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11 things we learned on a backstage tour at the National Theatre

Written by
Sara O'Reilly

Behind-the-scenes life at the National is like a permanent piece of site-specific theatre with a cast of a thousand. What you see as part of the audience at Denys Lasdun’s 1970s concrete edifice is just the tip of the iceberg. Daily backstage tours with guides who really know their stuff offer insights into productions past and present as well as revealing some of the building’s secrets.

Katy Dillon

Afterwards, treat yourself to tea overlooking the Thames at House, the NT’s newest restaurant. Someone’s had a lot of fun devising the menu, which includes a champagne cocktail and tips its hat to several of the theatre’s most successful productions. After a sensational pork pie and some sandwiches, including a green eggs and ham one referencing Katie Mitchell’s adaptation of the Dr Seuss classic ‘The Cat in the Hat’, you’ll be served an ‘interval’ ice. Then it’s time for the sweet stuff: Marble Mouthfuls (inspired by Professor Higgins’s elocution improvers in ‘My Fair Lady’) are rich chocolatey chunks and the bees from the National’s rooftop hives are working their stripy socks off to ensure steady supplies for a confection that pays tasty tribute to ‘A Taste of Honey’. 


Katy Dillon

The teas stick to a pre-determined formula but the tour content depends on what’s currently in production. Sometimes you’ll find actors rehearsing on stage, other days there’ll be a backstage drama in progress. We learned masses on our visit – although didn’t manage to identify the secret spicy ingredient in that pork pie with its moreishly crispy crust. Reassuringly, though, it’s definitely not made to the actual recipe used by Mrs Lovett in ‘Sweeney Todd’.

THE BOTTOM LINE: A two-act outing that deserves an ovation.

Here are 11 things we learned about the National Theatre on the backstage tour:

1. The National Theatre makes all its sets, props and costumes in-house. With around 1,000 employees, it’s effectively London’s largest factory.

2. Some props and costumes are for hire. If you want to make an impressive entrance at a party, a full Elizabethan getup, complete with shoes and authentic underwear, costs around £200 for a week.

3. At the end of a run, if a production isn’t transferring elsewhere, the props are often destined for eBay – so if there’s a bit of the set you rather fancy for your own living room, it could be worth making an offer.

4. The repertory system allows the National to stage around 30 plays a year in its three permanent theatres (the Olivier, the Lyttleton and the Dorfman) plus the bright red Temporary Theatre on the riverside terrace. Getting the sets for different productions in and out is a well-oiled art. In the Lyttleton (a conventional proscenium arch theatre), the entire set is often built on a wagon which can be speedily shifted backstage to make way for the alternating show.

5. The controversial renaming of what was the Cottesloe was a thank-you gesture to Lloyd Dorfman – and the Cottesloe family weren’t in the least miffed. Dorfman is the founder of Travelex which funds the National’s great £10 (now £15) ticket scheme. And he made the biggest donation the National has ever received, which was a big help with the recent £80 million NT Future refurb.

6. Directors love the blank canvas of the ultra high-tech Dorfman, which can be reconfigured in endless ways. Rumour has it that the theatre’s seats can even be programmed to do a Mexican wave.

7. The Olivier Theatre’s USP is its famous drum revolve. The stage is basically a five-storey elevator in an empty cylinder that drops down below the level of the Thames and allows spectacular sets to surge majestically from the bowels of the theatre.

8. For actors, what’s great about the Olivier (based on the design of an ancient Greek theatre) is the way the seats are arranged around the stage in a 118 degree curve, mirroring the extent of human peripheral vision. It means thesps can see every member of the audience at once without turning their heads.

9. The building’s so huge it’s got its own internal highway – Drum Road – along which sets are transported to the Olivier Theatre.

10. The dressing rooms at the National are arranged around an internal lightwell and a pre-performance tradition on opening and closing nights sees the actors bang on their windows simultaneously half an hour before curtain-up.

11. The recently installed Sherling High-Level Walkway – accessible from the Dorfman Foyer and open daily 9.30am to 7.30pm – is free to visit. From it you can check out what’s underway in the busy backstage production workshops. For children too short to see what’s going on, there’s a handy periscope, re-purposed from the set of the National’s galloping success ‘War Horse’. 

Backstage tours take place daily at times depending on production work and performance times and cost £9. Up to three kids aged five to 12 go free with a paying adult on family tours (during holidays and half-terms). Book at the box office in person, call 020 7452 3000 or visit the website.

Tour £9, tea £26.50, £35 together. National Theatre Backstage Tour and Tea, South Bank, SE1 9PX.

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