trek. The important thing is to get information on what's good and what's bad - itself an increasingly difficult task as reviewers for major newspapers can increasingly be bought. Few plays of any merit end up at the half-price booth between October and January, and around Christmas the fare gets saccharine as the dreadful prospect of 'family entertainment' sets dollar-signs flaring in promoters' eyes. the best advice we can offer is to book ahead or caveat emptor.

We'd like to give a special mention here to Leicester Square's half price ticket booth, now rebranded as 'TKTS' (beware of local imitations run by ticket touts) which sells, as it suggests, half price tickets for Theatre, Musicals, Opera and Dance in London. It's a way for theatres to fill their empty seats (hence no half-price tickets for Phantom of the Opera here), and you can see some of the best-reviewed shows in London for as little as £9. Their range is displayed on the boards alongside the booth - and on the website, on a daily basis.
We'd also like to point out that purchasing tickets through Ticketmaster is likely to be as unpleasant a process as you will find. It's totally automated and if it goes wrong there's no possibility to speak to a human being, even if your credit card has been wrongly charged. Their 'handling' charges for this process are high as well. Best avoided.

Listings & What's on Guides Theatre Classical music Opera Dance
Film Comedy Pop/Rock/Folk Musicals Jazz


There are many listings guides to London ranging from Time Out, which costs about £3, to the free guide magazines given out with The Independent & Guardian Newspapers on Saturdays. The free newspaers given out, usually at tube statins, also have very basic listings. We find Time Out has a bias towards events which feature gay/punk/cool britannia/cult status, and will often give a good review merely on the basis of fashion, it also is none too accurate on film showing times but it is the bible for the culturati.

The Independent and Guardian guides are good basic versions of 'Time out' based on the 'Pariscope' model from France. The Guardian (you can search their theatre reviews to see what to avoid and what's worth queuing for) , The Independent 'Time Out'.

Another guide 'What's on in London' is distributed mainly through hotels - it has abandoned all critical sense in favour of advertising and cannot be trusted.

A good factual sheet listing what's on in London's Theatres can be had from the half price ticket booth in Leicester Square or the box office of any main theatre - it has a useful map. The South Bank and Barbican Centres both publish listings 2 months in advance and can be picked up in their foyers. They're also online.  


If you saw the film 'Shakespeare in Love' you'll have an inkling how dear theatre is to Londoners' hearts. When the Puritans under Cromwell closed down it's theatres in 1642, they sowed the seeds of their doom - Londoners could stand almost any other affront: the loss of their most popular entertainment was the last straw - the monarchy (and theatregoing) was restored within 20 years.

At the present theatre is flourishing: there are over 40 major venues in the centre of London and Broadway is dominated by British talent. However the alarming number of musicals is a disturbing trend. Most of the houses are an easy walk from Leicester Square. Curtain up is usually 19:30, (sometimes 19:15 at the National and RSC) though midweek matinees at 14:30 are common. Tickets cost from £5 to £40, and if a show is sold out there's usually a queue for returns. Touts buy up tickets in the hope of making a quick buck later - they can be a good way to get seats for a sell-out, but examine the tickets closely and ask their mark-up. Mondays are usually cheaper - several houses do an all-seats-£5 policy. We recommend, unless you want to see something in particular, you decide on the day - often it'll be cheaper that way.

One recently disturbing trend is that, with the scarcity of Drama in the West End (dominated by identikit musicals), anything that looks good (known writer or performer) will be sold out before opening. However this can lead to a healthy returns market, but is little consolation for the medium-term booker.

A good trip historically and often artistically (see the reviews, the quality is a bit mixed) is to 'Shakespeare's' Globe - the reconstruction of Shakespeare's open-roofed theatre. Ticket prices vary for the covered seated portions - we almost always buy 'Groundling' standing tickets for £5, usually on the day. It's more organic.
But beware: it's real theatre not the disneyfied version more usually found on the forecourts of Las Vegas casinos.
It's not a tourist spectacle, you'll annoy other theatre-goers if you just use it as an easy way to see the interior: go on a guided tour instead. The performances usually last over 3 hours, with only one 15 minute interval... and unless you buy a seat, no chance of sitting down. If you buy a seat it's difficult to leave before the interval.

