The Old Vic is a small (1,077 seats) not-for-profit theatre and it’s seen by many as the hub for lots of performing arts companies and theatres in and around London.
Take a selfie underneath the “Dare, always dare” sign that’s above the entrance to the main auditorium
Attend a late-night adults-only performance and have a cheeky drink at the same time
Brave the backstage tour with the stage door manager, who’ll let you in on the history of the theatre’s famous actors and directors
What to see and do
Hit up the Penny café and bar
The Penny bar in the basement (accessible) of the Old Vic is open six days a week (Monday to Saturday) from 8.00 am to 11.30 pm. It offers a wide range of drinks and foods, from coffee to sharing platters to specialist gins. A third of the menu is vegan and the emphasis is on local produce. Best of all, you don’t need to be a ticketholder to get in.
Get to know the Old Vic better
The backstage tour really does take you on an intimate journey through the history of the theatre. You’ll get to go backstage and also hear stories about the famous actors who’ve worked and directed at the Old Vic, such as Ian McKellen, Judi Dench and Laurence Olivier.
Enjoy one of the performances
The thing about the Old Vic is that it’s a relatively small theatre, which makes for a more intimate experience. The Old Vic has five or six productions each year and there’s also the chance to buy £10 tickets for the first five performances of each production.
Did you know? (3 Interesting Facts)
- After making it big in The Robe (1953), Richard Burton turned down a seven-year, seven-year film contract that would have netted him $1 million. However, he turned the offer down so that he could play Hamlet at the Old Vic – for £150 per week.
- Lilian Baylis managed the Old Vic from 1897 until her death from a heart attack in November 1937. Her catchphrase “Dare, always dare,” is in neon lights above the auditorium entrance. She was so dedicated to the theatre that her ghost is rumoured to hang around after the audiences have left the building, playing her ghostly violin.
- Up until the mid-1800s, theatres needed a special patent to put on Shakespeare plays and the Old Vic didn’t have one. In order to offer a Shakespeare production, the Old Vic had to bend a few rules, such as adding musical interludes or changing the plots and endings. In 1843, the laws changed and theatres needed a licence, which the Old Vic managed to get in 1912.
- 1818: The Old Vic was founded by Daniel Dunn and James King, both former managers of the Surrey Theatre in Bermondsey. The theatre was originally known as the Royal Coburg Theatre.
- 1824: Although forbidden from putting on any serious dramas, the theatre managed to sneak in six Shakespeare plays over six nights when George Bolwell became manager. This crafty move earned the Old Vic its reputation as a serious theatre which could bring art and drama to the masses.
- 1833: William Abbott and Daniel Egerton bought the Old Vic and made the most of the fact that the government had decided to remove the distinction between minor and patented theatres. They renamed the theatre as the Royal Victoria Theatre.
- 1871: Romaine Delatorre took over the Old Vic and raised enough money to rebuild the structure. The theatre closed for the works in September 1871 and reopened later the same year as the Royal Victoria Palace.
- 1880: The theatre was renamed once more as the Royal Victoria Hall, with Emma Cons as owner. By this time, it was already known as the Old Vic. After Cons’ death, her niece Lilian Baylis took over.
- World War II: The Old Vic was damaged in the war and so the Old Vic Company (formed by John Gielgud in 1929) moved to a base in Burnley and toured a lot.
- 1963: The Old Vic Company dissolved and was replaced by the National Theatre company, led by Laurence Olivier. This company used the Old Vic as a base until it found its own “home”.
- 1985: The Old Vic had a lot of restoration work done and Jonathan Miller became artistic director. Miller was replaced by Sir Peter Hall in 1997 and in 2003 Kevin Spacey stepped into the role. In 2015, Spacey left the role, amid some controversy, and Matthew Warchus took over.
Facilities and accessibility
While the Old Vic aims to be as accessible as possible, the age of the building presents some challenges. The Dress Circle can only be accessed via 29 steps from the foyer and as there’s no lift, it’s not recommended for people with limited mobility. The Lilian Baylis Circle is 49 steps up from the foyer, so isn’t suitable for people with limited mobility either.
The rest of the theatre is wheelchair accessible, with ramps and lift access throughout. There are 10 wheelchair spaces in the stalls, as well as 10 companion spaces.
The Penny bar has two accessible toilets and there’s a third located by the auditorium.
Assistance dogs are welcome, although there are no toileting areas for them.
There are cloakrooms in the Old Vic and coats and smaller items can be left for £1; larger items such as suitcases cost £2.
For people with hearing or visual impairments, there are captioned and audio-described performances, as well as relaxed performances for visitors who might prefer a more informal atmosphere due to autism spectrum or sensory issues.