The 11 best theatres in London for quality drama

There’s a world of difference between bad theatre and great theatre. Bad theatre is superficial, insincere, or over-acted. It’s the theatre you’d rather you hadn’t seen.

High quality drama, on the other hand, can open your mind. It can let you empathise with people you have no connection with, revealing social issues from new perspectives; it can allow the audience to examine complex relationships. And a great theatre performance is unforgettable.

Yet quality is rare, even in a city with as many venues as London. Just a handful of theatres consistently produce thought-provoking plays to high standards. If you want to see high quality live drama in London, these are the places to go.

Why I visited so many of London’s theatres

You might be wondering how I can state that these theatres are the best ones in London for serious drama. Here’s the story.

We’re in a room packed with enthusiastic drama students, most of them straight out of school. It is the first day of term. Sunlight is streaming through the windows, lighting up a charismatic lecturer, John.

“You are extremely lucky to be here, studying drama in city which is known throughout the world for theatre,” John says. “I’m about to give you an important piece of advice.” All eyes are on him. “While you are here,” he says, “go and see as many live performances as you can. You will learn more from that than all of your workshops and lectures.” He pauses for a beat and gives a wry smile.

The advice seems vaguely subversive (the university will teach you less than half what you need to know), but it’s actually very sensible. Universities don’t have a monopoly on learning, and neither do they deal in understanding, at least not directly. They deal in theory. The students’ job is to take theory and generate understanding for themselves. To get out there. To go to the theatre.

I was one of the fresh-faced students in that room. Eager to learn as much as I could, I took John’s advice; and I saw a show most weekends, for the three years.

What I found was a huge variation in quality across different theatres. Many venues were putting on performances that were okay – perfectly watchable but, ultimately, forgettable. Only a few were offering work that had me on the edge of my seat with excitement, work that I would think about it for the rest of the week or longer. These were the places I went back to for more. When I went back, the quality was there again.

How they managed that, I don’t know. I don’t know if it was purely the skill of the artistic directors who worked there or if these places had some procedure to check and improve the quality of their output. Perhaps the different places on my list had different methods. Many of them certainly have long established reputations for serious drama, so perhaps the weight of expectation stops them putting on sub-standard productions.

Anyway, John was right. I learnt as much from going to the theatre as I learnt on my drama degree, and that’s how I can share with you my list of the best theatres in London for serious contemporary drama.

These theatres haven’t lost their edge. Since graduating, I’ve been back to these places and been just as impressed.

The best theatres in London for contemporary drama

The theatres on this list vary in scale. Some are intimate spaces so small the audience members can reach out and touch the actors. Others are major venues with the facilities for elaborate productions. But they all select challenging, powerful plays mainly by living writers exploring contemporary issues, and they ensure performances of the highest standard. I’ve seen many great performances here and no bad ones.

Royal Court, Sloane Square, SW1W 8AS

Finborough Arms, 118 Finborough Road, SW10 9ED

Etcetera Theatre, Oxford Arms, 265 Camden High Street, NW1 7BU

Young Vic, 66 The Cut, SE1 8LZ

Donmar Warehouse, 41 Earlham Street, Covent Garden, WC2H 9LX

Jermyn Street Theatre, 16b Jermyn Street, SW1Y 6ST

Battersea Arts Centre, Lavender Hill, Wandsworth, SW11 5TN

Tricycle Theatre, 269 Kilburn High Road, Kilburn, NW6 7JR

National Theatre, South Bank, SE1 9PX

Lyric Hammersmith, King Street, W6 0QL

Gate Theatre, 11 Pembridge Road, Notting Hill, W11 3HL