Britain's oldest, best and most beautiful theatres

Paul Bloomfield
The Minack Theatre staged its first production in 1932 - Matt Gibson

My journey to the Croatian coast proved to be surprisingly swift. It was a balmy summer evening as I squeezed past the throngs in the aisle to find my place in cattle class. Waves of excited chatter washed over the packed masses in an epidemic of anticipation. As the last few people took their seats, doors were closed and a smiling uniformed chap began reciting his well-rehearsed spiel:

“If music be the food of love, play on…”

And in an instant we were catapulted to the Balkan kingdom of Illyria, following shipwrecked twins Viola and Sebastian on their misadventures in Twelfth Night. Five quid was all it took to snag a spot standing shoulder to shoulder with the other yardlings in Shakespeare’s Globe, and in mere moments I was whisked from Southwark to the Adriatic. Eat your heart out, easyJet.

All the world’s a stage, the Bard famously mused. And the stage provides a window on the world: in Shakespeare’s plays alone you might find yourself in Venice or Verona, Dunsinane or Denmark, Bohemia or the Basque Country, even Egypt, Lebanon or Syria. True, these are hardly first-person travelogues – other than Windsor or the Forest of Arden, it’s unlikely he visited any of these. Nonetheless, theatre offers a ticket to ride to a host of exotic locations.

The play’s the thing – but not the only thing. The magic of theatre lies not just in scripts, sets and stars; venues captivate in their own right. A Verdi aria packs an emotional punch on Roman-era terraces – at Verona’s Arena, say – and of course Sydney’s iconic opera house draws crowds for its architecture as much as its programming. But you don’t need to fly to Italy or Australia to find dramatic amphitheatres, avant-garde design or indeed gilded rococo opulence.

London Coliseum is the home of the English National Opera and the English National Ballet Credit: getty

Britain boasts a cornucopia of wonderful playhouses. The Theatres Trust (theatrestrust.org.uk) cites almost 4,000 current or historic theatre buildings across the UK; though only half stand today – many now housing bars, bingo halls or churches – there remain more than 1,300 active theatres across the country.

We have al-fresco arenas – perhaps not on the scale of those ancient continental monuments, but the Roman amphitheatres in Caerleon and Chester still stage occasional plays, and Minack’s modern interpretation never fails to scintillate. Reminders of the long history of British theatre, stretching back to the English Renaissance of the 16th century, stud the island too. In London, the galleried George Inn (nationaltrust.org.uk/george-inn) recalls the innyards where plays were staged before Shakespeare’s company, the Chamberlain’s Men, built the original Globe in 1599; you can still catch the occasional performance here today.

Elsewhere, beautifully restored 18th-century gems such as the Georgian Theatre Royal (georgiantheatreroyal.co.uk) in Yorkshire are redolent of the era of Sheridan and Congreve, David Garrick and Sarah Siddons. Wilton’s music hall in the East End echoes with the populist acts of the Victorian era, in contrast with the florid Edwardian playhouses of the early 20th century. So take your seats, ladies and gentlemen, and prepare to be astonished, amused and entertained.

The Georgian Theatre Royal is one of Britain's oldest theatres Credit: getty

Britain’s greatest theatres

Bristol Old Vic

The oldest continuously operating theatre in the English-speaking world – “the most beautiful in England,” proclaimed Daniel Day-Lewis – shines afresh, thanks to an ambitious 2018 facelift. In 1766, David Garrick performed at the first night in the bijou but beautiful auditorium, which retains the ‘Thunder Run’, a Georgian sound effect using a wooden trough and cannonball to create an ominous rumble. Twice-weekly behind-the-scenes tours (£12), innovative heritage displays and the interactive Noises Off exhibition complement a roster of original and touring productions plus well-loved dramas.

