Cranleigh Decorative
& Fine Arts Society


Home Page





Young Arts



Contact Us

Local Links


Cranleigh Arts Centre

West Surrey Area

National Links


Museums & Art Galleries

Backstage Tour of the National Theatre

Thursday 13th July 2017

We enjoyed a fascinating visit to the National Theatre.  Our enthusiastic and knowledgeable young guides led us first to the Olivier Theatre auditorium where we were given an overview of the NT, its history and its raison d’etre.  For its first 13 years the company worked at the Old Vic Theatre while waiting for its new home to be built and in 1976 the National Theatre building was opened by the Queen.

Before this visit, we had not appreciated the rationale behind the buildings and had been scathing about their appearance.  The brainchild of Sir Lawrence Olivier, the venue was designed to be a theatre for everyone.

“The National Theatre must be its own advertisement.  It must impose itself through public notice - not by posters or press advertisements but by the very fact of its ample, dignified and liberal existence.  It must bulk large in the social and intellectual life of London.  It must not ever have the air of appealing to a specially literate and cultured class.  It must be visibly and unmistakably a popular institution making a large appeal to the whole community.  It must be absolutely the property of the nation.”

The interior is ‘quiet’ - lighting, signage, auditorium seats - all make for a calm and serene atmosphere.  No chandeliers, ornate fittings or swags here.  The three theatres are subdued and welcoming, and appeal to those who might not have experienced live theatre before.  15 tickets are available for some performances. Designed by architect Denys Lasdun in the Brutalist style, the building is of layered concrete both inside and out - solid and simple.  Hated by some, revered by most, it was granted Grade 2 Heritage listing in 1994, only 18 years after it was built.

Having been fully appraised of the background of the theatre, our tour began in earnest.  The Olivier Theatre was undergoing a production changeover and we were fortunate to see a technical and lighting crew working smoothly to change the set-up.  We glimpsed the impressive Drum Revolve which is unique to the National.  Most theatres will have a middle flat section of the stage which revolves but the revolve here is a drum, five storeys high, contains several elevators and facilitates dramatic scene changes - for example it allows towers to rise, or boats to sink from view.

The Olivier has 1160 seats in a fan shape which allows the full set to be seen from anywhere in the auditorium.  The Lyttleton Theatre has 890 seats and the Dorfman [formerly the Cottesloe] has 450.

Collectively, the NT has 25 new shows a year.  All stage sets, costumes, props, wigs and so on are made in the vast workshops behind the theatres.  We toured the carpentry area and the props department where much use is made of polystyrene.  En route, we came across a huge imposing statue of Simon Russell Beale perched on top of a filing cabinet and a ‘meat pie’ from ‘Sweeney Todd’, suitably bloody and with a cut-throat razor protruding through the crust!  The hair for the wigs is sourced from eastern Europe.  Individual strands are woven into a mesh by the wig-makers but for NT Live productions, the wigs must be made again using a finer mesh for close-up camera work.

We enjoy all the visits we make with our group and this one was no exception.  It was fabulous!  Thanks so much to Gwen for suggesting it and to Pat and Jonathan for ‘minding’ us on the day.  Finally … All props, wigs, costumes and so on are available to hire so if you want to upstage your neighbours, have a Sweeney Todd party and hire a pie!

Text by Martin and Maggie Powell

Photos by Jonathan Cross

Related Link (opens in new window):

The National Theatre