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LONDON SWINGS - A Complete Guide to Britain's Theatre Capital

By David McGillivray

It's said that, if you wait long enough at Piccadilly Circus, you'll meet everyone you've ever known. Or perhaps at this time of year, with the tourists shoulder to shoulder, it just seems that way. The annual American invasion of London is well under way, and it could be that you're about to join the throng.

This follow up to our April 18 feature, "The British Alternative," and will soon be studying in the U.K., you'll want to peruse this checklist--and take it with you. And if your goal in London is theatregoing, you'll be glad you looked here for some timely, cost-cutting advice.

Together with our "London Directory" (page TK!!), this is your guide to making a home-away-from-home across the pond.

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Along with your driver's license (you may want to hire a car) and credit cards (most cash machines in London have international facilities), do not on any account forget to bring with you two things: the letter sent to you by your drama school accepting you as a student, and proof that you have access to funds that can support your entire stay in the U.K. (A letter from your sponsor is acceptable.) You may not be allowed to enter the U.K. if you do not have these documents. "It depends what little Hitler is on that day," confided a school principal. Don't be afraid to ask your school if somebody can collect you from the airport.

When you have a residential address, open a student account at a bank near your school. If asked how long you will require the account, say three years. Some banks will not want to go to the trouble of opening an account for a shorter period. "It's like joining a country club!" one student protested. If necessary, use this bank or a post office to exchange currency. Do not go to the kiosk known as a bureau de change; its exchange rate will be much higher. Within a week of your arrival collect your student visa (approximately £40) from the Aliens' Registration Office. You are now legitimate.


If you have no relatives or friends with whom you can stay in the U.K., don't panic. All drama schools are well aware that your main priority is to find somewhere to live. They will help you find temporary accommodation through local agencies and other contacts. A single room in London costs between £150 and £400 pcm (per calendar month), depending on the area. You'll almost definitely be asked for one month's deposit. Do not pay more than one month's deposit in advance. After the first few weeks, students often get together to share either a flat or a house, thereby saving heavily on the rent bill.

Other sources of accommodation: "Capital Flatshare" is operated jointly by Capital Radio and The Guardian newspaper. A new list of flats is available at 4 pm every Friday in the Capital Radio lobby, and is published in The Guardian every Saturday. Loot, published Tuesday through Friday and Sunday, usually has up to 15 pages of properties to rent. The Evening Standard, published Monday through Friday, is also worth checking, although the properties tend to go very quickly. (Despite its name, the paper hits the streets mid-morning.) Time Out, published every Wednesday, currently has very few accommodations ads. The gay press has a wide choice. When investigating any vacancy, you may want to take a friend.


Public transport in the U.K. is among the most expensive in the world, but there are ways of bringing the prices down. The quickest and most efficient method of traveling round London is by tube (subway). Go to any Underground station and pick up a copy of the free leaflet "London Transport Fares and Tickets." It includes a map of the tube system, which is divided into six zones. The more zones you travel through, the higher your fare will be. A single fare through Zone 1, which covers all of Central London, costs £1.20. But if you want to travel from Central London to Heathrow Airport, your six-zone journey will cost £3.20.

If you know that you'll be traveling by tube every day, it's definitely worth buying a Travelcard (from any Underground station and more than 2,300 shops.) Travelcards allow unlimited travel on tubes, buses, the Docklands Light Railway, and National Railways within Greater London. For daily and weekend Travelcards, just state how many zones you want to travel through. For weekly, monthly, and yearly Travelcards, you'll also have to have your photo taken in a booth. (There's one in every Underground station.) Four poses cost £2.50. Save more money by taking three friends with you!

Tubes do not run all night. Monday through Saturday, don't start your journey after midnight. Trains begin running again around 6 am. On Sundays the first train is around 7:30 am, the last around 11:30 pm. Buses run all night, but are very infrequent after midnight. You can't use a daily Travelcard anywhere before 9:30 am, or on a bus after midnight. For journeys from London to other towns, you have a choice of traveling in expensive comfort by National Railways, or in cheap discomfort on a coach (long-distance bus). Whatever your choice, student discounts are available. All coaches depart from Victoria Coach Station.


