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Diversity and innovation: The persistent rise of London Theatre

An interview with Insider Michelle Butterly

Take a walk through London’s theatre district and it is easy to lose count of the number of theatres you pass. They range from tiny independent places producing innovative drama from as-yet unknown writers and actors, to the West End whose productions – and performers – are world-famous. Our theatre Insider, Michelle Butterly, has trodden the boards at many of London’s most iconic theatres. We caught up with her to find out a little more about what makes the London theatrical scene tick.

London Theatre Experience

What continues to excite me about theatre in London is its diversity: there’s nowhere else like it. 

Michelle, you’ve been based in London for most of your career as an actor – why does theatre continue to thrive here in the way that it does?

As a young actor all I ever wanted to do was work at the National or the RSC because all the actors which my cohort and I admired had honed their craft in those theatres – no matter where they ended up later.

What continues to excite me about theatre in London is its diversity: there’s nowhere else like it. You have these tiny independent theatres alongside the bright lights of the West End. For an audience it’s great, but for an actor it’s extraordinary.

At what point did theatre really start to embrace and embody the kind of diversity that London is so well known for?

It was the late 1950s. In those post-war years, there were a few trailblazers who were trying something quite different. At Stratford East there was Joan Littlewood [of Oh! What a Lovely War fame] who passionately believed that theatre should be for everyone, and then there were the productions coming from the Royal Court in Sloane Square, like Look Back in Anger.

London theatre tour Michelle Butterly

Plays started to be about ordinary lives being led: people could come and see themselves on stage. That was really something quite new, and quite radical.

What was so different about these productions?

There’s a great anecdote which I think sums up this change perfectly. Arthur Miller was in London, auditioning people for the role of Eddie Carbone in A View from the Bridge in Covent Garden. At the end of the day, Olivier (who was directing the play) asked what he thought of the candidates. Miller said ‘well, they’re all quite good actors, but’ – and he pointed out of the window at a barrow boy in the market – ‘but I need somebody like that.’ The problem was that in all likelihood half the men he’d seen had started out like ‘that’, but the drama school system had trained their accents – and more – out of them.

So, when John Osborne wrote Look Back in Anger and put a working class ‘angry young man’ on the stage, it was a huge shift. These kinds of plays – which became known as kitchen sink dramas – initiated the rise of actors like Billie Whitelaw and Albert Finney and Richard Harris. In plays like The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Shelagh Delaney’s Taste of Honey, instead of just being the maid or driver, working class characters became protagonists. Plays started to be about ordinary lives being led: people could come and see themselves on stage. That was really something quite new, and quite radical.

London Theater Experience

I was part of a very regionally and socially diverse cast which he used to reflect the nature of the country as a whole.

Is it significant that the National Theatre arrived around this time?

Well, we’d been petitioning for a National Theatre since the early 19th century! It’s such an emblem of theatre and theatrical tradition in London and the UK: very in tune with its long tradition, but forward thinking too. Right from the beginning, it has sought to nurture new talent and new ideas.

Rufus Norris took over as Artistic Director in 2015 – what difference does a change in stewardship bring to the NT?

They certainly bring a fresh perspective. In the case of Rufus Norris, he’s been absolutely clear from the start that he’s looking to develop this place to be as inclusive and representative as possible.

When he took on his tenure, his first play was Everyman – a very clever choice on his part. It’s one of our oldest plays from the canon, the script was worked on by the poet laureate [Carol Ann Duffy] and I was part of a very regionally and socially diverse cast which he used to reflect the nature of the country as a whole. It was a super project to be part of and a great example of how theatre can really be relevant to everyone in the UK.

London theater experience

How important is that to Theatre?

At the moment I think it’s very important. Politically, the country is extremely divided, so it’s important to reflect that reality in art and theatre and make sure that it’s accessible to all.

There’s an incredible amount of talent coming from theatres in Liverpool and Manchester right now – and lots of exciting things happening in Hull, which has been made a City of Culture. We’re likely to see the plays being produced there feed into London: It’s a real web of creativity. London is undeniably at the centre of it, but the stories, playwrights and actors who come from elsewhere in the UK are bringing not only their creative talents but also their unique perspectives. This keeps the theatre incredibly dynamic.

Join Michelle Butterly’s experience to get under the skin of London’s bubbling theatre scene.