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

28. August 2015 by admin
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DIY Montessori activities for toddlers

A few years ago I worked at a Montessori nursery. The experience changed my view of early years and, to some extent, of learning.

On my first day I walked into the hall expecting to see children shouting and running around, and for my job to involve managing this. (Because children are noisy. Aren’t they?)

Instead the atmosphere was calm and the children were engrossed in what they were doing. They’d work intensely for twenty minutes or more on an activity. When they’d finished, they’d put away the materials, bring out something else and start working with those. No screaming. Very little running. Hardly any arguing. As a learning environment, it just worked. Sometimes, you have to see something that works really well to realise how well these things can work. This was how good nursery education could be.

So why did this nursery work so well? I think there were two reasons. First, the activities presented just the right balance of challenge and ‘achievability’; not too easy, not too difficult. The second reason, and the more interesting one, is that the children were exploring concepts fundamental to the physical world, and so their ‘work’ allowed them to make sense of their wider experiences. The success of this nursery was largely down to the type of activities available to the children.

The activities were aimed at motor control or basic mathematical concepts – activities like counting, measuring, pouring, transferring items between containers and arranging things in size order. Many involved everyday objects, so they were easy to set up. Some of the activities involved what might be called ‘educational resources’ but these were relatively simple.

Since then, I’ve found some of these same activities described on blogs written by parents. Looking through them has reminded me of the calm atmosphere in that nursery, where the toddlers sat totally engrossed in what they were doing.

As a birthday present for my two-year old nephew, I’ll be sending him (or, rather, his mum and dad) the best of the Montessori activities that I’ve found online. In this article, you will find background information to the activities, including links to the Montessori blog entries that I like most, and photos of the Montessori-inspired resources I’ve made. I’ll add updates as I find links and make materials.

Number Rods

Grooved timber strips - a DIY variation on Montessori number rods

This resource consists of ten wooden strips of different lengths. The activity is to line them up in size order. It works best if the strips are placed on a rectangular tray or a tea towel, to stop the rods ending up all over the room.

This provides a visual and tactile experience of quantity; it shows that ‘ten’ takes up ten times more space than one, and that it weighs ten times more.

As an activity, it may not need demonstrating. Sorting the rods into size order is what you want to do when you see them, and young children have an instinct to create order when they are playing.

DIY Monmtessori number rods laid out to demonstrate number bonds
This resource can also be used to explore addition, for instance the fact that ‘nine’ and ‘one’ together are the same length as ‘ten’. Again, this might not need demonstrating.

This is a variation on Montessori’s number rods. Rather than painting the rods red and blue, I left mine plain and marked the units with grooves; I think they’re more attractive when you can see the wood grain, and the grooves make them more interesting to handle.

The backs of my rods are unmarked, so the activity is slightly more difficult when the rods are this side up.

My number rods were made from Richard Burbidge pine, from B&Q. The wood is 25mm wide and a 2.4m piece was enough to make twelve rods. I did the cutting with a tenon saw, using a mitre box to set the saw at 90 degrees. A mitre box can be bought from a tool shop, or made by gluing together some wooden blocks which is how I made mine. I chamfered the edges of my number rods using medium and fine aluminium oxide paper and left them unvarnished.

30. July 2015 by admin
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Windows XP is dead, long live Windows XP

How my XP computer has been given the gift of eternal life.

Warning: may contain computers.

So Windows XP reached end of life in April, meaning it’s almost certainly not safe to take it online.

I’d long been using another operating system for most stuff but there were still a couple of things I needed XP for. Running my printer was one of them, as, amusingly, the drivers are not available for later operatng systems. Editing Word documents was another, because although my non-MS word processors could read and save to the .doc format, they didn’t always play nicely with Word tables.

XP was OK anyway. It ‘just worked’ most of the time (after it had had twenty minutes to wake up). So the challenge was how to use the internet and keep XP beyond its end of life.

The answer was two machines, only one of which went online. The online computer runs a more recent operating system that doesn’t take a third of an hour to switch on and won’t deliver my passwords straight to spammers, or whatever. The XP box is my offline computer. So now, on the odd occasion I need to download a Word document someone has emailed me, I can save it to a USB drive and take it to the XP machine. I’ve needed to do that precisely zero times since April, but you never know.

I have, however, printed two letters. That’s right. Two. Remember when people used to talk about ‘the paperless office’, like it was an exotic destination? Well, they don’t talk about it any more, because we’ve arrived, without noticing. Still, it’s nice to be able to send a printed letter. And the printer I have works just fine. I shouldn’t need to buy another printer in order to send two letters once every blue moon.

