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12 secret theatres and venues you need to visit

Our guide to England’s hidden theatres and small venues

Whether you love to sing along to musicals or nab tickets to raucous comedy shows, there’s a show out there for you. And what better way to show your love for the theatre scene than to catch a show at one of the country’s lesser-known performing arts spaces?

From underground crypts to theatres tucked behind bustling pubs, here are some of England’s quirkiest and most unusual venues that definitely steal the show. 

1

Get cosy for an evening of Theatre by the Lake

Keswick, Cumbria

Theatre by the Lake, just a short stroll from the edge of Derwentwater, brings the magic of live theatre to one of England’s most beautiful National Parks – The Lake District. The venue is home to two stages, a 400-seat Main House and a 100-seat Studio, together they host up to nine productions of classic, modern and newly written plays throughout the year. Arrive early to enjoy a pre-show meal at the lovely Lakeside Restaurant, or for a sunset tipple at the outdoor terrace bar.

Other theatres nearby:

The Old Laundry Theatre in Bowness-on-Windermere for regular shows by Sir Alan Ayckbourn, one of the country’s most famous playwrights                                                                                                                              
Upfront Puppet Theatre, one of only four dedicated puppet theatres in England

Find more theatres in the Lake District
2

Settle into your seat on a Cornish cliff

Penzance, Cornwall

It may look like a Roman amphitheatre, but Minack Theatre is actually less than 100 years old. Minack (meaning rocky place in Cornish) was formed when a local production of The Tempest needed a stage and Rowena Cade – master builder and subsequent founder – offered her dramatic cliff garden as the perfect venue. With spectacular views over southwest Cornwall, the open-air theatre stages over 200 live performances each year, from opera to children’s productions, with past shows including Romeo and Juliet and Jesus Christ Superstar.

When there aren’t any shows on, you can stop by to explore its subtropical gardens and enjoy the dramatic scenery. Keep an eye out for the extraordinary carvings dotted around the theatre too, all of which were etched by Rowena using a rusty screwdriver.

Other theatres nearby:

Hall for Cornwall for stand-up comedy and big West End productions in a beautiful heritage building
• Volunteer-run Sterts Theatre, a unique tented amphitheatre on the edge of Bodmin Moor

Find more theatres in Cornwall
3

Descend into The Vaults beneath London’s Southbank

Waterloo, London

Tucked away beneath the railway tracks in Waterloo, down a graffiti-clad tunnel founded by Banksy, is London’s home of immersive theatre and alternative arts. The Vaults, a maze of disused railway arches and rooms, embraces art that is challenging and imaginative, accessible yet unknown. Its intimate arts spaces have hosted the likes of fringe festivals, an immersive adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting and even a horror walk-through of Stephen King’s It. This year sees more imaginative productions, including Mulan Rouge, a drag-tastic parody of Disney’s Mulan and Baz Lurhmann’s Moulin Rouge.

Other theatres nearby:

• Earl’s Court’s Finborough Theatre for big names in an intimate space
Chickenshed, one of the world’s first truly inclusive theatre companies working with people from all backgrounds
Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, where you can watch a show as the sun sets over the city
• Wilton’s for world-class talent in the oldest Grand Music Hall in the world

Find more London theatre shows
4

Laugh along to live comedy at Contact

University of Manchester, Manchester

Manchester’s Contact proclaims to be ‘fiercely northern but with an international outlook.’ Based behind Manchester University’s student union, Contact works to develop the next generation by mentoring young creatives as well as producing its own shows and hosting tours from some of the best theatre companies in the world. Here, young people (mostly aged between 13 and 30) are at the decision-making heart of everything, helping to decide the programme, make staff appointments and even act as full board members.

If you fancy spending an evening here, you can expect the likes of cabaret, circus, comedy, live music, contemporary theatre and lots more.

Other theatres nearby:

Hope Mill Theatre for fringe theatre in a former cotton mill
The Lowry, a Salford-based theatre charity and arts space located on the waterfront at MediacityUK
Bridgewater Hall, a modern music venue home to one of the largest pipe organs in Britain

Find more theatres in Manchester
5

Give a standing ovation at Hope Street

Knowledge Quarter, Liverpool

Set inside a Grade I-listed Masonic Hall, Hope Street Theatre is one of the newest theatre venues in Liverpool, in the heart of the city’s cultural district. Known for driving new work and supporting the best in local and professional theatre, Hope Street Theatre has an ever-changing programme of drama, musicals, comedy and more. They also have British Sign Language interpreters and operate relaxed performances during pantomime seasons. 

Other theatres nearby:

• St Luke’s Bombed Out Church for year-round cultural events in a derelict parish church
• The Epstein Theatre, a grand old venue named after Beatles manager Brian Epstein

Find more Liverpool theatres
6

See a show in one of Britain’s oldest working theatres

Richmond, North Yorkshire

Built in 1788, The Georgian Theatre Royal in North Yorkshire is said to be Britain’s oldest working theatre in its original form. Located in Richmond, this thriving community playhouse and living theatre museum is keeping an important period of English theatre architecture alive.

