Going Out - After Hours Tour at the National Theatre

Ever wanted to sneak around backstage at your favourite theatre? Well I got to do just that when I was invited to explore the National Theatre after dark on an After Hours tour. 

Photo credit - Philip Vile
After enjoying a few drinks at The Understudy, the cozy National Theatre bar, my fellow tour goers and I headed out to the front of the theatre, where our tour guide for the evening Alison Rae gave us a little introduction to the history of the building and the land it was built on. Alison, Head of Tours and Visiting at the National Theatre, explained that the large imposing concrete National Theatre building was constructed on the south bank of the River Thames because the land was cheaper than anything north of the river, especially in the West End. And besides, the building houses three separate theatres (The Olivier, Lyttleton and Dorfman) and would have been a pretty tight squeeze anywhere else anyway. 

The foyer of the National Theatre is usually buzzing with life 24/7, packed with excitable audiences, busy staff members, and an assortment of artsy creatives sipping coffee and utilising the free wifi. However, when we stepped into the building after hours, we were met with an eerie stillness and silence, despite the fact that in one of the theatres audiences were enjoying a show that very night. We'd already been assured that, unlike many other theatres in London, the National Theatre has no resident grey lady, ghoulish theatre manager's ghost, or any other spooky spectres for that matter, but that didn't stop us from speculating, and thrilling with excitement as we filed one at a time through a shadowy door which led us backstage. 

Our guide Alison led us all through a labyrinth of corridors and staircases, until we reached the first stop on our tour; a rehearsal room, in which the cast of upcoming play The Tell-Tale Heart had been rehearsing earlier that day. It was fascinating to see that a variety of props had already been brought into rehearsals in order to help the actors to get into character. We were all drawn to a vintage typewriter, which sat on its own table in one corner of the room. Just one of many, we were informed, which had been used in past productions and then packed away and stored until next time typewriter from the same era was required.

As we left the rehearsal room and continued on our journey we stumbled upon a blood splattered wall; a remnant from National Theatre Artistic Director Rufus Norris' recent production of Macbeth, which featured Rory Kinnear and Anne Marie Duff as the murderous married couple at the play's heart. We also strolled past the dressing rooms of actors such as Sophie Okonedo and Ralph Fiennes, the stars of Antony and Cleopatra, as well as the cast of upcoming musical Hadestown. We learned that the National Theatre's 48 dressing rooms (which house an acting company of 100 to 120 on average) are arranged in such a way that there is no number 13. Just one of many theatrical superstitions observed in the building.

We crept into another rehearsal room, where we were able to view some Frankenstein costume sketches, as well as a full costume recently worn in Marianne Elliott's Olivier and Tony award winning production of Tony Kushner's Angels in America. After telling us a little bit about the costumes and the productions they appeared in, Alison produced a bag of rather more gory objects, including a dismembered foot and a decapitated head! Gruesome stuff! 

Feeling thoroughly grossed out, we left the rehearsal room and headed towards the workshop where sets are constructed. It's unusual for a theatre to build sets and props on site, but the National Theatre has a deceivingly large backstage area, with plenty of room for all sorts of creativity to flow. We took a peek into a The Tell-Tale Heart model box and saw that the talented craftspeople of the National Theatre had already begun to make the full scale set. A full sized door frame (and other structures yet to take shape) were propped up around us, mirroring the doll-sized pieces seen in the model box.

Sadly, after much sneaking about backstage, our tour came to an end. We thanked our guide Alison profusely for both her time and her knowledge, and walked back out into the real world, armed with more National Theatre factoids that we could ever have hoped for. 

There's really no better way to understand what goes on behind the scenes at a huge theatre like the National Theatre than to actually get inside and take a look for yourself, and on the National Theatre After Hours tour we did just that. And so much more!