“ Leicester Square / Westminster / England „
It's been a tradition since 2000, when "West End Live" first started in a slightly different incarnation - Fair in the square - as a millennium celebration. Due to its success, the Westminster City Council, together with a Totally London and number of shops, museums and most of all, theatres and Capital 95.8 radio, lay on a free two-day showcase for people to enjoy. It takes place over a June weekend at Leicester Square, right in the centre of London's theatre heartland. Last year, the "West End Live" extravaganza took place on 21-22 June.
The centre of Leicester Square, the fenced in garden bit, is used to set up the main stage, little booths and tents for the exhibitors and access into the square is via the gates to the north side where the two entrances are. You can still exit through all 4 gates if you want to leave.
It may look a little daunting when you first arrive and see the long queues trying to get in. While you watch the queues you should see that they actually move quite nicely forward so that you have a chance of getting into the middle before long. To ensure there aren't too many people in the enclosure people are being allowed in relation to people leaving. When we arrived and queued it didn't take much more than 10 - 15 minutes to get inside and that was after waiting in a queue that didn't appear to move for what seemed forever. While you are waiting you are handed flyers, leaflets, programmes and magazines.
=== Show Stoppers ===
Last year, throughout the two days you had Christopher Biggins announcing the acts and conducting interviews.
The show starts at 11am on the Saturday with musical acts and continues throughout the day until early afternoon when most London musicals start their matinee performances and have to be in their respective theatres. There are stage school performances as well as comedians. We arrived a little late that Saturday and had already missed some of the shows we wanted to see, mainly Wicked and Jersey Boys but it didn't matter much. The rest of the afternoon was brilliant with excerpts from Mamma Mia, Grease and Chicago.
While the Saturday is mainly about the big shows, the next day, Sunday is more or less alternative theatre, smaller, experimental shows, comedies and lots of dance and stage school children showing what they have leaned.
My friend and I had not wanted to return on the Sunday but when we had to leave 'Taste of London' taking place the same weekend at Regent Park rather sharpish due to certain food allergies, we ended up at Leicester Square for the Sunday afternoon performances.
It was a lot more relaxed and the audience was treated to acts that were not as high brow as the day before but still very entertaining - and Christopher Biggins was a enthusiastic as ever.
While a lot of people are gathering around the main stage to listen and see some of the great musicals in London, there is plenty of opportunity to just walk around and take in the atmosphere and look at what else is on offer.
Whatever day you are attending, you can be assured that the atmosphere will be electric and the audience very receptive and cheering on every act going.
=== Stopping By Recommended ===
West End Live is not only about theatre and shows, although they do form a big part of it.
There are plenty of stalls showing what they have on offer. Some of the more successful ones I saw where the, then newly opened Ripley's Believe it or Not just around the corner at the Trocadero Centre. They were advertising heavily and were giving away discount vouchers and other freebees like pens and pencils.
Some museums and galleries were trying to drum up business but most people were more interested in the latest movie releases (Kung Fu Panda had a stall) as well as my personal favourite cult TV and comic shop Forbidden Planet. There was not much that could be done in the small space the stalls provided but it was nice to walk through and try out masks or face painting.
And of course, when leaving some of the stalls you were presented with a 'goody bag'. I picked up two from the Forbidden Planet with store advertising as well as a 'Charmed' DVD and the second one had a Doctor Who pencil case with note pad, pencil, stickers and magnets. I reckon the freebies were the stuff they couldn't shift in store so they decided to de-clutter and give it away for free instead.
Don't forget to drop by at the official West End Live stand and enter the price draw. Every hour they were giving away theatre tokens and shopping vouchers. Even if you were no longer in the square, apparently the price was going to be sent to you - as long as you left your real phone number and address.
=== Leaving the inner sanctuary, collecting your free goodie bag ===
Upon leaving one of the four exits (just remember that there are just two entrances but four exists) every punter was given a plastic bag with some information, mainly information on the shows on London stages as well as food items. My own and my friend's bag contained bags of crisps, biscuits and Lyons decaf coffee (a life saver the other week in the office - yes I had it in my desk drawer until now - when we had run out of coffee and I was desperate for a coffee fix, even if it was decaf) as well as lots of flyers. I remember there was also some foot spray in the bag but can't remember if it was any good as I never used it.
=== The Perimeter Fence ===
While you are either waiting to get inside the square or just milling around, take in the exhibits along the fence on the outside. We were treated to 'cars in movies' as well as a huge LEGO exhibit, face painting and the Capital Radio caravan for outside broadcast. I never saw anyone inside broadcasting live but that was not the point, it was there for everyone to see - even if the studios themselves were just across next to the Odeon cinema.
After spending a few hours on both, Saturday and Sunday, I can only say that my friends and I thoroughly enjoyed our time at Leicester Square those two days and have already marked our diaries for this summer's event in June.
=== 2009 dates announced ===
The dates for this year's "West End Live" have just been announced. make a note in your diary for 20th - 21st June 2009. Not all acts taking part have been announced yet but so far confirmed are: Dirty Dancing, Jersey Boys, Jody Prenger from Oliver!, Mamma Mia, Sister Act, Stomp, Sunset Boulevard, Thriller, We Will Rock You and Wicked.
Go on, don't be shy. Where else would you get something for free in the centre of London? If you're in London that weekend, try and make it to Leicester Square and see what is going on. It won't cost you anything and might leave you pleasantly surprised and walking away weighed down with bags of freebees and brilliant memories.
Official site: http://www.westendlive.co.uk
This spectacular event includes performances from many of the hottest shows in town, alongside other fantastic musical acts