Backstage at the National Theatre (by Robert)

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Outside the National Theatre in LondonMany people have been to the National Theatre in London to see some shows or plays but not many people have seen what happens behind the three theatres, the Olivier, Lyttelton and Dorfmon where the sets are made, the costumes created and the actors rest in their dressing rooms.

The National Theatre is the original host of War Horse, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, Treasure Island and more, and it hosted Mum and me for a backstage tour with a lovely Welsh Magician called Christopher.

We started in the Lyttelton Theatre which is not the biggest and not the smallest. It holds 890 seats and has 600 lights. We had a chat about the theatre and these are some of my favourite facts about the shows that have been performed in it:

  • The show Way Up Stream used a big tank full of water as part of the set. Unfortunately this burst once in rehearsals, wetting the whole of the stage and the front row!
  • In the show Light Shining in Buckinghamshire one scene involves the actors eating oysters. These oysters are actually fake and were filled with mashed potato. This meant the actors had to eat four portions of mashed potato every night.
  • Also in Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, the cast have a food fight with real food including turkey, chocolate and vegetables.
You can see that no dressing room is numbered 13 at the National Theatre!
You can see that no dressing room is numbered 13!

Next we went backstage and looked at the dressing rooms. There are four blocks of the rooms on each floor with 13 in a block. All the dressing rooms are numbered but being superstitious about unlucky 13 they made the numbering 0-12 instead of 1-13. So one actor rests in room 0.

One funny thing I learnt was that, as the National Theatre is so big, Julie Walters got lost before going onto the stage. The crew had to put black tape on the floor going from Julie’s dressing room to the stage. This distance takes two minutes to walk.

My favourite bit was going backstage for real with the set and the props.

The first thing I saw when I walked down the stairs was a giant lift that could bring ten tonnes of lighting, sound, set, costumes and people up 25m to the stage in just 40-45 seconds. I also learnt about the other two theatres, the Olivier, which has 1100 seats and 900 lights, and the smallest theatre the Dorfman, with 454 seats and 300 lights. Then I got to handle props.

Trying the props at the National Theatre
Robert loved trying out the props!

They had everything from fake hands to flamingos, the Cat in the Hat’s hat to a pan full of spaghetti. I loved looking, holding and even wearing the props. One thing Christopher told me was that it cost too much to make 17 big expensive polar bears for one show, so the audience had to imagine half of the costume.

I saw a set being made with saws and hammers and then I got to a board. Under where it said “name” there were various actors’ names and then there was a section where it said something silly that they had to do on stage to make it funny for the audience. If they did that they got a point. An example was “tell rubbish jokes until another actor laughs”, or “sing a song until someone compliments you”. Some were really strange like pretend to cry in the corner until an actor tries to comfort you. What a great system. It’s currently in use in the play Rules for Living.

I learnt some more things backstage like:

  • There are five rooms just for props
  • All fake facial and body hair is made from the chest hair of a Yak. Eurgh.
  • And when the crew or actors had a break they would play the Simpsons Board Game or watch the Lion King.
Robert gripping a fake hand backstage at the National Theatre
Robert gripping a fake hand!

Finally for the last part of the tour we went into the Dorfman theatre. There I learnt that the seats could fold into the floor and the stage could be on the opposite side of the room. I also found out that nearly all the set for the show on at the moment (the Hard Problem) was bought from IKEA.

It was a fantastic day and I loved every moment of the tour.

The National Theatre runs regular backstage tours for individuals and groups, at a cost of £9 per person. They also run special tailored backstage tours for families in half-terms and holidays. Tickets cost £8.50 per adult, with up to three children going free. Tours last around an hour (although ours was probably nearer an hour and a half!)

More by us on London

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59 Responses

  1. Kirsty Ralph

    Wow what a fantastic day, it looks like a lot of fun. I am surprised how cheap it is too! Must look into it next time I visit London!

    Kirsty xx

  2. mellissa williams

    I’m always looking for cool things to do in London, and this back stage tour looks really interesting. I bet my son would love it. I am loving the props, in particularly the fake hand!

    • Robert

      My favourite personally was a monster where you could snap closed its mouth by pulling a lever. It was so cool.

  3. Tami

    What an interesting tour–never thought of taking a theatre tour! Thank you for sharing this!

  4. Erica Price

    That looks really interesting. We’ve been to the Barbican for an event, but never been in the actual theatres, never mind behind the scenes.

  5. Sonia

    We did a tour backstage at Nottingham Playhouse Theatre a couple of years ago and was so surprised just how much goes on backstage. We had fun looking at all the props and it looks like you did too 😉

  6. Charly Dove

    Oh wow what a brilliant thing to do, would love to do this. Must have been like some kind of treasure trove, how awesome 🙂

    • Robert

      Yeah. When I think of backstage I think of a few rooms not a massive place that is bigger than the actual theatre.

  7. Bek Dillydrops

    This sounds like a great trip. But Yak hair-like you say, yuck! Glad to hear you had a good day there. I didn’t know they did this.

  8. Christine

    This is definitely on my list of places to visit, it sounds fantastic! I can just imagine Julie Walters getting lost, I’d probably need the same tape.

    • Robert

      Ha ha. I actually saw some famous people’s dressing rooms. Not Julie Walters but I saw Stephen Mangan, who is a famous actor in films and on TV too.

  9. Aileen

    It’s not everyday that you can explore the backstage area of a well-known theatre so this is a really great post 😀 You guys looked like you had so much fun!

  10. noel

    What a fun tour, I would love to do the same when I visit again. Such a nice look at the backstage and everything else that happens during production.

  11. Brenda

    Such a well written post, Robert. Looks like so much fun. I can’t believe how big this London stage is. I can’t wait to bring my daughter to London and perhaps she can enjoy a tour there just like you did.

    • Robert

      Thank you, I found the hand creepy aswell. There was a prop that you put on like a helmet and it looked like someone was grabbing you from behind.

  12. Kate

    I hadn’t even thought of doing something like a backstage tour. This looks great. I bet there are some funny stories about what goes on backstage. Great post

  13. Colleen Lanin

    I did a backstage tour of a Cirque Du Soleil show in Las Vegas and loved it! I should do a backstage tour with my kids sometime too!

  14. Jolanta | Casual Traveler

    What an exciting tour! My brother-in-law, who used to be a ballet dancer, took us once through the backstage of the National Theatre in Warsaw, Poland once and it was quite exciting as well. It’s so amazing to see where all the things are stored, and just how big the backstage area really is.

  15. Tamara

    Great post Robert! I think a backstage theater tour sounds like a lot of fun and I love how you remembered so many fun facts.

  16. Martina

    Sounds really great! I´m planning to go next week. Would you mind telling me where the tour starts? I mean like at the stage door or I should go to box office in the theatre and ask… And can you freely take a pics during the tour or you have to pay some kind of fee? Thanks a lot.

    • Sarah Ebner

      Hi. It started at the box office and we were allowed to take pictures, but not inside the theatres. Hope that helps!

  17. samiya selim

    What a great tour! I have to show this to my (nearly 10) year old! He would absolutely love it..thanks for sharing 🙂

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