Hi-Ho The Glamorous Life: Marissa in Theatreland

Marissa’s attached note says everything: “Researched in London, written in Paris! xo Your Foreign Correspondent” Enjoy!

They call it Theatreland. Like Wonderland. A word that evokes the magical, transporting power of theater and makes you feel like a kid again. Go to London’s West End, and the street signs inform you that you have now entered Theatreland. Unlike Broadway, the other main theater district in the Anglophone world, it is not glitzy or fast-paced or neon-lit. The Cambridge Theatre, where the musical Matilda is currently playing, is located on a quaint and adorable little cobblestone plaza.

However, like Broadway, the West End contains a lot of shows that just don’t appeal to me: it overflows with jukebox musicals and nostalgia pieces. (I was using the Rock of Ages theater as a landmark, then got momentarily flummoxed when I confused it with the We Will Rock You theater.) OK, maybe I should have tried to get tickets to Matilda – Roald Dahl’s novel was one of my favorite books when I was a kid. Or to Posh, the satirical drama that everyone is saying will be the next History Boys. And I was sorely tempted by Elevator Repair Service’s Gatz, but gave myself a stern talking-to along the lines of “No, Marissa, you will not spend one of your six precious days in London attending an 8-hour play by an American company based on an American novel.”

Because this was my first trip to London, I wanted theatergoing to be one component of my visit, rather than the main event. Therefore, I saw two plays – Fear, at the Bush Theatre, and Henry V, at the Globe – and passed by, visited, or ate at several more theaters. Here are some lessons I picked up from my sojourn in Theatreland.

All theaters should have cafés. In six days in London, I ate three meals at theaters. (Four, if you count the sandwich I grabbed at Pret a Manger and then ate on the steps of the Palladium Theatre, for lack of anywhere else to sit.) The Bush Theatre, located in a former library in Shepherd’s Bush, has an amazing café that serves baked goods, all kinds of alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks, and a daily hot meal special or two. Even better, an entire wall of the café is taken up by a bookshelf containing play scripts and theater books, free for the browsing. Former library, indeed! I wanted to move into that café and never leave.

A few days later, I was on the South Bank and in need of a late lunch. As luck would have it, I stumbled upon the Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre and its attached restaurant. The Menier’s productions get great reviews (two of their Sondheim revivals have transferred to Broadway) and so does the food that they serve. I had a very good sandwich, in a room hung with theater posters and production photos on its exposed-brick walls. After lunch, I peeked into the attached art gallery and the theater’s lobby, and even chatted a bit with an actress who was there auditioning for an upcoming show.

Finally, on my last day in London, I again needed a late lunch after touring Westminster Abbey. Having had such good luck with the other theater cafes, I visited the National Theatre, browsed its bookshop, and picked up a sandwich at its snack bar.

It’s great when you can get a tasty, reasonably priced meal at a place that isn’t a chain restaurant or a tourist trap. It’s even better when you can enjoy your food in an interesting, cultured setting. Theater cafés fulfill these needs for their patrons, while at the same time promoting the theater’s brand and making theater seem like an accessible and friendly entertainment option. When I walked into the Bush Theatre’s café about an hour before showtime, it was full of young people drinking coffee and working on their laptops, and I doubt that they all had tickets to the show that night. Theater cafés are not the only reason why theater is more popular in the U.K. than in America – but they’re certainly one of the reasons.

If the show is good, you lose yourself in it. I got a £5 groundling ticket (£5! And they say London is expensive!) for Henry V at the Globe. It can’t get any more English than that, can it?

Of course, I followed the standard advice for groundlings: bring layers, wear comfortable shoes, try to get in early so that you can lean up against the front of the stage or against the back wall. I opted for the back wall, which, being slightly under the roof’s overhang, had the added advantage of protecting me from the rain showers passing overhead that night. But I’d been out all day, visiting the South Bank and the Tate Modern, and hoped that my feet wouldn’t hurt too badly as I stood for 3 hours of Shakespeare.

And at first, I was worried, because the beginning of Henry V is kind of slow going. There’s all that interminable discussion about the “Salic law,” plus the first appearance of Pistol, Bardolph, and Nym was tedious rather than funny. And I noticed my feet hurting. A lot. However, as the show proceeded and the action picked up – the battle scenes, the famous speeches, the well-balanced blend of comedy and drama – I got lost in the play. Shakespeare’s language, the actors’ skill, and the thrill of seeing a show at the reconstructed Globe overtook me, and I didn’t notice my own physical discomfort at all. Such is the magic of Theatreland.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. Find her at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.