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These are a few of my favourite theatres

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.

22 Comments

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"I get a warm glow of anticipation every time I approach the National"

My sentiments exactly. Crossing the bridge to get to the National feels like coming home, I love, love that theatre. Inside and out.

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This is probably going to be controversial, but I love the Barbican Centre. The theatre is one of the most comfortable in London and the programme one of the most adventurous. Plus memories of school trips to see the RSC there. It's also - in its own way - a beautiful building.

I definitely agree with the Wyndham's Theatre being the most beautiful theatre in London, especially after the refurbishment

Couldn't agree more about the National Theatre; such a welcoming place. I also love the Comedy (now Pinter) Theatre as I find it quirky, albeit rather cramped at times. Recently the Donmar has solidly put itself into my top list of theatres even though I never used to be fond of it.

I hate the theatre royal haymarket, its fine in the stalls but awful elsewhere.
However pretty it is dosent make up for the sheer awful sightlines and cramped seats.

Love Wyndams, the Palladium is ever improving and the royal opera house is amazing(main and 2).

Other venues I love waterloo east, Sadlers wells and theatre royal bath.

I too love the Hackney Empire - for both its vast splendour and the fabulous pantomimes it holds every year - fond memories of the people who work there also. The Criterion, where '39 Steps' is currently running, is a beautiful little theatre, although the seats aren't particularly comfortable. I like how intimate it feels there, and again I have fond memories of it. The Soho Theatre is another favourite, simply for the work they do and the brilliant new writing plays they produce. You also get good sight-lines there whereever you sit, and it's a great place to work. Regionally, nothing compares to the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff, not just for the location and the amazing main house, but also the work they are doing, and have done, to bring different types of theatre to the community.

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Love the ROH, National, Wigmore Hall, Pleasance Theatre, Sadlers Wells in London. Regionally - Nottingham TR, Norwich TR (best run regional theatre in country) and Cardiff Milennium (best new venue in yrs)

Following on from the audience behaviour thread, none of my (in fact our) favourite theatres are in the West End. Despite living in North London the majority are in SE1 - The Olivier & Cottesloe at the National, Southwark Playhouse, Menier Chocolate Factory & The Union. We also love our local, The Almeida and our Saturday train journeys to Chichester Festival theatre have always resulted in joyous occasions.

oh the Olivier, Donmar, Southwark Playhouse, Novello, Theatre Royal Haymarket & Drury Lane oh & ROH & Colliseum!

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favorite has to be The Coliseum. What a work of art, and so well restored.

The toilets in the Union Theatre are the most disgusting toilets in London. Until they refurbish them, I won't be going back!

Agree with what's been said about the National. I have many happy memories of spending time there as a little kid, and that hasn't changed. I love the fact it's such a great place to hang out and meet people or work, as well as a theatre.

My favourite smaller theatre is the Bush, in west London. If you haven't been, please do come. It has the best ambiance and most welcoming, homey feel of any theatre I've been in.

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Sherman Cymru's Theatre 1 in Cardiff is pretty amazing, especially for dance, with excellent sightlines from every seat, which isn't the case in the Donald Gordon Theatre at Wales Millennium Centre, despite its stunning stage and auditorium. And the new foyer and cafe bar at the recently redeveloped Sherman Cymru is an inspired and welcoming space in its own right. As are those at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (RWCMD) and Chapter, both also recently redeveloped and situated in Cardiff.

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Agree about the NT and the ROH, but if we define a 'favourite theatre' as one that gives you a frisson whenever you go near the building, then the Young Vic wins it for me. Wilton's and Wigmore Hall are special too in their different ways.

Being fond of unusual intimate spaces I love the Jermyn St Theatre and various Arcola spaces old & new - and of course the Orange Tree in Richmond and the Stephen Joseph in Scarborough.

My favourite-ever venue, though, no longer exists. That was the disused coach station at King's Cross where Jonathan Kent's Almeida company staged unforgettable epic productions of Platonov and King Lear some years back.

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My favourite theatre is the Quay theatre at the Lowry Centre in Salford, it's small and intimate, it also helps I saw spring awakening there (my favourite show) the auditorium is beautiful - LOVE IT! :)

It has to be the Prince Edward. The most glamorous theatre in London. Cameron Mackintosh refurbished it with such love..

This is a thread that could run and run as I'm sure there are endless permutations of favourite venues!

Not one though to miss a trend, for what it's worth though I've added a list of my favourite venues on my blog:

http://www.glenstheatreblog.com/2012/05/feature-top-10-theatre-debate.html

No love for the Donmar? By far my favourite

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For beauty and extravagance you can't beat the home of The Phantom of the Opera, no, not Her Majesties, The Palais Garnier Paris.

Lowry Theatre - Salford Quays
Victoria Palace Theatre
Southwark Playhouse
Menier Chocolate Factory
Palace Theatre - London
London Coliseum

Chichester Festival Theatre and Glyndebourne for some very sentimental reasons
The National, it oozes excitement
the Comedy (now Pinter) and the Duke of York, cosy and quaint
Donmar Warehouse, very intimate
Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, so grand (if a bit tatty) reminds me of La Scala back home in Milan
Old Vic (purely personal reasons, but I like the bar too)
The Savoy, love the domed ceiling

Got to admit that Clwyd Theatr Cymru in Mold is one of the nicest. It may be smaller and a bit out of most peoples way, but it's lovely. There isn't really a bad seat anywhere in the main house or the studio space, the cinema is lovely, front of house is nice and welcoming and the views from the bars are amazing.

Although I agree with Mark's tweet last week that it's probably one of the few theatre's where there is a cow field outside.

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