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London's Fringe Scene

By Susan Davidson
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 30, 2004; Page P01

For most visitors, a trip to London means a night or two at the theater. But increasingly, Americans are learning what the Brits have known for some time: Many of the best shows in town are not playing in the West End but at venues around town known collectively as Off-West End and the Fringe.

A little lesson in nomenclature. Off-West End includes North London's Almeida and Covent Garden's Donmar Warehouse, small theaters with worldwide reputations. Other Off-West End theaters of note are the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, the Hampstead in Swiss Cottage, the Tricycle in Kilburn, and the Young Vic and Shakespeare's Globe, both on London's South Bank.

Who needs the West End when you can have Shakespeare's Globe Theatre? (John Tramper)

In London, That's the Ticket

Should you purchase theater tickets before departing for London? The answer is yes . . . and no. If you want to see a specific performance of a specific play, then buy tickets in advance -- especially if that show is at the Royal National Theatre, the Donmar, the Globe or the Almeida. Because of their enormous popularity, short runs and limited capacity, tickets for those venues sell out fast. If you don't know your schedule, prefer flexibility or want to take your chances at the half-price tkts booth (see below), then wait until you're there.

Whether buying in the United States or London, first call the theater's box office or check its Web site. Booking fees (Britspeak for service charges) vary; most are in the $4 to $10 range, although some go as high as 25 percent of face value. Some theaters waive the booking fee if you call the box office directly. Given the vagaries of U.S. mail, opt to pick up the tickets at the theater rather than having them mailed.

Other sources for tickets include:

Ticket agencies, although their Fringe theater offerings are limited. Try Keith Prowse (800-669-8687, www.keithprowse.com) or Ticketmaster (011-44-161-385-3500, www.ticketmaster.co.uk).

Hotel concierges have a knack for getting tickets -- but often at a considerable markup, plus tip.

Tkts, the city's only official discount theater ticket booth, in Leicester Square. Half-price and discount tickets are available for performances that day, with a handling fee of about $4.50 per ticket. Most of the tickets are for West End musicals and long-running comedies, but tickets to Off-West End shows sometimes turn up here. The booth is open Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sunday noon to 3 (ish). A good strategy is to arrive just before it opens, study the bulletin board that lists what's on offer, then get in line. You can pay with cash, credit card or debit card; personal checks and travelers checks are not accepted. To find out what's available, go to www.officiallondontheatre.co.uk/tkts. The list is updated daily at noon, London time.

-- Susan Davidson

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Then there are the Royal National Theatre, also on the South Bank, and the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), which has no permanent home in London at the moment. They are Britain's foremost theaters, and in a class by themselves.

Fringe theaters are often located in pubs or other spaces not built as theaters. The Bridewell, for instance, is in a red-brick Victorian building near St. Paul's Cathedral that once housed a swimming pool; the tiny, basement-level Jermyn Street Theatre is on a street off Picadilly better known for snooty shops selling custom-made men's clothing.

Fringe theater prices can be as low as $12 -- in contrast to the West End, where a ticket to a musical can cost $90, plus a booking fee. At the government-subsidized Royal National Theatre, for example, prices are $11 to $75. Real bargains are to be found at the National, where a special program, the Travelex Season, offers tickets to select shows for about $18.

There's still good theater to be seen in the West End, particularly "Anything Goes" at the Drury Lane and "Democracy" at Wyndham's, both transfers from the National, and Edward Albee's "The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?" at the Apollo, a transfer from the Almeida. What a visitor needs to know, though, is where else to find interesting, well-done theater not far from the center of London. Here are some suggestions.

Almeida Theatre. Almeida Street, Islington, 011-44-20-7359-4404, www.almeida.co.uk. Tube: Highbury and Islington/Angel.

The recently renovated 321-seat North London theater has a well-deserved reputation for excellent productions starring big-name actors in edgy plays. "Whistling Psyche" by Sebastian Barry, a drama about Florence Nightingale starring Claire Bloom, runs through June 19. Tickets are about $10.75 to $49.25.

Barbican Centre. Silk Street, 011-44-20-7638-8891, www.barbican.org.uk Tube: Barbican/Moorgate.

The Barbican hosts an eclectic selection of productions from overseas as well as plays by well-known London artists. Through June 19, Marianne Faithfull stars in "The Black Rider," theater artist Robert Wilson's take on Faust, with music by Tom Waits and words by Beat writer William Burroughs. "Jimmy," a solo piece about a hairdresser, runs June 23-July 3. "Gumboots," an extraordinary musical about South African miners who, because they were forbidden to speak under apartheid rules, developed a language by stomping with their boot-clad feet, runs July 6-10. "Amajuba," another South African musical, takes as its subject township life during apartheid and runs July 12-17. "Cirque Lili," a mime production, runs July 28-Aug. 15. "The Elephant Vanishes," adapted from stories by Japanese author Haruki Murakami, by the collaborative theater company Complicite, runs Sept. 2-25. Tickets are $15 to $60.

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