The lights may technically be out at London theaters, but the district has turned to the small screen, allowing you to stream musicals, plays, and cabarets from home. Stay entertained—and keep local performers in business—with recommendations from an actor and tour guide who knows the West End best.
Here are top picks from Neil Maxfield, an actor with West End roots and creator of the West End Musical Theatre Walking Tour.
A teenage kid and his out-of-this-world idea
“This is a great coming-of-age musical with Rob Houchen, best known for playing Marius in Les Miserables and [Jimmy and Dr Mandril] in the now postponed musical City of Angels. In this retro, space-age show, Rob plays the lead as a geeky school kid who has a big imagination, big dreams, and a desire to escape from reality. It’s wacky, high energy, and not your average musical fare, but was a hit at the Other Palace, so named as it’s between the Victoria Palace Theatre and Buckingham Palace.”
A wholesome story of furry friends for viewers of all ages
“A good musical for all the family to enjoy, it is written by Julian Fellowes of Downton Abbey fame with songs by Stiles & Drewe who are famous for Mary Poppins and Half a Sixpence. The set is very colourful, and the characters are all animals taken from the original Kenneth Grahame novel. It’s worth watching just to see Rufus Hound as Toad taking every opportunity to seek new and faster modes of transport. All this frenetic behaviour is beautifully balanced by the more sedate and measured Rat (Simon Lipkin) and Mole (Craig Mather).”
“An opportunity to see intimate gigs from some of our most famous and popular West End stars. Each performance is around one hour, livestreamed from their home, where you can hear some of the songs that they are famous for or even ones they’ve written themselves. I love the extra insights into the shows, what the songs mean to them, and something of their personality and life off stage. It felt like having my own private cabaret in my living room; a more visceral performance with performers at their most vulnerable, but more real, more human, and more approachable than ever.”
“This is a very British musical about a bereaved lady who works as a cleaner, spreading positivity and helping those around her to see the best in themselves, but wanting nothing more [for herself]... until she sees a Dior dress, which takes her on a journey to Paris to buy a dress after working to the bone. It’s also a story of self discovery. A well thought out book with a sumptuous score, beautiful dresses, and a lot of heart—it’s well worth watching.”
Catch expertly composed smash-hit musicals before time runs out
“A collection of Andrew Lloyd Webber shows, which are shown every Friday for 24 hours [in the UK and 48 hours elsewhere] for free. Running for eight weeks (six left), we have The Phantom of the Opera (25th-anniversary concert) next, which is the second-longest-running show on the West End, written mainly in an apartment Webber lived in above the Palace Theatre. Don’t miss out on the fabulous chance, as after 24 hours [or 48 hours], your chance is gone to see these iconic musicals that have endured for decades.”
The riotous one-woman show that spawned a cult TV series
“Part of Soho’s archive, this is the solo show that started at the Edinburgh Fringe and turned into a multi-Emmy-award-winning 3-part series. It’s rated for 18 years and older, but I loved the fact you could see how the characters and scenarios were already so well formed from the outset.
Soho Theatre also has an archive of stand-up comedy. It’s actually where some of our best known comedians try out their material before taking it to larger audiences, and it’s also home to lots of experimental theatre.”
“I love this venue, which is designed after the theatre at Epidaurus [in Greece] with not a bad seat in the house and great acoustics. Not that that matters when you can also watch its iconic shows from your own home. They are streaming one show each week; the first two shows, One Man Two Governors and Jane Eyre, were splendid productions. Sadly, they are only available for seven days starting every Thursday at 7pm [BST]. The next show is Treasure Island followed by Twelfth Night, the third most performed of all of Shakespeare’s plays. You will need to subscribe for free to the YouTube channel, where you can also watch the multi-award-winning Angels in America and interviews with legends like Dame Judy Dench, which I highly recommend.”
“If you want more Shakespeare, look no further than here—all filmed in the most beautifully recreated theatre, first built in 1599 only to be burnt down by a cannon firing during a performance of Henry VIII and rebuilt in 1613. The current theatre is thanks to Sam Wanamaker’s vision opening in 1997, and houses many Shakespeare [plays] throughout the summer and autumn seasons. I love visiting here as a groundling (standing customer), which only costs £5. You can, however, currently rent or buy a huge back catalogue of 31 of his plays, or watch free premieres starting with Hamlet.”
Although traveling to London might not be an option right now, you can follow Neil through the West End theater scene once borders open again.
Neil Maxfield is somewhat of a West End staple. After getting an early start in the theater, he catapulted to the two largest stages in the district, performing in the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane’s Sweet Charity and at the London Palladium. He’s since taken his talents solo, earning first place in national singing competitions for musical theater and creating his own award-winning walking tour called the West End Musical Theatre Walking Tour, which covers more than a dozen theaters, star-studded stories, and inspiration behind the show tunes.