Just the other day I was talking about drawing up lists of favourite things, and last week Michael Coveney provided his own list of his favourite UK theatres, in which he wrote, “I wonder if we’d ever all reach agreement on our top ten favourite British theatres. Here are ten of mine: Wyndham’s and the Haymarket in London, Theatre Royal in Brighton, the King’s in Edinburgh, the Glasgow Citizens, Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds, Theatre Royal in Stratford East, the Royal Court, the Wakefield Theatre Royal and Opera House, the Roundhouse (sometimes).”
Of course, a theatre isn’t just a building but contains associations and memories that you’ve had there. It’s what makes the National and Royal Court consistently my two favourite theatres in London. I get a warm glow of anticipation every time I approach the National, but it’s not just to do with what I’m hoping to see on the stage; I also enjoy the building itself, inside and out.
There’s the bookshop, of course, the best of any British theatre and one of the best specialist bookshops in all of London; and the ground floor coffee shop (in what those of us with longer memories remember was once the theatre’s box office) naturally feeds my coffee-and-cake obsession with its special deals for both. The Royal Court, meanwhile, has possibly the most comfortable seats of any theatre in its downstairs mainhouse (and amongst the most uncomfortable in the upstairs studio), but it’s what you see on both stages there that jolts you either out of your comfort zone downstairs or makes you not care about your lack of it upstairs.
But for sheer physical proportion and beauty, I agree on Michael’s West End choices of Wyndham’s and the Haymarket, the one the perfect intimate playhouse, the other a gold-leafed splendour. But I also adore the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and the London Palladium, though both could do with more than a little sprucing up from their current desperately faded glory. Of the Shaftesbury Avenue playhouses, the Lyric (now apparently lost forever to Thriller Live) is an absolute gem, though its another theatre that could benefit from a serious refurbishment.
I also adore the Prince of Wales, which unusually for a major London house is a two-level house instead of three, following the more typical Broadway layout; and its great Delfont Room stalls bar is not only London’s most spectacular theatre bar but also has become a great cabaret space. The theatre provides an object lesson in how a theatre can be magnificently restored and even improve on what was there before.
If we’re talking sheer spectacle, two more fantastically refurbished houses, the London Coliseum and Royal Opera House, would make my favourite list, though I hardly ever go to the latter. But it was a pleasure to be there for the Olivier Awards last month, and sitting beside Reece Shearsmith, he told me he’d never been there before, so it’s not just me that the Opera House creates a bubble of exclusion around.
Those are ten major London houses already, and I’ve not even begun on theatres beyond the West End but still in London, the fringe or regions. My other London beyond-the-West End top ten list would be topped by the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, with the best theatre restaurant in town with its Caribbean-flavoured menu, and the beautiful old variety palace of the Hackney Empire; both theatres are like mini-West End houses. So is Lyric Hammersmith, with its Tardis-like recreation of a classic auditorium inside a modern building, which I also love. Then there’s Wilton’s Music Hall, which for sheer historic atmosphere can’t be beaten, though I always worry that the place might fall down around me.
The old Arcola would have made the list, but I’m yet to fall in love with the new one; but the new Bush, by contrast, is already working its ways into my affections, in a way that the old Bush physically never did though emotionally it connected thanks to the work done there. I love the Young Vic, and often eat at the restaurant even when I’m not seeing a show there. Just a stone’s throw from the Young Vic, the Union has a coffee shop in its outdoor front courtyard that I use virtually daily since I rent an office locally, and I also love the theatre itself. (And what’s not to love about the legs of Sean, the artistic director’s husband? Though the theatre’s toilets are surely amongst the most offputting anywhere).
Southwark, which nowadays feels like it has the highest concentration of theatres beyond the West End, also has two more favourite theatres: the Menier, again with an ace restaurant, and Southwark Playhouse, with two terrific spaces. And last but not least of my ten outer London/fringe theatres has to be the Finborough, not for the dreadful squashed seating, but for the brilliance of its artistic programming which regularly produces some of the best new plays and revivals in town.
Regionally, I can’t say I’ve been to every theatre in the country yet to make this a comprehensive survey, but the Grand Theatre in Leeds — which I’ve only just visited for the first time ever — fully deserves its name; there’s hardly a more spectacular auditorium anywhere. Also in Leeds, the refurbished City Varieties is a real gem. So is the Royal in Northampton (though I’m yet to visit the modern Derngate that it is attached to). In Manchester, I have mixed feelings about the artistic programme at the Royal Exchange, but my heart never fails to soar when I enter this grand old trading hall and see the theatre module sitting incongruously in the middle of it, like a spaceship that has landed in the middle of it. I have no doubts about the renewed brilliance of the Crucible under the stewardship of Daniel Evans, so it has come to be one of my favourite regional houses.
So, of course, is Chichester Festival Theatre under Jonathan Church, which like Sheffield has a thrust stage around which an auditorium is not necessarily always best arranged, but can work wonders if the director and designer know what they are doing. Amongst regional touring houses, Brighton’s Theatre Royal is a historic gem, though the stalls seating is in urgent need of renewing (as I discovered when I attended a Brighton Festival show just last week), and I welcome Howard Panter’s new producorial initiative to use it as a launch pad for new touring and West End product under the brand of the newly-formed Brighton Theatre Royal Productions, which will kick off next month with artistic director Christopher Luscombe directing a new production of Pinero’s Dandy Dick.
I was at University with Chris, as I was with Danny Moar who runs the other Theatre Royal at Bath that has a serious producing arm and upon which Brighton’s feels like it is being modelled. The Theatre Royal, Bath is another splendid regional house. And talking of university days, I spent my undergraduate nights going every week to see (and review) shows at the Cambridge Arts, and just the other evening ran into Pat Myers, the wonderful house manager during my time there who now works at RADA. Nowadays the touring theatre I visit most regularly is Richmond Theatre, which is another favourite with its perfectly proportioned Frank Matcham auditorium and lovely positioning on the edge of Richmond Green.
I’m looking forward to the return of Bristol Old Vic — visiting Richmond, as it happens, on Saturday afternoon to see Northern Stage/Live Theatre’s marvellous production of Lee Hall’s Close the Coalhouse Door, I ran into Bristol’s artistic director Tom Morris who was also catching it, and he told me that it will be re-opening in the autumn.