The West End of London is the famed theatre district and place where people come from far and wide to enjoy the sights and sounds of the entertainment capital of the city. With the greatest density of theatres in London, the West End has a whole host of hit theatrical productions from popular musicals to long-running plays that lure pleasure-seekers in off the streets with promise of entertainment.
The West End has a long history as a draw for people across the city and far beyond. Learn a little about the background of the capital of theatreland and get a little bit more out of your visit.
The growth of the West End
When London was still a smoky pre-industrial city, the West End was favoured by the gentry and aristocracy for its cleaner air. The easterly winds that prevail in London tended to keep the smoke and unpleasant smells from the filthy Thames and the South London tanneries away from the easily offended noses of the filthy rich. The residential areas around Mayfair and Belgravia are still the preserve of the wealthy, and the property prices in these areas tend to be prohibitively expensive for the vast majority of Londoners.
The area of the West End that has traditionally been more accessible for the majority of Londoners and visitors to the city is the theatre district around Covent Garden and Tottenham Court Road.
Theatre in the West End started to boom in the early 19th century when a number of small theatres and music halls were established including the Adelphi Theatre, which still stands on The Strand today. In the middle of the 1800s, the government passed the Theatres Act and the conditions for the performance of theatre were relaxed. Music Hall acts were the cinema of their day and the working classes would take a trip “up West” to see some of the famous cabaret acts of the day in the Vaudeville Theatre.
Theatre in London today
With just under 40 venues in the West End’s theatreland, London’s West End stands alongside Broadway in New York as representing the highest level of commercial theatre in the English-speaking world. The shows open in London’s theatreland venues today range from some of the longest running plays in the Western world – The Mousetrap, which has run in the West End continuously for over 60 years – and new plays and musicals that open on a regular basis.
Some of the best known names on the silver screen have also done their turn on the West End stage in recent years. Hollywood actors Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow are just two of a whole host of A-list stars that have taken time out of their movie schedules to star on the West End stage, and there are plenty of others waiting to follow their lead.
One of the biggest draws of the West End for visitors is the big budget musicals that take their place in the theatres around Covent Garden. Currently, the recently opened risqué musical The Book of Mormon is making a stir in the Prince of Wales Theatre, but those who are looking for a more family friendly theatre experience will find more than enough between the two Roald Dahl-based musicals, children’s favourite The Lion King and many musicals based on the back catalogues of some of the most successful pop acts in the past 50 years.
The history of the West End’s theatre district is part of what’s made it the place it is today. The beating heart of London’s cultural centre, the West End has something in store for the whole family to enjoy.