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The best off-West End theatres in London

The best off-West End theatres in London
Skip the West End and discover some edgy, theatrical gems—maybe in a pub or under a railway station—in one of London's many alternative theatres
Often when we think of London theatre, we think of big razzmatazz productions in the centre of the city, charging half a month's rent for a single ticket.
But the true heart of London theatre isn't in Leicester Square.
It's above old, poky pubs, in long-forgotten warehouses, and converted churches; the cast doubling as stagehands, and the production budget largely spent on sound-proofing so you can't hear the rowdy drinkers next door.
If you want to experience the glorious rush of discovering a five-star show in a 50-capacity auditorium, for a £10 ticket, off-West End is the way to go.

Theatre 503

Through the always-buzzing Latchmere Pub, up a very narrow staircase, and beyond a dinky foyer, you will find yourself at Theatre 503. Listed at a modest 63-capacity, it’s a tight squeeze even then.
But it’s well worth the intimacy that you’ll necessarily share with your neighbour for the outstanding productions.
Championing the next generation of debut and emerging playwrights, artistic and executive directors Lisa Spirling and Andrew Shepherd have an eye for new talent.
And while there’s rarely any showbiz pizzazz in the design, it's thoughtfully presented, the performances always gripping and, most importantly, the writing is fresh and exciting.

King’s Head Theatre

Perhaps the perfect example of London pub theatre, the Kings Head has been in business since the 1970s.
With an artistic policy that is “unapologetically broad” you’re just as likely to find a musical comedy with a cast of stark-naked men as you are a brooding cogitation on post-partum depression. 
"Perhaps the perfect example of London pub theatre, the Kings Head has been in business since the 1970s"
A stodgy old opera rewritten and reinvigorated might easily follow a straight play set in a dystopian wasteland.
The King’s Head is consistent only in its stubborn refusal to be pigeon-holed or, indeed to be made into anything else.
It feels like London theatre’s uncle who still wears ripped jeans and listens to cool music, refusing to give up its idealistic integrity for something perhaps more sensible but far less fun.

Soho Theatre

An institution that hardly needs introducing, Soho Theatre has been at the forefront for new writing and comedy for decades, spawning some of the most exciting new talent on the scene today.
Housing multiple spaces of varying sizes and malleability, it’s the perfect venue for so many different kinds of work, from straight stand-up to high-production, glitter-ridden cabaret.
As the name suggests, the theatre sits in the centre of Soho, and its bar has become a hub for artists and audiences alike, both in anticipatory excitement before curtains and giddy with delight after.

Vaults Theatre

A truly unique venue made up of eleven disused train tunnels below Waterloo station, with an atmosphere all of its own.
"A truly unique venue made up of eleven disused train tunnels below Waterloo station"
Not only is Vaults Theatre home to some of the most thrilling immersive and alternative theatre, it’s also leading the way in accessibility, offering a pay-what-you-can ticket price on Wednesdays and Sundays as of Autumn 2022.
This is in stark contrast to the West End theatres whose prices have seen astronomical hikes since re-opening post-COVID.

Kiln Theatre

Kiln feels a bit like the grown-up of fringe theatre.
Housed in an old meeting hall for the The Foresters' Friendly Society in the centre of Kilburn, the theatre has recently enjoyed an elegant renovationn.
This means that, unlike many of the exceedingly old, and bizarrely designed West End theatres, there are no bad seats at the Kiln.
The programming seeks to reflect the diversity of its surroundings, where, according to their website, 84 per cent of young people have English as their second language.
And they are clearly doing a smashing job of taking these stories and bringing them to the stage, what with the countless West End transfers to date.
Their motto says it all: “We are a local theatre with an international vision.”

Southwark Playhouse

With a capacity of around 200 in its larger auditorium, the Southwark is perfectly capable of staging well-run, modest productions, with a little room to spare.
But instead, they choose big, brassy musicals that should really live in venues with at least double capacity, and the result is absolutely glorious.
"They choose big, brassy musicals that should really live in venues with at least double capacity"
Championing new talent, you might see a re-write of a long-forgotten gem, or a brand-new script from an unknown writer, all undertaken with the same bolshy gusto, and, more often than not, a live band to boot.
Granted it’s a pretty snug fit, but there’s nothing like jostling along, shoulder-to-shoulder with your neighbour as you both shimmy to the music.

Honourable mention: New Diorama

In a dramatic turn, the New Diorama, which has been home to some of the most spectacular new writing since opening in 2010, has recently announced that they will not be staging any more productions for the rest of the year. 
In a statement, they wrote that after the misery-inducing pressures of “bringing theatre back” post-COVID, artistic burnout is severe and no-one is working at their best. So, they’ve decided to stop and reassess.
They're going to take this time to invest in new ideas without restrictive deadlines, and hopefully revive the artistic enthusiasm they felt and expressed in abundance pre-2020. Watch this space!
There are so many brilliant off-west end and fringe theatres in London, but there just wasn’t room to write about them all. Here are a few more you should definitely check out:
Banner photo credit: steve_w via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, Wayward Open Theatre open mic at The Vaults
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