Behind the scenes at London’s National Theatre

If you’re a theatre geek like me then the opportunity to see behind the scenes at the National Theatre, one of London’s largest and most famous venues, was too good to miss. And it didn’t disappoint. Our tour guide was excellent and we got to see and learn just what it takes to tell the nation’s stories at the National.

The tour starts in the spacious foyer area, one of the National Theatre’s most striking and unique elements.  As well as three theatres, the venue has a multitude of areas with seating and cafes where people can hang out, whether they are coming to see a performance or not.

We saw more evidence of this upstairs, where people were working on laptops in front of the theatre’s fabulous Apex window. It has an amazing view across the River Thames and a direct sight line to London’s West End, which is home to most of the capital’s theatres. There’s an even closer connection as National Theatre productions often transfer to the West End.

The history of the National Theatre is fascinating. In brief, it was a very long time coming; was almost built on multiple other sites; and eventually started life under the directorship of the legendary actor Lord Laurence Olivier. He used the nearby Old Vic Theatre to stage the new National Theatre company’s first production in 1963.

Olivier was still in tenure for the 1973 ‘topping out’ ceremony, which marked the last element of the outside structure being added to the iconic brutalist building on London’s South Bank. But when it opened in 1976 Olivier had already handed the reigns to Peter Hall. Just the Lyttleton Theatre was operational to start with, but the following year the National Theatre was fully up and running. And no wonder it took a while, the biggest space, the Olivier Theatre is an incredible auditorium.

It was modelled on an amphitheatre in the Ancient Greek city of Epidaurus with a large open stage and fan-shaped seating. The design means that every seat has a great view of the stage with no posts to obstruct it. And the actors can see all of the audience too, enabling a greater connection between the two. Another major feature of the Olivier stage is a “drum revolve”, a revolving stage section that goes down eight metres and has two platforms, each of which can carry ten tonnes of scenery.

After seeing inside the Olivier we went backstage to a walkway from where you can see the drum. You can see the back of the other two theatres from here too, as well as an array of props and rehearsal rooms. There’s a huge photo of Lawrence Olivier at the end of one corridor that is aptly named Drum Road, ensuring his presence will always be felt.

Further along the walkway, you can see the area where scenery is built and opposite that is the props department. Lots of National Theatre props are made on site and there is a prop buying team for those that need to be brought in.

We also got to take a peek into the costume department. Current works in progress were for upcoming shows that couldn’t be revealed by our guide. But we could see a vast amount of materials, some fabric in the process of being custom printed. And there was a whole wall of sewing thread. As sewing is another hobby of mine that was a real highlight!

Overall we were amazed at the size and scale of it all. Over 1,000 people work behind the scenes at the National Theatre and as well as creating what’s needed for the performances taking place on site, many of the teams work for other theatres too. And the best part for me was that as an American Express card holder, I could book the tour for free. Amex has had a partnership with the National Theatre for many years. But if you don’t have Amex you can still book a public tour and the main walkway is accessible from the Dorfman Theatre foyer.

And of course, when it’s finished there are lots of bars where you can relax and have a drink, or even take a glass of rose out onto the terrace to enjoy some of the best views in London. And while you’re there why not check out the new Arts section of my blog where I’ll now be adding regular posts about my favourite cultural experiences.

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