Don't trust a theatre billboard that doesn't have a good review by at least two major newspapers - Radio show reviews are regularly used to ramp up shows (what you don't know is that the 'review' was part of a promotional scheme to give away free tickets), and the specialist film magazines are too reliant on the film industry to be objective reviewers.
One last point - ask around: reviewers often err on the side of kindness: the financial risk involved in mounting a new show can be crippling - they rarely want to be the cause of a bankruptcy. Papers like the Evening Standard are usually over-generous to new plays, and the Guardian tries so hard to be at the cutting edge it will often praise a strange new play without noticing it's atrocious. They also want to remain on the guest lists for theatrical parties. At present the right-wing papers like the Telegraph and the Financial Times are the only ones we rely on. Word-of-mouth is usually the best critic. If you're queuing up at the half price ticket booth (queues in summer from noon to about 16:00 when it usually thins out) ask people in the queue for recommendations. Generally you can't go wrong when seeing any Shakespeare/Shaw or their contemporaries. The Royal Shakespeare Company season in London is usually uniformly good, and the best theatre we saw in 2007 was all at the National Theatre - by quite a long stretch.

You can't go wrong with the RSC or the National.

Best for new plays: Royal Court/Ambassadors/Alberry/Duke of Yorks/Young Vic Soho Theatre, Tricycle, Trafalgar Studios, Menier Theatre, Southwark Playhouse. The tradition of finding new playwrights continues apace - the disastrous flirtation with trendy young Brit shows like 'Shopping and Fucking' - designed to pull in new, young audiences has now ended and good writing is again the thing. The new, shocking plays were almost immediately eclipsed by a series of well written mainstream plays from Ireland like long-runners 'The Weir' and 'Stones in his pockets' which turned out to be more popular and profitable, even drawing in the younger audiences so keenly sought.

Mainstream drama: The theatres on Shaftsbury Avenue where playwrights such as Aykbourn and Bennett still pack houses are doing well, but the number of musicals is alarming.

The fringe: Many small 'pub theatres' theatres have put on plays of such quality that a new 'middle tier' of houses has arisen, sometimes called 'off West End': theatres such as the Almeida, Donmar Warehouse, Soho Theatre, Hampstead, New End, Tricycle, Bush Gate and King's Head are on a roll - many branching out into other areas - viz the Almeida's Operas. However once a theatre begins to get popular the quality often deteriorates viz the Donmar... now little more than an extension of off-Broadway and seeking patronage in rich Anglo-Americans rather than doing anything that might offend the rich, conservative theatrelovers' tastes. And the Almeida plummeted once it bacame trendy enough to attract the rich Islingtonites. The Tricycle has specialised in dramatic reconstructions of recent events, though sometimes the actual event's script is so compelling that directorial standards can drop.
Beyond this it's rare that a show is all good - exceptions do occur, but much research is necessary before venturing out of the centre to an unknown venue. Some theatres may require a £0.50p membership (available on the door) to get round theatre licensing laws - usually joining one theatre gives you reciprocal membership at all the others. This was a way they got round the censors, and until the laws are changed will remain a feature of the fringe. Many fringe venues sell all tickets for £5 on Mondays

A last point: Britain's best actors are to be found on stage: we don't have a separate film industry, (and American film stars seem to be queuing up to play London at the moment) so stars like Vanessa Redgrave, Michel Gambon, Ralph Fiennes, Donald Sutherland, Kathleen Turner, Maggie Smith, Nichole Kidman are all there for the taking in the (often unclothed!) flesh. However the recent trend for mediocre American scripts and two or three-handed plays with stars has diminished the quality of theatre. If you want to see the stars go to Madame Tussauds!
A guide to what's on can be found here or , more lurid and more commercial, here. A good advance ticket agency, which also owns many theatres can be found here

The BBC gives out free tickets to TV shows, Radio shows and BBC Orchestra concerts (the latter are of very very high quality) Find out and book online HERE.


