Let me preface this post by admitting something rather controversial: I don’t like plays. There, I said it. I don’t like going to the “theatre”. I especially dislike musicals (unless it’s called “Wicked” and I’m seeing it with Udita or, actually, I’ll allow for the “Lion King” as well and only if I’m flanked by my mom and dad – but that’s it, I swear. No Jean Val Jeans for me, thanks).
Plays make me fidgety, nervous. I become aware of the sound of myself swallowing in the theatre – you know, when it’s all quiet and you need to swallow (which is, after all, a natural function) and your throat gurgles and it’s, like all awkward and stuff. I get anxious. As soon as the lights dim, I convince myself that I need the toilet and check my watch after 5 minutes, then the program, to see how long I’ve got until intermission. After intermission, I find myself reluctantly trudging to my seat, like a child that has been pulled away from the playground by his mom. Then, rather annoyingly, I find it extremely difficult to concentrate (and no, I don’t have ADHD – at least, I don’t think I do) and focus, especially during the opening of the first act, first scene.
But John loves plays. Like, loves. Particularly Shakespeare (for example, he bought tickets for a July performance at the Globe in January. Enough said). And for a while, we were on a roll in terms of attendance at Southwark Playhouse (a very small, intimate, rather unusual venue not far from Tate Modern) until we realized that every single (albeit amazing) play we saw there reduced us to tears and tantrums afterward due to their incredibly depressing nature.
So then we stopped going to Southwark and kept missing the box office for “hits”, such as War Horse (despite the fact that I work nearly next door), and inadvertently fell into a theatre rut, until John spontaneously bought tickets for Enda Walsh's Penelope at Hampstead Theatre in Swiss Cottage. I’ll be frank: we chose to go because a) we had nothing better to do that night and b) it was a 5 minute drive away (this was before our precious Yellow Peril of a Skoda decided to break down on the entrance to an on-ramp). But since then, we’ve been back again for RSC’s production of Little Eagles and I think it’s safe to say we’re fans. And I’m converted. Wholly.
Well, for one thing, Hampstead Theatre is special – it’s like no other theatre in London. It doesn’t have the reputation and gravitas of the NT (National Theatre) or the innate quirkiness of smaller, cooler-than-cool venues like Southwark Playhouse. But its premise is simple: great companies performing great plays by great, new, up-and-coming writers in a welcoming, creative environment. One of the winning aspects of the theatre, in my opinion, is its “look and feel”, which I think is crucial to the audience’s experience. The design and architecture of the theatre itself is slick; but not in such a way that would turn you off. Patrons can grab a gastro pub-style dinner (food is not great but then, that’s not terribly important) before the show and relax with a glass of wine without any real rush, as the doors are just a few steps away (unlike the Barbican, where you feel like you’ve traipsed the length of a shopping mall in order to get to your seat from the bar or the toilets). The seating and stage layout is simple – and yet, this simplicity lends itself to a kind of beauty and (for me, at least) assurance you just don’t get in most modern theatres. It’s comfortable. The staff is always friendly and helpful, which isn’t something you’d necessarily look for in your theatre experience, but I find that it encourages me to return in this case.
So if you’re looking for something slightly different, want to wander away from the crowd but not have an entirely wacky theatre experience, I highly suggest you pop over to Hampstead Theatre and see what’s on. Good seats can be relatively cheap, might I add. An incentive for everyone.