I SPY LONDON the definitive DG guide to London sights-worth-seeing Part 10:Theatre Museum
Location: Russell Street, Covent Garden, WC2E 7PR [map] Open: 10am - 6pm (closed Sunday and Monday) Admission: free 5-word summary: a staged history of greasepaint Website:www.theatremuseum.org Time to set aside: an hour or two
It's right next to Covent Garden Market so I must have walked past the Theatre Museum on scores, possibly hundreds, of occasions. But I'd never previously been inside, not until I finally spotted the key phrase "free admission" on a poster outside. And it really was free - the lady on the admission desk didn't blink as I walked straight past her into the semi-darkness. The audience walking around inside seemed pitifully small for a weekend matinee performance but hey, the show must go on.
The ground floor tells the story of Theatreland and the West End. Not much of the story, admittedly, but a hint at the local transformation from rows of slums to palaces of popular entertainment. There are historic prints, plans, posters and props, as well as a big screen at the rear showing highlights from glitzy long-running musicals. There's even an exhibit of theatre seating, in case you fancy a sit down. The rows used to be only 28 inches apart, which is even more squashed than a modern economy flight, but patrons were 4 inches shorter back then so maybe nobody got DVT and sued. One of Camelot's original National Lottery machines is on display, representing the millions of pounds gamblers have pumped into modernising West End theatres over the last decade. A bit rich, then, that the Heritage Lottery Fund recently placed the future of the museum under serious threat by turning down two bids for a development grant.
There's more to this museum than first meets the eye. A long twisty ramp leads down into the main galleries in the basement. In one room an optimistic amount of seating has been set out for watching selected excerpts from the National Video Archive of Performance (which is probably a collection of Sir John Gielgud's best bits). A maze of gloomy corridors tells the story of British performing arts and some of its more famous players (like, for example, more than everything you ever wanted to know about the Redgrave family). The presentation isn't especially dramatic, more a load of wall-to-floor display cases with tons of information to read. Younger visitors will no doubt be more interested in the costume and theatrical make-up demonstrations, so families should time their visit carefully. But next time you're passing (and one day you will be) why not pop in? After all it's a heck of a lot cheaper than paying through the nose to see the Lion King (and, dare I say it, rather more interesting). by tube: Covent Gardenby bus: RV1