Film in London is a big disappointment and a national weak spot. The programmes are months behind other countries due to a backlog in the cinemas, and prices are a disgrace, twice the price of Paris or New York (although some cinemas, such as the Curzons and ABCs) do half price tickets on Mondays.

Similarly the National Film Theatre on the South Bank seems sometimes to show endless repeats of Hollywood films and dreadful cult British films, missing out on the chance to showcase world talent. However the cinemateheque is FANTASTIC - free, and easy to use. You can watch bits of Brit culture going back 100 years, episodes of TV shows, seminal films, newsreels etc FOR FREE!!! And the cafe is brilliant.

Many films from Europe are never shown in London - we go to Paris to see them. The Cine Lumiere (Part of the French Embassy's cultural division, specialising in French films) The Curzon Soho (offbeat European and American films) the ICA (Japanese and other foreign language films)are honourable exceptions. Our advice is, outside the London Film Festival in Autumn, avoid the cinema in London completely - theatre is cheaper and better. 


Britons are lucky in that London is the capital of world classical music performance and recording. Nowhere else is there such a range and quality on offer, nowhere else is there such easy access and low prices. The deadly subscription concerts that bedevil New York and Vienna are unheard of. The first truly open public concerts were organised in London in the late 1700s and it's been a thriving industry ever since. Although the majority of audiences are over fifty, there's a lively young element - especially for contemporary music, and ticket prices are kept low to encourage new audiences. There are 5 major orchestras in London, and a host of others, many of whom have prestigious recording histories.


The BBC Symphony Orchestra (one of 5 BBC symphony orchestras) is a young orchestra, and performs more premieres than any other. Sometimes it'll rehearse during the day and broadcast the same evening a programme of several new pieces. This gives it a spontaneity and a freshness that makes up for its sometimes under-rehearsed performances. However only very good musicians can work this way... For its major concert series (at which tickets cost £16, £12 and £8 ) the quality is high - and the atmosphere ebullient. They also put on free concerts at their Maida Vale studios (tickets for which can be obtained by calling BBC Audience Services on 020 8576 1227) or wherever they can find space (usually the Royal Festival Hall). Their showpiece is the Proms festival in July-September at the Royal Albert Hall . You really should go and 'prom' one evening you;re here in season - it's dirt cheap. 

The London Symphony Orchestra is on a roll, with Kurt Masur at the helm, fresh from New York, recent performances have been electrifying: it's an ideal combination, Masur's Germanic thoroughness, combined with the natural brio of the players is a winning combination, winning rave reviews. In residence at the Barbican Centre - with fantastic acoustics. Programme is a good mix of traditional and modern. Award-winning CD recordings of concerts can be bought cheaply - see programme for details.

The Royal Philharmonic - the world's most recorded orchestra and playing on the soundtrack of more films than any other. In residence at the Royal Festival Hall.

The Philharmonia - still without a concert hall of their own, they split their time between London and Paris. The most traditional of the orchestras in London. Karajan spent most of the fifties and sixties trying to poach their best players who refused to leave London for Berlin. The individual calibre is still high.

The London Sinfonietta - smaller orchestra with a stunning reputation for the best contemporary and British repertoire.


Royal Festival Hall - large, custom built hall with great 1950s acoustics (and architecture), slightly dry, but with an amazing 'sweet spot' in the centre of the first block of seats. Good for large scale orchestral, we find the piano sound a bit hard. The acoustics are excellent almost everywhere, especially in the cheapest seats. Avoid the slips - high prices, atrocious sound.

Queen Elizabeth Hall - medium sized hall studio quality acoustics if the stage is set up right. Sit further back for a better sound. Good for contemporary and pre-1800 music. Piano sound very clear, but the lack of reverberance can be a bit daunting. Often does jazz and rock concerts too.

Purcell Room - small intimate venue for chamber and early music, good acoustics with slightly more reverb than the South Bank's other two venues. Good also for acoustic and jazz. 

