National Theatre

Things to do in London | National Theatre

This award-winning theatre on the Southbank is the proud owner of over 450 shiny awards since its opening by Her Majesty the Queen in 1976. Made up of three theatres, it means three performances can be shown all at the same time, it’s just down to you to choose which one you want to see the most! Whether you’re after a comedy, musical or drama, you’ll find a jam-packed programme all year round, six days a week. Not just a stage for Hamlets and Macbeths, The Clore Learning Centre is a dedicated space for learning at the theatre offering events and courses for all the family from playwriting to costume making workshops, often run by the artists, staff and stars of the shows themselves.

It was only after decades of pamphlets and campaigning from eager thespians and theatre critics alike demanding a national theatre that the Royal National Theatre we know today came to light. Despite there being a theatre dedicated to Shakespeare, there wasn’t a national theatre and the city wasn’t happy. At this time around the late 1800s,  the government were keen to keep costs down in the arts sector. But finally (and years later), an agreement was reached regarding rent for the property space and maintenance and the Royal National Theatre would be created and would set up shop at the Old Vic theatre from 1963 until 1976. Opening with a performance of Hamlet in October 1963 and starring Peter O’Toole, it now resides at a coveted hotspot on Southbank and has since then produced over 800 plays and shows over 1,000 performances every year.

National Theatre

National Theatre

Top tip

Want an exclusive view of what happens behind the scenes? Take a walk along the Sherling High-Level Walkway which you can enter through the Dorfman Theatre foyer. After taking the the lift up, you can enjoy a secret view of backstage, seeing how the props are made and prepared for the next scene. It’s magical!

Things to see

Showing up to 30 shows a week from Greek tragedies and Shakespeare remakes to new, contemporary productions, there’s always something in the wings to keep you entertained or get you thinking. If you can catch one of these, you’ll be in for a treat with past performances including Warhorse, The History Boys and Othello. Fancy an exhibition or intrigued about the events calendar? Take your pick from courses on wigs and makeup, Q&As with the thespians themselves and lots more.

Come the summer, the forecourt of the theatre opens up to show open-air productions while the terraces and foyers allow for ad hoc experimental performances so don’t be surprised to see something out of the ordinary going on in the warmer months! Need another reason to catch a show in the summer? Often Travelex, the foreign exchange specialists and partner of the National Theatre, offer cheap tickets for shows at the Olivier and Lyttelton theatres with some being as cheap as £10. So grab them while you can and if you can!

Across the three theatres, Olivier, Lyttelton and Dorfman, each has a different layout and way of operating when it comes to the variety of performances that take place on their stages. Being the largest, Olivier looks like a fan-shaped auditorium and seats 1110 people while the Lyttelton seats 900 with a proscenium stage. The smallest of the three, Dorfman can hold 450 people and has amazing views over the Thames from the seats.

Each theatre has access to both the circle and stalls via lifts and stairs as well as a bar on each level for a quick interval tipple and cloakrooms. A stunning bookshop selling unique gifts, play texts and books perfect for the coffee table makes a colourful stance on the ground floor foyer so after a show, pick yourself something up to commemorate your experience.

Eating and drinking

When you’re on the Southbank, you’ll be spoilt for choice when it comes to eating and drinking options. But, staying inside the theatre grounds for a bite to eat is just as nice.

Whether you’re grabbing a quick drink before a show or want to discuss the dramatic finale over a couple of drinks after the show, head to The Understudy - the friendly craft beer pub at the theatre. Serving craft beers and cocktails, they also have a pick n mix retro sweet collection and homemade sausage rolls if you get a bit peckish. If you’re after something a little more substantial (and sustainable), head to the environmentally friendly cafe and diner The Green Room where props and scenery have been recycled from the theatre and placed in the space. Food options include burgers and grilled salmon plus a kids menu that’ll keep the little ones full and happy. For hot drinks and homemade snacks, head to the Olivier Cafe at the Olivier Theatre and the Kitchen Cafe on the riverside.

Nothing beats a stroll along the Southbank and heading to one of the many restaurants and pubs it has to offer. The Mulberry Bush is a lovely, vintage style pub with comfy, Chesterfield sofas - the perfect place to grab a beer or enjoy brunch. The chorizo hash is highly recommended as well as the lamb and London stout hotpot for dinner by the Thames. Renowned for its Sunday roasts, The White Hart pub and restaurant on Cornwall Road is a great place to tuck into a hearty meal and make your own Bloody Marys to boot!

Getting to National Theatre

Sitting pretty on the Southbank means getting to the Royal National Theatre won’t be too much of a difficulty. Waterloo is just a short stroll away, whether you’re coming in by tube or train, and there are more buses going over Waterloo Bridge than you can shake a stick at.

By car
After you’ve entered SE1 9PX into your sat nav, you can find parking at the National Theatre basement which can be reached via the Upper Ground on Theatre Avenue. There are a substantial amount of spaces available but will cost a rate of around of £8.

By bus
Lots of buses cross Waterloo Bridge that will stop right near the theatre. For a full list of these, head to the TFL website. The number 77 stops near the Festival Hall, the 211 and 507 stop on Waterloo Road right next to the station and the 381 can be picked up on Stamford Street.

By tube
Your closest station is Waterloo on the Northern, Bakerloo and Jubilee lines and from the station, you’ve only got a five minute walk. Other nearby stations include Southwark on the Jubilee line.

By bike
There are three docking stations near the theatre - two in the Upper Ground area and one on Concert Hall Approach.