Unless money really is no object, avoid eating out. An ordinary dinner (let's say soup, spaghetti Bolognese, dessert, coffee, no wine, a 10% tip) in an ordinary restaurant will set you back about £12. Even junk food is not cheap. A Big Mac, medium fries, and a large Coke are currently £3.63. Fish and chips are about £3. A small pizza in a nasty take-out is about £4.15. If you want the occasional treat, try the lunchtime menus, which are better value. America Madness, at 46 St. Martin's Lane (heart of the theatre district) offers three courses for £7.95. Otherwise, cook your own food.

The cheapest supermarkets are Sainsbury, Tesco, and Safeway. They're normally open from 8 am and close no later than 10 pm, Monday through Saturday. Sunday trading laws require them to open only for six hours, usually 10 am-4 pm or 11 am-5 pm, on the Lord's day. No major supermarkets are open 24 hours. Convenience stores like 7-Eleven, Hollywood, and Europa are allowed more flexibility, but they're also more expensive.


The U.K.'s pub-licensing laws are a laughing stock throughout the world. Not too long ago, pubs had to close after lunch and not reopen until the evening. Now they are at least open all day, normally from 11 am, but at 11 pm a bell rings and traditional landlords call, "Time, gentlemen, please!" This gives customers half-an-hour's "drink-up time" before they are shown the door at 11:30. Pubs with entertainment can apply for a "late licence," allowing them to stay open until 1 am or 2 am. You'll find that many pubs flout the law by locking the doors at 11:30 pm, but with the customers still inside. The blinds are drawn and the carousing continues until the early hours. Do not on any account be tempted into the clip joints of Soho. You'll be charged exorbitant prices for non-alcoholic drinks and, if you claim not to have the cash, you'll be forcibly marched to an A.T.M.


Everyone knows that overseas students are not allowed to accept paid work while living in the U.K. And everyone knows that overseas students take no notice of the rules. You will find for the first few weeks, while you're struggling with a back-breaking curriculum, that the only thing you want to do is go home to bed. Later, you may feel like taking a casual job. Peter Layton of Drama Studio London would prefer that you didn't make this decision out of desperation. "If you're worried about next week's rent," he warns, "you can't concentrate on a very intensive course."

Neither should you slave into the wee hours. Your school will not want you slouching into class exhausted, and at some schools you'll be banned from the class if you're so much as seconds late. As The Poor School so aptly points out, "30 seconds early and out of breath is late."

Bearing all this in mind, work is very easy to come by and most of it is in restaurants, pubs, clubs, and department stores, where the wide variety of people you'll meet may also be useful for research purposes. Students also work as dressers and ushers in West End theatres. Payment is in cash.

You might also like to check out the comedy clubs to see if you can survive an audience of drunken Brits. There are now clubs in every major city, but most of them (about 85) are in and around London. They're listed in Time Out. The majority of clubs have open mike slots for which you probably won't get paid. If you go down well, paid bookings could follow.

Auditions for fringe theatre plays and student films are advertised in The Stage, but you'll be lucky even to get expenses from these jobs. Don't accept any without permission from your school.


You'll be told what you need to bring to class with you. It can almost be guaranteed that any book or play text required for your course will be at French's Theatre Bookshop, which also stocks all the theatrical magazines: Plays International, Plays & Players, Theatre, The Stage, Theatre Record. The only other theatrical bookstore in London is Offstage. Many of the bookstores in Charing Cross Road have drama sections. (Don't bother looking for the famous shop at 84, Charing Cross Road. It closed years ago.)

Both men and women probably will need tights and dance shoes, available at Freed and Gamba. Women will also need practice skirts, but most schools will loan them. If you need to practice a song, the sheet music probably will be at Chappell's. Later in your course, you may need makeup: Try the Make-up Centre and Charles H. Fox.