All part of the South Bank Complex. Tube: Charing Cross (Northern, Bakerloo), Waterloo( Jubilee), Embankment (Northern, Circle) Rail: Charing Cross, Waterloo Bus: Waterloo

Barbican Hall - very warm, wooden hall, with an excellent piano sound, just acoustically refurbished and sounding excellent. Excellent acoustics in the balcony seats - avoid sitting at the sides, the seating is very wide.

Tube: Barbican (Circle), Moorgate ( Northern), Liverpool Street (Metropolitan) St Pauls (Central) Rail: Liverpool St, Farringdon, Bus: St Pauls, Moorgate.

Albert Hall - atrocious acoustics, (except when full) but all is forgiven for the Proms when the seats are taken out in the stalls and a very enthusiastic standing audience can get close to the music. In the seats, generally the higher up you go, the better the sound. You can picnic in the gallery. Many seats are 'owned' by companies and unwanted places are sold off to touts. Five minutes before a performance they sell their remaining stock for peanuts - this is the only time you're better off buying from a tout. 

Tube: South Kensington (Circle/Piccadilly), Kensington High Street ( Circle)Bus: Kensington Gore

Wigmore Hall - old, traditional, small venue for largely chamber music. Average acoustics - big names sell out quickly - the rich and influential get to buy tickets even before 'Friends of the Wigmore'. For good but non-market performers you can often get tickets the day before, or on the door.

Tube: Bond Street (Central/Jubilee)Bus: Oxford St, Debenhams

King's Place - new venue for 2008, resident to the OAE and London Sinfonietta. Behind King's Cross Station, on York Way Two small (400 seater) halls with excellent acoustics. Dreadful catering though, impossible to get a decent cup fo tea.

Tube: King's Cross (Circle/District, Northern, Piccadilly, Victoria) Bus: King's Cross

Cadogan Hall - newly renovated medium sized venue; often gets star names and decent orchestras, but the programme is interlarded with lollipops. Slightly over-resonant auditorium. 'Home' to the Royal Philharmonic at present.

Tube: Sloane Square (Circle/District)Bus: Sloane Square

St John's Smith Square - specialises in Baroque music. Church acoustic, but not too resonant. Used to have a high quality of performers but that has dropped recently - if you've not heard of an ensemble make sure it's professional. That said, a full programme and many excellent performances each month. 

Tube: Westminster (Circle/Jubilee)Bus: Millbank


Dance has recently gained a new lease of life with the rebuilding of Saddler's Wells - a state of the art venue specifically tailored to dance. Britain is not traditionally strong on Classical Ballet, but is red hot on modern dance. Matthew Bourne's 'Swan Lake' was a deserved hit and others are to follow. Watch out specifically for Rambert seasons, two or three times a year. Many contemporary groups have their home in London and the number of top visiting companies has risen dramatically. In the first week of any run at Saddlers Wells there are usually good proms tickets for £5 to be had - if you don't mind standing.
The main Royal Ballet company moved out to Birmingham a few years ago and has suffered since. It can still mount a good show at Covent Garden, but the season is limited. However it has done some good new work - its 'Richard II' was one of the best new 'classical' pieces I've seen. Other venues: ENO, Covent Garden (vide infra under opera). The Place, Dukes Road (fringe venue off Gower Street). 

Saddlers Wells: Tube: Angel (Northern)Bus: Roseberry Avenue - special bus service to Waterloo
The Place: Dukes road WC1 Tube: Goodge Street (Northern) Euston/Euston Square (Northern/Circle/Metropolitan/Victoria)Bus: Tottenham Court Road/Gower Street


Opera in London is like that in no other city. With a strong tradition of theatre (ie sensible plots and good acting) a parallel tradition has arisen carrying those over into Opera. The English National Opera performs all the repertoire in English - with translated libretti that surpass their originals for the most part. The Brits were doing this in 680AD even with the permission of the Church - the Bible was translated into stunning English verse at this time by Caedomon of Whitby. He also did versions of other libretti - a sort of dark-ages Jeremy Sams. Combine that with an insistance on good acting - never before did opera make such good sense. Our home grown opera composers - like Britten - placed theatricality at the heart of their works.

