Charlotte Marshall joined a group of theatre enthusiasts on a Theatreland Walking Tour and discovered the bizarre and interesting facts behind the beautiful facades of some of the most iconic buildings in the West End and beyond.
Whether you’re theatre obsessed, a history enthusiast or just looking for something different to do on a quiet Sunday, the Society of London Theatre’s Walking Tours have got something to offer everyone. Over the course of two hours you’ll discover theatrical and historical facts on both sides of the river, hear anecdotes about some of the most eccentric actors and theatre managers and find out why theatre audiences used to be thought of as such a rowdy bunch – it makes our current grumbles about people tweeting in the theatre and texting from their laps look positively trivial.
Who takes you?
You’ll cover just under a mile in the company of Blue Badge Guide Diane Burstein who has been doing up to three tours a day, seven days a week, since 1996, so you’re in safe hands.
If the term ‘walking tour’ sounds a bit dry to you, you need not worry with Diane at the helm. She has done walking tours on pretty much every subject matter you could imagine – from the houses of parliament to a tailor made tour for someone who was interested in the area around their new flat – for every group imaginable, even stag and hen parties!
Diane herself is a huge fan of theatre which is apparent in her constant enthusiasm and excitement for each theatre along the route, as she explains: “I’ve always been interested in going to the theatre and I think you’ve got everything [for a tour]. You’ve got interesting buildings, you’ve got the stories of the actors and the performances. Theatre is really my big hobby; when I’m not guiding, I’m going to the theatre. I think you can’t beat live performance, it can really be magic.”
What will you learn?
To say too much would be to spoil your fun, but who knew that theatre used to go hand in hand with bear baiting or that the Old Vic theatre manager Lilian Baylis refused Laurence Olivier a pay rise on the basis “God said no”? We also learnt that to celebrate a show’s opening night, the National Theatre used to launch a rocket from the highest point of its landmark building. Disappointingly, this somewhat over-the-top tradition ended when fears of terrorism from the IRA became too heightened in the city to allow such celebratory explosions.
In Burstein’s words: “What I try to give people on these tours is the story of how theatre developed through the years in the West End of London from Shakespeare’s day to the current day and what’s happening at the moment because there’s so much to say.”
Where does the tour take you?
To keep things fresh, the routes changes each year. 2011’s route begins south of the river (the exact location is confirmed upon booking) and takes you all the way to the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, past sites including the National Theatre, the grand Savoy theatre and hotel – incidentally the first ever hotel to have ensuites, we discovered – and West End venues including the Novello theatre.
Each venue has it own unique and often eccentric history full of enough entertaining anecdotes to make the two hours fly by. From theatre managers cooking their suppers by the stage in order to keep an eye on their wayward actors, meaning the auditorium would be filled with the smell of bacon, to fires caused by candlelit auditoriums. Moving to the present day, we learnt about Kevin Spacey, Artistic Director of the Old Vic, replacing the venue’s stage door window with a cubby hole so he can sign autographs after the show from the comfort of a chair, out of reach from adoring fans. Even those in the theatrical know will be surprised by Diane’s vast knowledge of interesting facts and titbits.
Although Diane struggles to pick a favourite theatre of her own, she does have personal highlights on the tour: “The Theatre Royal Drury Lane has a fascinating story being the oldest theatre, and so many interesting personalities like David Garrick and Sheridan were involved in the theatre over the years. And I haven’t even gone into the hauntings and the theatre ghosts!”
Are questions allowed?
Questions are positively encouraged. Although Diane has an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of London – “You just read and read and read and read. Because I’m interested in it, obviously you retain it” – questions from members of the tour often prompt interesting answers. “I don’t learn parrot fashion so it’s a case of reading lots of information and then pairing it down and remembering what I can”, says Diane. “If you forget something, it’s not like when you’re learning lines for a play and if you forget something that mucks everybody else up, it doesn’t really matter. If there’s something that someone in the group really wants to ask you, they’ll ask you that question and that will trigger that bit of information so you will end up imparting it to them anyway.”
With 15 years of experience under her belt, your question is unlikely to stump Diane, having been asked everything from the rudest of questions – “Did Prince Albert have a Prince Albert?” didn’t even make her blush – to the more amusing: “I used to guide at the Shakespeare’s Globe and you did have people asking things like ‘Why was the theatre not built nearer the underground station?’ and somebody did once ask ‘Who painted the ceiling at the Globe theatre?’ when its open air, so you do get amusing questions at times.”
Come rain or shine?
In keeping with the theatrical theme, whether it’s scorching hot, bucketing it down with rain or ankle deep in snow, the show must go on. Having only had to call off a tour once due to weather in her 15 years of guiding, Diane’s message is to “come prepared”. In England this might mean packing your shorts, an umbrella and a cosy jumper to cover all eventualities.
Fancy a walk?
There are Theatreland Walking Tours taking place from now until the end of September with 30 places available on each. The tour costs £9.50 per person and you can book now by visiting www.officiallondontheatre.co.uk/activities-events/theatreland-walking-tours/