As graduation nears, you'll be given advice on preparing resumes and headshots. Your school will recommend photographers who give student discounts. For cheap prints, go to Visualeyes and Denbry Repros.

There are other essentials, too. You won't be able to get by without a street map of London. It's called the "A-Z," and you can buy it at chain news agents like W.H. Smith and John Menzies, for £2.95.

Call home with a Phonecard (£1-£20 from post offices and news agents) rather than a pile of small change. "Contacts" is a theatrical directory you'll find yourself using every day. It costs £7.95 from The Spotlight. "The Time Out Eating and Drinking Guide" helps you find the cheapest food: £8 from Time Out or most news agents.


Whatever your query about a stage production in the U.K., it can probably be answered at the library of the Theatre Museum. Records there go back to the 18th century, and are virtually complete from the 19th. Call first for an appointment. You'll find the staff extremely helpful.

A great performance may be on record, and this may be at Dress Circle, a store that specializes in soundtracks and original-cast recordings. Also check the Spoken Word sections at the major chain stores (Virgin, Tower, H.M.V.) The branch of Virgin on the corner of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road is the largest record store in Europe.

The best place to get a performance on video is Adrian's. This store is outside London, but, if the tape is available, they'll mail it to you. Recorded performances not issued commercially may be in the vaults of the National Film Archive. Call the British Film Institute and ask for the Viewing Service. If a viewing print exists, you can make an appointment to look at it on the Institute's premises.


It's as bad as you've heard. Asked about the worst aspects of life in the U.K., one student put "the weather" at the top of her list. "It's really difficult," she grumbled. "I'm sick a lot." October to April are generally gray and miserable with a lot of rain. From December to February, the temperature often falls below freezing, and there is sometimes snow. You'll need warm and waterproof clothes, but you can get them after you've arrived, for peanuts at "jumble sales" held in church halls on Saturdays, and "car boot sales" held in open spaces seven days a week, but mostly at weekends. (The "boot" of a car is its trunk.)

Movement classes in the depths of winter will be hell unless you've invested in thermal underwear (from branches of Marks and Spencer.) You can rely on some warm and sunny periods, and perhaps a heatwave or two, between May and September.


While you're resident in the U.K., you're entitled to free medical consultations and, if you have to go to hospital, free treatment. You'll have to pay for all prescribed drugs obtained from a doctor and all consultations with and treatment from a dentist and optician. As soon as you arrive, you should register with a local doctor and dentist. (Your school will advise you; larger schools have their own doctors.) If there's an emergency, and you're not registered with him, a doctor can refuse to see you; and, if you go to hospital without a doctor's referral, a wait of several hours is not uncommon.

Registered osteopaths have the letters M.R.O. after their names. The General Council and Register of Osteopaths will give you local practitioners. The Alexander Technique Society will give you local qualified teachers. A legitimate masseur/masseuse has an I.T.E.C. diploma. (You don't need me to tell you what you'll get if you call the people advertising massage in phone booths and listings magazines.)


Male homosexuality was decriminalized by the Sexual Offenses Act, 1967. The gay male age of consent is 18. Female homosexuality has never been a criminal offense in the U.K. Although the U.K. is far from being the most liberal country in Europe, London has a thriving gay culture comparable with that of Amsterdam and Barcelona.

The Gay Pride Festival, held in June, attracts crowds of at least 10-15,000. The G.A.Y. night each Saturday at the Astoria theatre is the biggest gay club in the U.K. The equivalent of New York's Christopher Street is Old Compton Street in Soho. There is also a strong gay presence in Earls Court and Kings Cross.

For news, information, and listings (including flat shares), pick up The Pink Paper, a free newspaper published each Thursday, from all gay pubs and clubs. The magazines Attitude (male), Diva (female), and Gay Times (theoretically unisex, but mostly male) are available from newsstands. London's only exclusively gay theatres are the Drill Hall and the Freedom.