Other applications I’ll continue using under XP include the sound editing program Wavepad, which is rather elegant (and far nicer than Audacity). And since the half-decent monitor is hooked up to the XP machine, I do some image editing on it. As it turns out, GIMP works well under Windows.

So here’s how the vintage operating system has been made usable. Now that it doesn’t need to go online, I’ve stripped out the programs that are only relevant online. It turns out that’s most of them. The result: it’s sprightly. The twenty-minute boot is down to 90 seconds, like when it was new.

I’ve given my XP the gift of eternal life. But that gift comes at a price. It’s not allowed anywhere near the internet.

11 June 2014

06. November 2014 by admin
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Why small babies enjoy white noise

There is surprisingly little activity taking place, for the amount of noise coming from the room. Wired with sleep deprivation, Nic slouches in an armchair, holding a hairdryer the wrong way round, blasting air at the wall behind him. His tiny son is lying perfectly still, across his chest.

“Look at his face,” Nic says, with quiet excitement.

As I move to see the baby’s face, I’m expecting an expression of serenity. Instead Jake’s eyes are wide and his mouth is forming a perfect ‘o’. This isn’t bliss, this is fascination. Right now, the hairdryer is the most interesting thing in Jake’s world – albeit a world he’s known for just thirteen days.

“They sell white noise generators. A recording of white noise, with a player and a speaker,” Nic says. “But people don’t realise you can use a detuned radio, or a hairdryer. For some reason, it’s the ultimate distraction. They love it.”

To prove the point, he switches off the hairdryer. The trance broken, Jake begins to squirm.

Like all babies of his age, Jake’s digestive tract is not yet fully online. As it’s now a couple of hours since his last feed, Jake has wind; his writhing limbs respond to the miniature storm inside his belly.

White noise is the only thing that takes his mind off it and, with another click of the hairdryer switch, the baby is once again mesmerised by the sound of whooshing air. It’s like magic.

If you were to walk into this room, you might think nothing was happening; it’s surprisingly calm in here despite all the din. The hairdryer noise is creating a rare moment for Nic to relax. But right here, right now, everything is happening for baby Jake. The hairdryer evidently means something. But what exactly?

Why do babies like white noise?

Here’s the theory. When a baby is born, it’s a massive change in living conditions. The world ‘in utero’ is one of constant motion – every time mum moves, baby is moved. It’s also extremely loud, with the sound of whooshing blood greater than the noise from a vacuum cleaner.

Imagine coming from that jiggly, noisy environment to one where everything is dead still and eerily quiet. It would unnerve you. So small babies have a low threshold to discomfort; they are a bit freaked out from the moment they are born.

That’s why slowly rocking, or gently jiggling, a baby, makes them feel calm. (Baby Jake particularly enjoys having his pram pushed over the tactile paving you get near pelican crossings. It’s the guaranteed way of getting him to sleep.)

It’s also why the sound ‘ssshhh’, tends to make babies go quiet; it simulates the sound of rushing blood in the womb, which sounds like home to a newborn. And if that white noise is nearly as loud as a vacuum cleaner, so much the better.

These are the theories of Dr Harvey Karp who has studied the baby-calming techniques used by mothers across the world and was struck by the similarities. Rocking or gently jiggling the baby is common, as is making a loud ‘ssshhh’.

He also noticed the prevalence of swaddling – loosely wrapping the baby in cloth – his theory being that the resulting restriction of the baby’s limbs further recreates the conditions in the womb.

Based on his observations, Dr Karp formulated a five-step plan to calm a small baby, which he demonstrated on Richard and Judy in 2008. The interesting part starts at 3min 30 seconds.

The five steps are:

  1. Swaddling
  2. Laying the baby on his/her side or stomach
  3. Swinging, or rocking, or jiggling
  4. Shushing
  5. Giving the baby something to suck

Karp is keen to stress that he uses a swaddling technique that does not restrict the baby’s hips, which is important for proper growth.

It’s striking how loudly the doctor shushes, and how close to the baby’s ear he does it, to create white noise.

Karp advocates these five techniques in sequence, but I wonder if this is strictly necessary. Baby Jake was happy with just two of them: laying on his front, on his father’s chest, and white noise.

If you’re a parent with a restless newborn, Harvey Karp’s method is surely worth a try – he says it calms 98% of babies. Or you may simply want to try Nic’s technique and keep the hairdryer next to the sofa.

UPDATE: Nic and his partner now have a white noise app on their mobile phones to help Jake drift off to sleep, which is especially useful when he’s grouchy in his car seat. Jake that is, not Nic.

19. September 2013 by admin
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Web Developer Alex Lee says

“Alex Bailey was an enormous help to the project. He explored the client’s needs and helped bring a great deal of definition and understanding between the client and as the web developer.”

