London: More than a theater city



LONDON -- Although it's one of the two great theater cities in the English-speaking world, London is a lot more than that. For several decades of leading Post-Gazette London theater tours, I've discovered a wonderful theme park of history, monarchy, theater, art, street markets and pubs, in whatever order you please.

First, theater. My main job is to pick the four shows the group will see, giving them information on many more. Most are satisfied with six or seven, although you can see up to 10 in a six-day week.

That leaves lots of time for everything else.

Among optional morning activities I include a private walking tour by London Walks, led by knowledgeable, personable guides, often also actors. I provide my own tour of the 16th- through 19th-century rooms at the National Portrait Gallery, go to Sir John Soane's Museum and suggest a ramble from St. Paul's Cathedral over Millennium Bridge to Tate Modern and the re-created Globe Theatre.

After all, everyone can get to the main sites on their own: the Tower, Westminster Abbey, the big museums, Churchill's war rooms, the London Eye, etc. And high tea: The famous spots (Brown's Hotel, Fortnum & Mason, the Plaza) are expensive ($75 and up), but this year I was tipped to the Secret Tea Room (half that much). It's in Soho, but that's the only address I'll give, because I hope it's not overrun.

First off, we give everyone a travel card for the underground (subway) and buses, and I lead any novices through their first encounter with the underground, to show how easy it is. That's what sets everyone free. And each day we touch base over the huge buffet breakfast in our hotel, usually the Radisson Bloomsbury Street. (The extent to which we reconnoiter at night in the hotel bar or the near-by Museum pub depends on each group.)

London Walks: I consider this the heart of any London visit (see them at www.walks.com). There are a dozen or so scheduled each day. You simply show up at the designated spot and time, pay your 7 or 9 pounds, and off you go for two hours of up close and personal about some segment of this glorious city. I usually book a group tour of either Westminster (royalty, religion and government) or the old city (royalty, history, Romans and empire), but there's plenty else, including walks dedicated to Jack the Ripper, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, the Beatles, bohemian London and food exploration.

National Portrait Gallery: This is my favorite way to take a quick tour of British history, from Shakespeare to Victoria. The 20th-century and contemporary exhibits are also fun (www.npg.org.uk). If you go when the gallery opens at 10 a.m. (the best plan, before crowds accumulate), you'll run into wonderful groups of uniformed school children on class trips.

Sir John Soane's Museum: One of the great small museums anywhere (www.soane.org), this was left to the nation by Soane, an early 19th-century architect and, more to the point, collector. He assembled oodles of antiquities and art and turned his and the two adjacent houses into a museum. I worship his Hogarths. Unmissable.

Shakespeare's London: That's what I call the area around St. Paul's, which once held the bookshops that published his plays and which is redolent with traces of the Elizabethan explorers of the New World. Wren's great cathedral was built later -- look for his and John Donne's graves -- the marker of the former is the soaring dome itself. Then walk over the bridge to the Tate or turn left to the Globe and, further along, a re-creation of the Golden Hind in which Drake circumnavigated the globe.

Street markets: Markets go by days of the week. Portobello Road (Saturday: antiques, collectibles and just about everything) is the famous one. When I lived in London, it took me five or six Saturdays to do the whole thing. But I also like the Borough Market (Thursdays-Saturdays: food in all its British extravagance), in the streets around Southwark Cathedral, the local church for the actors and whores of Bankside in Shakespeare's day. Another favorite is Columbia Road (Sunday: flowers). See a map with times and locations at www.streetsensation.co.uk/markets.htm.

Theater restaurants: The traditional mecca is The Ivy (1-5 West St., Covent Garden; www.the-ivy.co.uk), great for post-show, where you are very likely to see theater notables. Joe Allen (13 Exeter St.; www.joeallen.co.uk) is the American home of real American hamburgers. Orso (27 Wellington St.; orsorestaurant.co.uk) is more elegant than Joe Allen but rumored to share a kitchen (as do the two in New York). I usually take the group to Browns Bar & Brasserie (St. Martin's Lane; www.browns-restaurants.co.uk) for its bustle and good theater location.

And then, theater. I reviewed "King Lear" (National Theatre) and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (Propeller) last Sunday. In addition I saw "Once," which was doubly appropriate: the U.S. tour was playing that same week in Pittsburgh, and it was the perfect three-generational musical for me, my daughter and teenage granddaughter. For West End theater (London's Broadway), the best site is www.officiallondontheatre.co.uk.

Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944. To get on the list for information on future Post-Gazette London tours, call Gulliver's Travels: 412-441-3131.


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