Most of London's black population is descended from the Jamaicans who were encouraged come to the U.K. after World War II. Black culture was not allowed to blossom until the passing of the Race Relations Act, 1976. Now, that culture explodes each August in the Notting Hill Carnival, a three-day event.

The black community is concentrated in the London boroughs of Lambeth and Hackney. The main black newspapers are The Voice, The Journal, and New Nation. There is currently no exclusively black theatre in London, but the Theatre Royal (Stratford East), Hackney Empire, and Lewisham Theatre all program black events regularly. The Africa Centre and Yaa Asantewaa Arts Centre host meetings, classes, workshops, and some performances. London's leading black theatre groups are the Black Theatre Co-operative, Talawa, and the Black Mime Theatre Company. Check the Time Out listings.


The National Union of Students issues to affiliated institutions N.U.S. cards, which entitle students to discounts at shops, theatres, museums, art galleries, and other places of interest, and reduced fares on National Express coaches (long-distance buses) and National Railways. Larger drama schools are affiliated.

Go to the N.U.S. office and apply for your free card, which has to be renewed at the beginning of each academic year. If your school is not affiliated, you can still apply to the N.U.S. for an International Student Identity Card, which does much the same job but costs £5.

Obviously, you will want to use your card primarily for standby theatre tickets. But this procedure is fraught with difficulties, at least in the West End. It is the producer, not the theatre manager, who decides whether or not unsold seats will be sold at a discount. Therefore there is no set policy at any commercial theatre. (At the Royal National, unsold seats are always put on student standby.)

An additional problem in the West End is caused by box-office staff choosing not to recognize student cards. The Society of London Theatre has done a lot to rectify the situation. Its weekly London Theatre Guide, available from the S.O.L.T. office and in every theatre lobby, indicates which shows are currently discounted for students. You can also get the same information by calling the Student Theatre Line. In addition, S.O.L.T. issues a 6th Form and Student Stand-By card (£1), which is said to be an "open, sesame!" to all West End theatres. Write to S.O.L.T. for an application form. Go to the box office an hour before curtain time.

All Fringe shows and many other entertainments offer concessions (sometimes abbreviated as "concs") to students. There's no need to turn up early to claim your tickets. London's equivalent of New York's TKTS scheme is the Half-Price Ticket Booth on the south side of Leicester Square. Tickets are available for most West End shows at half price plus a £2 service charge. The booth is open Monday through Saturday, 1 pm-6:30 pm, for evening shows, and Tuesday through Sunday, from 12 noon for matinees.


The backstage tours of the Theatre Royal (Drury Lane), Theatre Royal (Haymarket), Royal National Theatre, and London Palladium The Verulamium, a wonderfully preserved Roman amphitheatre, dating from 140 A.D., in St. Albans, north of London The traditional shows at the Players' theatre, London's only remaining full-time music hall The tour of the replica of Shakespeare's Globe, due to open officially in June The Museum of the Moving Image The Cabaret Mechanical Theatre in Covent Garden The famous blue plaques on the homes of dead theatrical luminaries; find their locations in The Blue Plaque Guide, £6.50 from English Heritage Postal Sales (telephone 01604-741163) And if you want to play baseball, you might be able to play with the London Warriors. Call Harry Atwood at 0171-631 4381.

David McGillivray produces, directs, writes, and performs for radio, stage, and screen. He is the editor of McGillivray's Theatre Guide, and author of Back Stage's "London Calling " column.

Those seeking further information about studying drama in the U.K. may contact David by mail, either c/o Back Stage, 1515 B'way, New York, NY 10036; or directly, at 16 Keystone Crescent, London N1 9DF, UK.

NOTE TO THOSE WHO HAVE RECENTLY E-MAILED DAVID: Ignore any response you have received. An unknown hacker is intercepting all of his e-mail, answering it in his name, and disparaging one of the institutions which was profiled favorably in our April 18 issue.

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