The Bright, Bright Lights of Britain: Theater Tours in England
by Katherine Dyson
The lights dimmed and the heavy, red velvet curtain was slowly raised, revealing the living room of a typical well-to-do British family. Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was about to deal with the scandalous Profumo affair. So debuted a new play, A Letter of Resignation, testing its wings in the sumptuous, 200-year-old Theatre Royal in Brighton, a frequent venue for working kinks out of major productions before heading to the London stage.
If theater is your passion, English stage offerings can be the best thing since central heating was installed in thatched cottages. Because many plays debut in places like London or Brighton before making their way to New York, going to these shows is a good way to get a front-row seat at what's new and hot, without the hassle and three-year waiting list.
Want to line up tickets to top shows like Andrew Lloyd Webber's Whistle Down the Wind, Rent (already a highly-acclaimed musical hit), or the popular Riverdance? The best way is through a company specializing in theater tours which can include London as well as other cultural centers in Great Britain.
On a crisp fall day, I joined a small group on an early morning train to Brighton, the interesting seaside city just 51 minutes south of London. Before capping off the day with the aforementioned drama in one of the most elegant English provincial playhouses, our hours had been filled with sightseeing and good food.
We had strolled along the seafront boardwalk and out onto the Palace Pier, busy on this bright afternoon. Next, our escort guided us around the Lanes (the quaint brick streets in the old part of town), where I nipped into an antique shop to buy an amber pin. We enjoyed lunch at English's, famous for its oysters and seafood.
A tour of King George IV's opulent Royal Pavilion, with its chalky white minarets, intricate scrollwork, Indian domes, and elaborate Chinese interior, was also on the day's itinerary. The gardens and interiors of this exotic pleasure palace have been restored to their former glory and are alone worth a trip to Brighton.
Our afternoon closed with dinner before the show at Il Teatro, a small, charming Italian restaurant located next to the theater. That night, we boarded the 11 P.M. train back to London and its famous theater scene.
London's longtime love affair with the theater makes it possible to see a myriad of excellent plays in equally impressive venues. During our visit we enjoyed Ben Elton's witty and original play, Popcorn. At the Old Vic, we attended a riveting performance of King Lear and though I was close enough to the stage to be able to see the fire in actor Alan Howard's eyes, I was just far enough back to avoid the "spit spray," a somewhat typical by-product of passionate Shakespearean actors.
The mechanics behind all of this magic are best experienced on a backstage tour--a fascinating experience. Several theaters offer one- or two-hour backstage tours during the week which cost about the equivalent of $5. Check out the Theatre Royal Drury Lane (011-44-171 494 5091); Theatre Royal Haymarket (011-44-171 930 8800); Royal National Theatre (011-44-171 633 0880); London Palladium (011-44-171 494 5091); and New London (011-44-171 405 1568).
In the musical Cats, the most dramatic scene for me was the rise of the spaceship amid clouds of misty fog, as Grizabella bids good-bye to her friends on earth--a stunning example of behind-the-scenes wizardry. During a tour of the New London Theater, some of the secrets of this feat were revealed.
Walking down the narrow steps under the stage, and ducking under wires, winches and beams, I looked up at the cut-out platform of the "ship" and learned how the ship was cranked up, where dry ice was added to a vat creating the "mist" under the ship, and how Calico Cat was propelled into the air during every performance.
Theater buffs can combine their show schedule with sightseeing and cultural excursions. Many tour operators offering escorted tours of England also include one or more nights of theater, and many of these tours are custom-designed.
For example, "Summer with Shakespeare," an in-depth tour offered by Fair Winds Travel/Cultural Tours, focuses on historical sites and theater performances in London, Stratford-upon-Avon, and Kendal that are connected with the Bard. In Stratford, people visit his mother's (Mary Arden's) house, his birthplace, his wife's (Anne Hathaway's) cottage, and Holy Trinity Church where the poet/playwright is buried. The itinerary also includes Hampton Court Palace, where Shakespeare regularly performed for Queen Elizabeth I in the 16th century.
Evenings are filled with theater, such as productions by the Royal Shakespeare Company, a day performance at the Globe Theatre and Museum, and a play at the National Theater in London. The package also includes a visit to the Royal Shakespeare Company's collection of more than 1,000 costumes, props, and pictures; plus a walking tour of Shakespeare's London.
As far as accommodations in London go, most of the theater action takes place in the West End, and several hotels in the Leicester Square area immediately plug you into the London scene. In fact, you couldn't be more in the middle of the action if you pitched a tent in the center of the square!
We stayed in the intimate Pastoria Hotel, which sat right on the square and was within easy walking distance of the theaters, Covent Garden, Piccadilly Circus, Chinatown, The National Gallery, Soho, and many trendy restaurants and night clubs such as Planet Hollywood.
Though Shakespeare may have spoken the truth when he claimed that "All the world's a stage," England is a definite contender to the global theatrical throne. Visitors who experience the drama, history and culture of this unique country are sure to demand an encore, time and time again.
For more information, contact the London Tourist Board website at http://www.LondonTown.com; the London Theatre Guide website at http://www.OfficialLondon.co.uk; or the following operators:
Keith Prowse, (800) 669-8687, features a two night/three day "Londoners Package" priced from $169--$482 per person. Package can be beefed up by adding a "Red Carpet" evening ($210) or afternoon ($145). The evening program pampers participants with butler service and a private room at the theater, souvenir program, champagne and canapes reception, top seats, champagne and smoked salmon during intermission, and farewell coffee.
Fair Winds Travel/Cultural Tours, (800) 826-7995, offers a "Summer with Shakespeare" tour priced at approximately $3,795 per person including airfare, accommodations, breakfasts and some meals, rail tickets, etc. Trip includes visits to London and Stratford-upon-Avon and five days touring the Lake District.
For information about additional programs and tour operators, see Activity Index under "Theater-England."