The project was Everyday DVA, a campaign to gather accounts of domestic violence and abuse. I provided a consultancy service, liaising with the client and writing the technical brief for the web developer. I also provided the client with training in the use of WordPress as a content management system.

11. September 2013 by admin
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Dipak Patel of Popup Bikes says

“Alex took on the project of rewriting our website content with great enthusiasm, he was sensitive to our needs and responsive to how we wanted our website to feel. Alex really took our project on and made it his own whilst incorporating our wishes. Our website has been given a new lease of life; it feels much more like ‘us’ now.

“It was a pleasure to work with you Alex and I would not hesitate to recommend you to our friends.”

Dipak Patel – Managing Director, Popup Bikes

09. September 2013 by admin
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Portrait Photographer Andrew Wood says

“Alex has worked for us regularly over the last three months making continuous improvements to all our written communications and has excelled in reworking our original text into far more customer focused copy. His flair for writing has improved everything from our letters and emails to the copy on our websites and blogs. In addition to this he has taken on a customer service survey, and some project management! Thank you Alex.”

09. September 2013 by admin
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Photographer Daniel Cadden says

“Alex has helped my business by copywriting flyers and directly influencing a twitter marketing campaign I’ve created based upon the advice he has given.

“The copy on the flyers is concise and clearly outlines the benefits of my services to the target audience in a way that I’ve struggled to articulate. I’ve no doubt they will result in enquiries from serious prospects when they are circulated early next month. The twitter campaign has already been a success. After two days of running the campaign I have attracted 50 new followers in a brand new geographical area and out of those followers, three businesses that could become clients have contacted me without a direct approach.

“I’ve yet to realise the full benefit of Alex’s work, but I believe I will reach the targets I’ve outlined in my business plan (in terms of attracting new clients), which would not have been achievable without Alex’s help.”

09. September 2013 by admin
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Wanted: seeds and garden tools

A new community gardening project is starting in Bury, Greater Manchester. Incredible Edible Bury will use land that other people have no use for, to grow free vegetables, fruit and herbs. The project aims to run at zero cost, using people’s spare time and spare resources.

You can help us. A local charity with an office in Bury town centre wants us to use their front yard for growing herbs and vegetables. We need:

  • seeds (herbs and vegetables)
  • compost
  • spare timber – we will use this to build planters
  • gardening tools – especially trowels, a hoe and a yard brush


If you wish to donate any of these things, and are able to bring them to Knowsley Street in Bury town centre, please let us know, using the contact form on this website.


20. June 2013 by admin
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What’s in a teacher’s bag?


This blog is a response to the following tweet from journalist Helen Ward of the Times Education Supplement.

Have been tasked with finding out what’s inside teachers’ bags. And we want photographic proof! This for publication.

Where I teach

I work as a freelance English language teacher. Today I taught at The Mosses Centre in Bury, a community centre which hosts a regular drop-in centre for adult refugees and asylum seekers. It is a pleasure to teach them because they are very keen to learn.

In the bag

Recipe books
Though it may look like it, I’m not cookery teacher. Today the students revised food vocabulary that they’d learnt in a previous English language lesson. I chose vegetarian cookbooks as I know some of my students are vegetarian. The books are in a plastic bag because it was raining today and I walk to the community centre.

It’s natural to feel apprehensive about learning a new language. I provide pencils as well as pens, because mistakes can be corrected if they’re in pencil. I put pencils and pens in the middle of the table, it’s up to the students which they choose.

Students’ work
It’s also up to my students whether they take their work home. Some of them are homeless so they have nowhere to keep pieces of paper.


A3 whiteboard, whiteboard pens and dish sponges
In this job, I teach a small group of learners and we sit round a table in the middle of an open plan room. It’s basically a bar but we’re using it as a classroom. The A3 whiteboard is useful for writing key words and sentence fragments for them to use. It is small enough that I can hand it to a student for them to add words.

Why not just have students writing on paper? Successful language learning is about being willing to make mistakes and whiteboards make it easy for students to correct their errors, much more so than writing on paper, so it builds their confidence faster. They commit it to paper when it’s correct.

Dish sponges make good portable whiteboard rubbers. The pens I am using also have small whiteboard rubbers built-in to the lids, which I like.


Not in the bag

I often carry a netbook for playing audio clips to the students, when I have planned a listening exercise. I will also carry either a pair of PC loudspeakers or two sets of headphones for playing the audio. I didn’t need these today.

The bag

This A3 sized bag is usually big enough for day’s teaching. I have another one the same size if I need more. I started using one of these on my teacher training course, where my classmates gently teased me, saying it looked like I was staying overnight.


13. June 2013 by admin
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