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The BackStage Tour at London's National Theatre Complex

During my London 2010 theatre week, just prior to the British Isles Dance Cruise, I was excited to be able to take a Backstage Tour at the National Theatre in London.Location of the National Theatre on South Bank of the Thames

Except for one visit to the Globe Theatre to see Antony and Cleopatra, my previous theatre-going visits to London had focused on West End theatre. But this time I was determined to visit the National Theatre  complex on the South Bank and see at least one play there.

When I checked out their web site to book on line, I saw that they offered a Backstage Tour.

I booked for  The Habit of Art on Sunday at 3 pm at the Lyttelton Theatre in the  National Theatre complex, and at the same time I booked the Backstage Tour,  an approximately hour-long tour that is conducted three times a day.

To pick up your previously booked tickets you have to produce the credit card used for the booking. The Tour, the play tickets and the program cost me 33 pounds, approximately 53 CAD with current exchange rates. That's relatively inexpensive considering the "discounted price" of a decent seat for most plays here is around 26 pounds, the full price closer to 50 pounds... and in London you usually have to pay for your program.

They do not hand out free programs like in Vancouver, or New York's Playbills, or even just a sheet with cast information. The programs which are sold for 3 to 6 pounds (or 5 to 10 CAD) are more like those produced by the Theatre Department at UBC for their shows, with detailed background, technical and historical articles and often biographical information about characters in the plays.

For example the program for The Habit of Art contained an article with personal insights on WH Auden by Patrick Garland, actor/director who was at Oxford when Auden was Professor of Poetry there. There were also similar anecdotal articles  on the two other historical figures in the play by people who knew them: Composer/broadcaster Michael Berkley writes on composer Benjamin Britten and journalist/author/broadcaster Libby Purves writes on literary biographer/ radio broadcaster, Humphrey Carpenter.


On the Sunday I visited, I took the Northern line to Waterloo Station and then found my way to the river walk.  I walked by some of the other building complexes, keeping an eye out for somewhere to have lunch.

The Box Office opened at noon. We were to wait for the tour on  the Ground Floor just adjacent to the  Bookstore but I wandered around to get a feel for the size of the place.

The Bookstore  has a most impressive collection of play scripts as well as other  sections of theatre books. I spent some time browsing but bearing in mind the weight of my suitcase - just under the limit at YVR - I refrained from purchasing anything and just handed in the voucher to get my program.

the Cafe in the backgroundAnd then I did some more wandering.

There were maybe about 30 people waiting for our tour to start.  I chatted with a drama teacher from Aberdeen, Scotland whose grandparents had moved to Canada. My grandmother who was from Glasgow immigrated to Cape Town around the same time period.

Olivier Theatre -1160 seats. Photo by Mike Smallcombe.Our perky guide, Amy,  arrived promptly and  gave us the "please turn off cell phones and photography is strictly forbidden" warning before taking us up to the second floor Olivier Theatre, the largest (1160 seats) theatre in the complex.

As I had inquired in advance from Vancouver whether taking photographs during the tour was permissible,  the Press Relations department sent me the three photographs of the theatre interiors in this article. So these  are official National Theatre images, credited to Mike Smallcomb. All other images in this or any of my articles, unless credited to another photographer, are my own.

After we were comfortably seated  Amy gave us a brief overview of the National Theatre history. Although the concept of a publicly funded National Theatre program dates back as far as 1848, the first document laying out a program, a budget and a list of 49 plays that should be in the repertoire was produced in 1907 but it was only after the end of WW II, in 1948 that a parliamentary bill was passed;  the "National Theatre Act", offering financial support for a complex on a site near the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank of the Thames.

With multiple delays due to financial constraints, two boards were established in 1962. The one was to look after  construction of the National Theatre. The other board established a National Theatre Company which leased the Old Vic theatre. The first Artistic Director was Sir Lawrence Olivier - and the first play opened in 1963 - Hamlet.

It was 1976, 13 years,  before the Olivier Theatre was completed and the company could move into the new premises. Peter Hall, the second Artistic Director was at the reins by this time. He was followed by Richard Eyre, Trevor Nunn and the current Artistic Director, Nicholas Hytner who has held the position since 2003.

The National Theatre building has  three separate theatres, allowing for three productions to be mounted at the same time.

The Olivier Theatre was modeled on the ancient Greek theatre at Epidaurus. it has an open stage and a fan-shaped audience seating area for 1,160 people. A 'drum revolve' (a five-storey revolving stage section) goes down eight metres beneath the stage and can operated by one crew member. The drum has two rim revolves and two platforms, allowing dramatic  scenery changes.

Lyttelton Theatre. Photo by Mike SmallcombeNext we visited the  Lyttelton Theatre named after  the National Theatre's first board chairman. It has a proscenium-arch design and can accommodate  890 in the audience.

Cottesloe Theatre. Photo by Mike SmallcombeThe Cottesloe Theatre is a smaller, flexible studio space, that can  hold up to 400 people depending on the seating configuration.

The Cottesloe was designed separately by Ian McIntosh. it is not accessed from inside the complex but has an external entrance. It is based on the Elizabethan courtyard style theatre with balconies and can be adapted to different configurations including "in the round". Only the balconies are permanently installed.

Amy told us that we were fortunate in that it was a Sunday, so we could see some of the areas such as the rehearsal rooms which are not normally accessible on a working day tour.

They have 6 rehearsal spaces. Room 1 is the size of the Olivier stage and Room 2 the size of the Lyttelton stage so they can rehearse and block in a space that will need minimal adaptation to the actual set. The other four rehearsal spaces are smaller.

We walked through a huge work area where sets are constructed. They have an area called the armory where they can construct pyrotechnic effects.  It can take 10 to 14 weeks to construct some of their sets. They can have 10 people working comfortably in the Scenic room.

They own 85,000 costumes stored on the 4th and 5th floors  - must have an amazing indexing system to keep track. They loan out costumes and props. 

We saw up close, one of the "horses" constructed for the play Warhorse.  Made of bamboo and gauze, 2 puppeteers had to get in and out of the structure.  I gathered that Warhorse is a play based on a book  about the bond between a boy and his horse,  told from the perspective of Joey the horse. I had not seen the play so it did not mean much to me, but I remember  reading that the puppetry was outstanding.

Our tour actually ended up being quite a bit longer than the hour it was supposed to take, and our group thanked our guide with much enthusiasm. I had little time for lunch as I was to see  a matinee performance of The Habit of  Art after the tour. I ended up getting a sandwich in the Lyttelton Cafe on the ground floor.

I think it is definitely worth trying to do this tour on a weekend when it may be possible to see into places that might  normally be in use, and therefore inaccessible, during the week..