National Theatre – a theatregoer’s guide
Where is the National Theatre?
The National Theatre is located on London’s South Bank close to Waterloo Station and all forms of public transport. The address is National Theatre, Upper Ground, South Bank, London SE1 9PX
The National Theatre telephone booking line is 020 7452 3000. The National theatre website is nationaltheatre.org.uk
The National Theatre (or Royal National Theatre as it’s never called) opened for performances in 1977. It was designed in the Brutalist style of architecture so look out for the raw concrete called Breton Brut outside and inside.
There are a number of pedestrian entrances at the front which faces the River Thames. It also has an underused underground car park. And here’s a tip: at the time of writing, you can get a 20% discount if you book a space for the evening through yourparkingspace.co.uk and use the promo code SOUTHBANKCENTRE20
Once inside, you’ll find it’s pretty big but well signposted. The building contains three auditoria. The biggest is the Olivier, which is named after the great actor and first Director of the National Theatre Laurence Olivier. It seats 1150 people. Access is on levels 2 and 3, which means, if you’re in the circle, there’s a lot of steps, so allow time to get up there. (There are lifts but not many).
The stage thrusts out in a semi circle into the auditorium and it’s big- too big for some productions, frankly. Although the rake is steep and the view is generally good, the seats fan out from the stage so, you might want to avoid the seats to the side and very back which can feel a little detached from the action.
The Lyttleton seats just under 900 and is entered from the ground floor and the 1st floor. It’s a standard proscenium arch style theatre with a good rake so it’s hard to find a poor seat, however the view from the circle is particularly good.
Finally there’s the intimate Dorfman Theatre which is actually accessed outside and round the corner on the east side of the main building. It seats up to 450 people and is often used for the most exciting, experimental productions. It’s a flexible space so the seating changes with every production and therefore it’s not possible to say which seats will be good or bad.
Insider Tip: You can enjoy a free view of people constructing sets and painting scenery in the National’s production workshops by going to the Gallery level of the Dorfman and entering the Sherling Backstage Walkway. It’s open Monday to Saturday 9.30 – 7.30.
Where can I eat at the National Theatre?
Within the National Theatre, which is open to the public all day every day except Sunday, there are a number of places to eat. The House is quite upmarket but offers excellent food and service. The Terrace Restaurant is more relaxed. I often frequent the Kitchen Café on the ground floor which offers cheap but tasty food in a canteen style.
Outside the main building, across the road on the south (back) side is The Green Room, a cafe serving pleasant fairly fast food. There are also many familiar chain eateries in the area around the theatre. There are lots of bars inside the theatre.
One tip. It’s easy to miss the small Espresso Bar because it’s on the very corner of the building, on the right as you look it from outside. But it does serve very good coffee.
There’s also a cloakroom which you may need to use because you won’t be allowed to take anything much larger than a handbag into the auditorium.
On a nice day, you can venture outside on to terraces at the higher levels which have lovely views of London and the Thames.
The Stage newspaper’s survey of London theatre toilets named the National number one. There’s loads of them, although they tend to be tucked away down corridors.
Finally, don’t miss the excellent (if slightly overpriced) Bookshop on the ground floor. It offers a wonderful selection of theatre and other books for the serious reader plus some beautiful unusual gifts.