London is truly the city for theatre, from the largest mainstream productions on the West End to the smallest makeshift independent productions in bar basements. We’ve provided brief descriptions of these categories, but have also listed below some of the more under the radar theatres and performance spaces we’ve really enjoyed. The ones listed below tend to have independent or unconventional shows, so if you’re looking for something different, please check those out.
London Theater and Mainstream Musicals
London has arguably the best theater of any city in the world and will not disappoint any theater lover. You can find most of the big name musicals and plays that you find in New York and other major cities. These performances will take place in West End theatres. One of our favorites is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, a unique and intelligent play (not a musical) that is entertaining and thought-provoking, and more authentic than most other mainstream productions. If you are not a fan of mainstream musicals, or if you are interested in more independent shows, you may want to consider some alternatives (which may also better showcase what truly makes theater in London great).
It’s a pretty safe bet that you can find multiple Shakespeare plays showing at any given time in venues across the city, though one safe bet is the Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. The Globe Theatre is located on the Southbank and if you don’t mind braving the elements (it’s open air), this is a must do. See further down this page for more information.
Unique and Independent Plays
If you prefer something more modern and independent, there are always many great lower-budget plays showing around London as well. The quality of these plays can be incredibly good, even in some venues that seat no more than 30 people.
Here are some theaters you should check out for good quality, smaller (or more unique) productions.
The Royal Court Theatre (a personal favorite!)
This theater located in Sloane Square is one I’d recommend checking out. It focuses more on undiscovered and new writers, and generally puts on unique, innovative performances. It is not uncommon for a performance here to make a transfer to the West End or Broadway, or to go on international tour. I’d recommend this as a cool alternative to the West End. Website
St. James Theatre (a personal favorite!)
This is a great spot near Victoria that has shows on almost every day. They have a main theater and also a smaller studio. Most of the acts are music based, but they also have some comedy, theater, and cabaret. None of the performances are ordinary, but the acts tend to be of high caliber and interesting. Tickets tend to be quite reasonably priced as well. I’d recommend checking this venue out. Website
The Old Vic
The Old Vic is quite a historic and weighty theater and has seen many highly acclaimed performers (Judi Dench, Richard Burton, Ben Kingsley) and artistic directors (Laurence Olivier, Kevin Spacey) over the years. The performances are high quality, diverse, and a bit more raw than those in the West End, though they do tend to take on a more traditional format. It’s well worth looking into. The theater also offers monthly 75 minute behind the scenes tours on Saturday mornings during which it shares the theater’s history. Website
This theater is a reconstruction of the original Globe Theatre from Shakespeare’s time in which many of his works were performed. The original suffered from a fire and was replaced in 1614, though that was then demolished in 1644. The current site opened in 1997 and was built about 750 feet from the original site.
The Globe is dedicated to the exploration of Shakespeare’s work. Throughout the year a variety of Shakespeare’s works are performed and there are also a number of workshops, lectures, and staged readings that take place. It is highly advisable to book tickets in advance as the majority of shows are sold out. As mentioned above, do note that this is an outdoor theater and performances take place regardless of weather. While the seated section is generally protected from rain (it is covered), the most famous seats – the standing seats in the yard – are fully exposed to the elements. Though it is understandable that one might not want to stand, uncovered, for a 3-hour play, these are quite popular particularly because they are the cheapest seats (always £5) and because they are the closest to the stage.
We’d recommend checking out a show if the weather is pleasant during your visit, but if you don’t, the theatre itself is still worth a visit. There are guided tours available daily that will take you around the theater during non-performance times and explain the history and evolution of the theater. Website
The Vaults Gallery (a personal favorite!)
My favorite performance space in London. The venue is located off of Leake Street (the “graffiti street”) and is a huge art hub for new, up and coming, domestic and international artists. The gallery hosts art exhibits, theatre performances, comedy, and music of all kinds. Performances tend to be cutting edge and unique and take place in one of several spaces on site. There are various rooms and performance areas allowing for multiple shows to take place at the same time. At night, the venue has a DJ or live music that goes until late. There are several bars and a kitchen available for snacks, dessert, and more fulsome meals (main dishes, burgers, pizza). The venue also hosts festivals throughout the year, one of which is the VAULT Festival for six weeks in the beginning of the year, during which time there are various artistic events and performances every day at every hour throughout the day (see our London – Annual Events page for more information).
We highly recommend seeing a show here and then checking out the amazing graffiti alley right outside. If you’re lucky, you can even catch graffiti artists at work. Website
Rich Mix is an independent arts venue in east London housed in a former leather factory. There are a number of performance spaces and three cinemas. They host all kinds of independent performances (dance, storytelling, live music, spoken word, comedy), exhibits (visual arts, multimedia, traditional format), and many festivals. What makes this place a bit unique is that many of their events and displays are culturally diverse and feature artists and talent from around the world. They also put on cultural festivals throughout the year for key events (examples include the Chinese New Year festival, Arab Women Artists Festival, and a Latin Music Festival). Website
Leicester Sq. Theatre
Located in the West End, this theater has two performance spaces and hosts a variety of comedy, dance, music, theater, and cabaret shows. It’s one of the most varied theaters in terms of performance diversity and there are performances several times each day. Website