King Street, Bristol (0117 987 7877; bristololdvic.org.uk)

Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff

‘In These Stones Horizons Sing’: poet Gwyneth Lewis’s words are etched in six-feet-high letters across the sensuously curved copper facade of the national arts centre, alongside the Welsh lyric ‘Creu Gwir fel Gwydr o Ffwrnais Awen’ (Creating truth like glass from inspiration's furnace). Since opening in 2004, the diverse performance spaces within the ‘armadillo’ have nurtured the Welsh National Opera, BBC National Orchestra, National Dance Company and Hijinx contemporary theatre company. Highlights for 2019 include Matthew Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet, Rigoletto and the National Eisteddfod.

Bute Place, Cardiff (029 2063 6464; wmc.org.uk)

‘In These Stones Horizons Sing’ is etched across Wales Millennium Centre Credit: getty

Shakespeare’s Globe, London

The famed polygonal Elizabethan theatre built in 1599 was reduced to ashes just 14 years later during a performance of Henry VIII. After many years of fundraising and planning by American actor and director Sam Wanamaker, the new Globe opened in 1997. Up to 700 yardlings pay just £5 to stand for each show in a schedule unsurprisingly dominated by Shakespeare. Regular tours (£17) provide insights into the earliest British secular theatre of 450 years ago.

21 New Globe Walk, Bankside, London (020 7401 9919; shakespearesglobe.com)

It's hard to beat a performance at Shakespeare’s Globe Credit: getty

Manchester Royal Exchange

The extraordinary heptagonal module part-suspended inside the monumental Great Hall of the Royal Exchange is the country’s largest in-the-round theatre space. The Royal Exchange Theatre company has operated here since 1976, bar a two-year hiatus after an IRA bomb devastated the building. Today it’s a thriving dramatic hub, staging touring shows as well as the company’s own productions.

St Ann's Square, Manchester (0161 833 9833; royalexchange.co.uk)

Minack Theatre, Cornwall

Swells surging across the Celtic Sea provide the tempestuous backdrop to this clifftop venue near Land’s End. The passion project of Rowena Cade, who largely constructed this concrete-and-stone amphitheatre by hand, the Minack staged its first production – appropriately enough, The Tempest – in 1932. It now hosts a range of dramas, musicals, concerts and a dusting of Shakespeare over a 16-week summer season each year, welcoming visitors on afternoons when there are no performances.  

Porthcurno, Penzance (01736 810181; minack.com)

Glasgow Theatre Royal

Opening in 1867 as the Royal Colosseum and Opera House, and rebuilt after a fire in 1879 by renowned theatre architect Charles Phipps, Glasgow’s oldest working theatre had a chequered history, hosting opera and ballet as well as panto and the Scottish Television studios. The Magic Flute and The Mousetrap are among the picks of the 2019 programme following a major renovation completed five years ago.

282 Hope Street, Glasgow G2 3QA (0844 871 7647; glasgowtheatreroyal.org.uk)

London Coliseum

The leading architect of the Edwardian golden age of British theatre design was Frank Matcham, who was hired by impresario Oswald Stoll to create a ‘people’s palace of entertainment’ to attract and awe the masses. The Coliseum opened in 1904 and was comprehensively restored in 2004; occasional backstage tours showcase the ornate original decor. The West End’s largest (and possibly grandest) theatre has since 1968 been the home of the English National Opera, and now also hosts the English National Ballet.   

St Martin’s Lane, London WC2N 4ES (020 7845 9300; eno.org)

Buxton Opera House

Another lavishly gilded Matcham masterpiece, opened in 1903, is a surprising centrepiece of this Derbyshire spa town. It attracted the biggest names in its first couple of decades – Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks watched Anna Pavlova perform the Dying Swan in 1925. Two years later, though, it became a cinema before closing in the 1970s. Following a major restoration in the late 1990s, today presents an eclectic mix of opera, film, touring productions, music and dance.

Water Street, Buxton, Derbyshire SK17 6XN (01298 72190; buxtonoperahouse.org.uk)