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A Guide to West End Theatergoing for American Audiences

16 July 2018 by Mary McKinny
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Attending a play or musical is a top activity in both London and New York City, mainly because each city is known for an area that’s packed with professional theatres. But non-Brits who are used to attending Broadway shows might be in for a bit of a shock when they become theatre patrons in the West End. Here is some historical context behind five major differences.

Much, much smaller theaters
Though some West End theatres are quite large (for example, the Apollo Victoria Theatre seats more than 2,300 people, nearly 400 more than Broadway’s biggest, the Gershwin), a lot of them are tiny and accommodate fewer than 1,000 audience members. That’s because many were built in the 1700s and 1800s; in comparison, most of Broadway’s current houses didn’t start going up until the 1920s and ‘30s, and several have been extensively renovated. Not so in London. If you think Broadway theatres have cramped leg space or small restrooms, then London — where it’s quite normal to queue for a single toilet — will be quite a shock.

Different seating areas have separate entrances
Sitting in the stalls (orchestra, for Americans) typically means entering through the theatre’s main doors. But if you’re in the dress circle or royal circle (mezzanine), higher up in the grand/upper circle, at the very top in the gallery or balcony, or in a side box, then outside you’ll find separate doors dictating where to enter. West End lobbies were not designed as grand gathering spots, funneling out to all seating areas, and caste systems definitely influenced theatregoing habits in earlier centuries. Space is, unsurprisingly, tight on these staircases, and you won’t often find an elevator in the building.

You pay for programs
Every Broadway visitor is handed a playbill as they enter, and you can certainly take one (or several) with you as a souvenir after the final bow. But in the West End, you’ll pay a few pounds to read the actors’ bios, see the song list, and browse articles about your current show and others. These programmes are produced by the theatres themselves, so when you purchase one your money doesn’t even go back to the show it’s describing.

The safety curtain
When the lights come up for “interval” (intermission), the fire curtain comes down. This iron curtain, which is sometimes elaborately painted, is a holdover from when theatres were at severe risk of catching fire from candles, gas jets, and unpredictable early electricity. Even with today’s modern technology, the fragile buildings are still legally required to lower and raise the curtain during every performance to prove that it’s working. Safety curtains became standard after Exeter’s Theatre Royal tragically burned in 1887, killing roughly 200 people when a piece of scenery was ignited by a gas burner and fell onto the stage, setting the auditorium aflame.

Eat and drink with dignity
Broadway concessions have exploded in recent years, with many theatres allowing patrons to bring candy and small snacks to their seat along with beverages in covered “sippy cups.” But in London, you are encouraged to consume your refreshments in style. Drinks are often poured into open-topped plastic cups or wine glasses, and a favorite interval indulgence is the individual tubs of ice cream that vendors hawk from the aisles. No one has determined why or when, exactly, ice cream became the standard half-time treat, but the Brits won’t be giving it up anytime soon.