The theatre’s auditorium has a capacity of 214, and from wherever you sit – whether that’s in the sunken pit or in one of the boxes – you’ll be in a great position to enjoy stand-up comedy, musicals and productions by the theatre’s very own theatre company, The Butler Company.

Other theatres nearby:

The Band Room, a world-famous corrugated iron shed in the North York Moors
• The Holbeck, Britain’s oldest working men’s club and home to an award-winning theatre company, Slung Low 
Square Chapel for intimate productions in a Grade II-listed Georgian chapel

Find more theatres in Yorkshire
7

Attend a floating gig in Bristol Harbour

East Mud Lock, Bristol

From jazz to punk, Thekla has always been at the forefront of up-and-coming British music. This award-winning live music venue, set onboard a converted German cargo ship, has been moored in Bristol Harbour since 1984 and has seen the likes of Massive Attack grace its decks. Thekla still hosts an eclectic diary of up to seven gigs a week, so there’s always a chance to catch your new favourite band in an intimate setting before they make it big, or you can come aboard for its club nights, that play everything from dubstep and house to funk, soul and much more.

Other theatres nearby:

• Tobacco Factory Theatres for creative adventures inside a former tobacco yard
• Trinity Centre, a historic landmark showcasing a diverse range of arts for a diverse city
• The Room Above, a black box fringe venue above Bristol’s popular White Bear Pub

Find more theatres in Bristol
8

See a live show in the City of Stories

St Benedicts Street, Norwich

At the heart of Norwich’s cultural community is Norwich Arts Centre, an independently run venue and ‘Theatre of Sanctuary’ that delivers a daily programme of live music, theatre, dance, literature and comedy. Housed inside 14th-century St Swithins Church (which has previously operated as a working men’s club and later as the headquarters of the home guard in World War II), the space has earned its reputation as a hotbed for new talent, and has even hosted artists like Ed Sheeran, Nirvana, Oasis and Coldplay.

Other theatres nearby:

• The Garage, a performing arts playground for young and old with year-round theatre, dance, music and workshops
• Great Yarmouth’s St George’s Theatre, located inside a 300-year-old Baroque church
• The Corn Hall in Diss, a vibrant arts venue originally built as a corn exchange

Find more theatres in Norfolk
9

Step inside a pub with a twist

Market Passage, Cambridge

The Town and Gown Pub is a true Cambridge institution. As well as welcoming in the punters for craft beer and British pub grub, the top floor of the building is home to an intimate fringe theatre. With just 100 seats, you can enjoy the likes of cabaret, musical theatre and exciting in-house productions.

Other theatres nearby:

• Cambridge Junction for cutting-edge comedy, dance and live music as well as family entertainment

Find more theatres in Cambridge
10

Behold brilliant actors at an old Victorian bank

Birmingham, West Midlands

Originally designed as a library back in 1862, and then becoming the Birmingham Joint Stock Bank, the Old Joint Stock is now a pub with a hidden 100-seater theatre. With one of the best year-round programmes of shows in the area, you can expect to see everything from improv comedy to show-stopping musical theatre. Be sure to arrive early to enjoy the tasty pre-theatre menu that’s available with every show.

Other theatres nearby:

• The Old Rep Theatre, Britain’s first purpose-built repertory theatre run by and for young people

Find more theatres in Birmingham
11

See brand-new shows before they get big

Broad Chare, Newcastle upon Tyne

With an international reputation as a new writing theatre, Newcastle’s Live Theatre is a great place to catch brand new plays and emerging creative talent. Over the years, the company have produced shows like Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, which ended up winning an Olivier Award and completing a West End run. The accessible theatre has a range of seating options for all budgets, including a cabaret area with tables for close-up views of the stage, and also has a café, bar and garden.

Other theatres nearby:

• Alphabetti Theatre, Newcastle’s smallest producing theatre keeping grassroots culture alive

Find more theatres in Newcastle
12

Get cosy in one of Britain’s smallest theatres

Margate, Kent

With only 51 seats, Margate’s Tom Thumb Theatre is the tiniest theatre on our list. Built in 1896 as a coaching house, the building was transformed into a theatre in 1984 and, with its mix of Japanese and Alpine architecture, is truly one of a kind. The family-run venue now hosts spoken-word nights, comedy, cutting-edge plays and even burlesque within its walls, which are decorated in flocked wallpaper and vintage red-velvet seats.  

Find more theatres in Thanet
23 Mar 2022(last updated)

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  • 1

    Keswick, Cumbria

  • 2

    Penzance, Cornwall

  • 3

    Waterloo, London

  • 4

    University of Manchester, Manchester

  • 5

    Knowledge Quarter, Liverpool

  • 6

    Richmond, North Yorkshire

  • 7

    East Mud Lock, Bristol

  • 8

    St Benedicts Street, Norwich

  • 9

    Market Passage, Cambridge

  • 10

    Birmingham, West Midlands

  • 11

    Broad Chare, Newcastle upon Tyne

  • 12

    Margate, Kent

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