That said, if you prefer traditional opera with primadonna stars ("I don't like rehearsing," said one major international star, "I've done these operas so many times I don't need to") and high prices, then the recently refurbished Covent Garden Royal Opera House is for you. Tickets, despite a huge public subsidy are beyond the reach of most Londoners (about £80 for any reasonable seat, and that in 'the Gods') , - a few restricted view tickets are offered at reasonable prices a long long way from the stage - and most of the seats are reserved for corporate entertainment. With karoshi-suffering Japanese businessmen slumbering through the performance in the best seats there's sometime little impetus for innovation, and top names are the draw here. However when it puts its back into a new production (eg Ades' 'Tempest') it can outshine anything.

Covent Garden arose out of a battle between Handel's supporters and enemies - the previous 'Opera House' was Her Majesties' on Haymarket (where Phantom of the Opera now resides, like the degenerate progeny of the likes of Handel's 'Julius Casear' and 'Ottone'). The intense rivalry carries over and opera lovers polarise between the ENO and the ROH. That quality of the singing is usually better at Covent Garden, if the productions are sometimes staid.

The ENO has fought back with home-grown stars like Lesley Garrett (the sublime Bostridge plays both) - each season they mount at least one sublime production - and one dog, and the rest are variable - the 2007 season was the worst on record. They also have a good tradition of contemporary opera and with tickets from £6 - £40 (with the possibility of half price tickets in the Leicester Square booth). When they do it well they have a feisdty edge, when they do it wrong (usually trying to appeal to the yoof audience) it's like drawing teeth without anaesthetic. READ THE REVIEWS BEFORE GOING TO THE ENO!
Visiting companies split between the two: eg: The Kirov went to the ROH, the Bolshoi to the ENO.

Also: Concert performances usually prior to recordings at the South Bank and Barbican. See also the Proms. 

ENO: Tube: Charing Cross (Northern/Bakerloo)Leicester Square (Northern/Piccadilly) Bus: Strand/Charing Cross Road
ROH:Tube: Covent Garden (Piccadilly) Bus: Strand/Waterloo Bridge


Comedy is a defining character trait of the English. We have a very black humour that others can find shocking, combined with a surrealistic bent that results in the phenomenon that is 'Monty Python'. Sadly that strain of comedy is quite difficult to find in London - the best bet is the improvisation sessions at 'The Comedy Store' - where a high proportion of ex-Oxbridge graduates carry on the particularly intellectual tradition of 'Footlights' 'Monty Python' humour - excellent. Also 'Newsrevue' at the Canal Cafe Theatre (helps if you've read a newspaper recently especially the home news sections) though the quality varies enormously from the childish to the sublime.
Otherwise the BBC tapes a large number of radio and TV shows each week which can be hit or miss (new series of long running successful series are the best to go for and often beat anything else available) - and they're free - apply to the BBC Ticket Unit at Broadcasting House. (see also our attractions page for details of other free radio shows. Most of the rest of stand-up comedy revolves around sublimated aggression and rude words - it can be very funny in small doses but soon wears off, unless you're drunk. Best bets: Jongleurs, The Comedy Store. The listings magazines have the full details or try the excellent London is Funny listings.  

Canal Cafe Theatre: Bridge House pub, Delemere Terrace, W2  21:30 Tube: Warwick Avenue (Bakerloo)
Comedy Store: Oxendon St SW1. Most nights 20:00 - midnight at weekends. Tube: Piccadilly Circus (Piccadilly/Bakerloo), Leicester Square (Northern) Bus: Piccadilly Circus
Jongleurs: Camden Lock. Most nights. Tube Camden (Northern) Bus: Camden Lock


London vies with Broadway as the home of the musical and there is much interbreeding between the two. Andrew Lloyd Webber's star seems finally to be falling with the advent of the Elton John/Tim Rice team, but his shows linger on, like the Queen Mother did, just as colourful, just as doddery, but still much loved. Most of the top musicals are 'Sold Out' but you can queue for day tickets - get there early and be prepared for a long line of Monika Lewinsky lookalikes.

