Effectively bordered by Oxford Street to the north, the Strand to the south, Regent Street to the west and Kingsway to the east, London’s West End district is home to as many as 40 of the most revered theatres in the world, as well as restaurants, cinemas, casinos, nightclubs, bars, pubs and shops. In short, it’s London’s entertainment hub – no wonder then, so many a London West End hotel deal is snapped up on a daily basis.
Popular with anyone and everyone – the young and the old; the rich and those on a budget – the West End attracts hundreds of millions of visitors every year. But what’s its history and what makes it tick…?
1. Theatreland dates back to the 1500s
London’s theatre scene began properly in the 16th Century; when Queen Elizabeth I was on the throne, Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh were privateering on the high seas and William Shakespeare was in town, writing and putting on his legendary plays.
That said, the West End was far from the gravitational centre of the playhouses, as they were than called, that it is today; the first permanent playhouse was built in Shoreditch in 1576 and the first in the West End opened in 1663. Back then, most were to be found in The City or near the South Bank (hence the location of today’s Shakespeare’s Globe). The West End’s ‘Theatreland’, as we know it today, properly got going in the 19th Century.
2. The oldest theatre is more than 200 years-old
Theatre Royal on Drury Lane, which is located a short walk from Covent Garden, still operates today, having opened in 1812. To put it in context, that’s three years before Napoleon was defeated by the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo. Mind you, today’s Theatre Royal is actually the fourth incarnation of the original playhouse, which burnt down in 1672.
3. Few West End theatres exist in their original form
Yes, Theatre Royal has been rebuilt, then, but so too have the majority of its fellow London theatres. Few West End theatres (more or less the only relatively recently built and opened ones among them) haven’t been renovated and/ or remodelled. Although, many of the oldest still retain a good deal of their original design and details and, thus, are architectural wonders and definitely offer a glimpse into past, gilded eras.
4. One show has been running for nearly 70 years
It’s true; the first performance of the Agatha Christie whodunnit The Mousetrap took place in 1952 – the year Queen Elizabeth II (Britain/ England’s longest reigning monarch) ascended to the throne. Admittedly, it hasn’t always been performed at the same theatre; still, it’s been at its current home, St. Martin’s Theatre, since 1972 (which can be found down the same street as The Ivy, one of the most famous restaurants West End London).
5. The longest-running musical opened 35 years ago
Nowadays, musicals are the bread-and-butter of Theatreland and, frankly, the most successful among them is what really keeps the West End theatre world afloat. No surprise then that a number of these song-and-dance mega-smashes have been running for a long time. The biggest bragging rights belong to Les Misèrables, which has been performed continuously since 1985; The Phantom of the Opera is hot on its heels, having opened just one year later. Both The Lion King and Mamma Mia! first played to audiences in London in 1999.
6. The curse of ‘the Scottish play’
As you may be aware, there are many traditions and superstitions in the stage-acting profession. One of the most enduring is that it’s supposed to be very unlucky to utter the name ‘Macbeth’ (either as the name of Shakespeare’s play or the title character, outside of the play’s performance). It’s a curious superstition, for sure, which has given rise to the euphemism ‘the Scottish play’. It dates back to strange occurrences and accidents when the name was apparently uttered, including one thesp dropping 15 feet into the orchestra pit in front of the stage.
7. Drury Lane’s Theatre Royal is said to be haunted
Everybody loves the idea of haunted houses, don’t they – so why not a haunted playhouse? The West End’s is supposed to be – unsurprisingly perhaps, given its age – the Theatre Royal. One spirit that still hangs about the place is said to be that of a certain Charles Macklin; tall, ugly and bad-tempered, he’s supposed to give actors an earful. Although, in recent years, this hasn’t exactly been substantiated much. There’s also supposed to a ‘man in grey’ ghost, whose sighting is lucky should he be seen on stage.
8. The West End was bombed 167 times in WWII
Just like much of the rest of the capital, the West End took an absolute battering during the Second World War’s London Blitz of (in fact, a bomb census of that war, entitled Bomb Sight, displays photos of what the area looked like thanks to all the bombing). It’s surely fair to say that, just like during 2020’s lockdown, it wasn’t exactly the best time to be staying in hotels near Piccadilly Circus.
9. A West End beer-flood killed eight people
Yes, really; it did. It happened in 1814, when the St Giles neighbourhood was flooded thanks to the Horse Shoe Brewery company’s tanks bursting. And we’re talking a lot of beer gushing forth – In excess of 570 tonnes of the stuff, powering through the brewery’s wall. If you’re not sure where St Giles is, head for the Dominion Theatre (it’s located where Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street meet); apparently, that’s precisely where the brewery once stood.
10. Don’t break a leg – or maybe do?
Finally, thespians know only too well the goodwill-spreading saying that’s ‘break a leg!’, usually uttered just before an actor steps on to the stage. The saying’s actually probably not as old as you think it is, seemingly only having caught on in the 1920s. And it’s believed to have become popular because uttering ‘good luck’ is, weirdly, meant to be bad luck – theatre types and their superstitions, eh!