Many critics echoed the line that 'Cats' should be taken to the vets and be put down (and it was) - this is idiopathic of the long running musicals such as Les Mis and also the long running plays (like The Mousetrap.) They were innovative/good with the first cast but now the actors who created the roles have long gone and we're down to the twentieth cast. The rave reviews on the boards outside, unless they name names, refer to the original production....which may have been decades ago. Sadly there's no real way to find out whether the current cast of a show is good other than by asking around at the Half Price Ticket Office in Leicester Square, or outside another theatre.

If we had to recommend one musical it would be 'Blood Brothers' at the Phoenix on Charing Cross Road, largely because the story is very lifelike (we know Liverpool and it's really like that) but also because it avoids the trumped-up theatricality of 'Miss Saigon' and has had to be good, with competition from the Lloyd Webbers. However we've heard reports that many Americans can't understand it and that it's not escapist enough for those reared on Disney.

One recent trend we do not approve of is the Musical Starter Kit - take a handful of already known songs and try to fit a plot around them - where this can work (eg in Mamma Mia) it's often no better than a concert and often worse.  


London's vibrant 60's jazz scene has really died out: while various notable venues such as Ronnie Scott's keep the Soho jazz tradition alive, it's lost the pzazz in had when Colin MacInnes wrote 'Absolute Beginners' in 1959. Consult the listings mags for gigs, or just turn up at Ronnies - you won't be let down. It's where ALL the top acts play, those that don't usually play at Pizza Express on Dean Street. Gigs at Ronnies' are quite late, and since the refurbishment you usually have to book. Usually there are two sets and thing go on til very late. Unfriendly bouncer/door policy though. The 606 club in Chelsea has a reputation for music, but not for its food. Another good venue is the Jazz Cafe on Camden's Parkway, very close to the tube - it gets excellent reviews from fans. Their new website is impressive. King's Place (see above) also does big jazz events. Excellent listings can be found here

Ronnie Scott's: Frith Street, Soho
Pizza Express:
Dean Street, Soho Tube: Leicester Square(Northern)TottenhamCourtRoad (Northern/Central) Bus: CharingCross Road
Jazz Cafe:
Parkway, Camden Tube: Camden Town Northern)
606 Club:
90 Lots Rd SW10. Tube: Sloane Square ( Circle) then Bus to World's End.


Despite all the predictions that pop will eat itself, it hasn't, and the gig scene in London is still going strong. The country that brought you the Beatles, The Stones and Oasis is still turning out the talent. Ticket prices are reasonable (unless it's stadium rock at Wembley or the O2). There good music of all sorts to be had all over town, especially in pubs. The venues are dominated by the Forum in Kentish Town, Charing Cross Road's Astoria and the Shepherd's Bush Empire (formerly a BBC Studio), Brixton's Academy, and the O2 Indigo, which are all small enough to be intimate. The O2 main auditorium (Led Zep..) is like any other. The Hammersmith 'Carling' Apollo is a decent medium sized venue. Full listings in the magazines (and they go on for pages). The Mean Fiddler group runs a lot of the bigger venues in London. As for the others..there are far too many venues to list them all here! Try HERE for an up to date gig guide
You can book tickets and consult dates here (this is the one we use ourselves.) The excellent NME Music Paper is in the process of eating itself - trying to find a pitch that satisfies the fans of Oasis and Miss Teeq - good for Zeitgeist but not the classic it was.

For very up and coming bands try Bush Hall, The Carling Islington or Islington's Hope and Anchor. Good behaviour and attention to the live music is the code of conduct - go to listen rather than to talk.
If you're in the centre the pub 'Bourbon Street' on Oxendon Street, one block west of Leicester Square has (free) bands most nights, and the atmosphere is great - mostly towards blues/rock.   Guidebook to what to see and
                      do in London

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