LONDON THEATRE WALKS By Jim De Young and John Miller Applause Books 234 pp., $14.95
Anyone with an interest in London theater and in its history would do well to carry along "London Theatre Walks," by Jim De Young and John Miller. For this well-conceived, thoughtfully designed guidebook, the authors have combined experience of 65 years in on-site investigation and research on London theater.
Notwithstanding its daunting subtitle, "Thirteen Dramatic Tours Through Four Centuries of History and Legend," this handbook is selectively and efficiently arranged for easy consultation. Each chapter is tabbed at the edge for quick reference.
A street map for each walking tour shows the location of sites to visit and the nearest tube (Underground) station. A brief overview begins each chapter, with an estimate of the time needed for the excursion.
The text is generously embellished with pertinent black-and-white photographs of interiors and exteriors of buildings, doorways, theater marquees, gateways, statues, plaques, and streets scenes. A selective bibliography is frequently cited and an index is included.
The routes chosen for each tour take the walker to nearly all of the major theaters in London, or to sites where earlier theaters existed, particularly in the time of Shakespeare. Attention is given also to the main buildings designed and built by Christopher Wren, the Adams, and other important architects, as well as to noteworthy literary figures, such as Ben Jonson, Samuel Pepys, Henry Fielding, Charles Dickens, and George Bernard Shaw.
What distinguishes these walks is that they take one down lanes and alleys, into courtyards and parks, inside churches and public buildings, of which the ordinary tourist is unaware. The authors regale the user with some fascinating, little-known anecdotes, such as the many literary and dramatic associations of the legal buildings, the inns of Court.
De Young and Miller demonstrate a thorough knowledge of London's history and topography, including long-gone rivers and the Roman walls and roads that still survive.
The text is pleasant to read - conversational, droll, and occasionally whimsical. Referring to an art nouveau pub, they observe: "It must be one of the most fascinating tavern fronts in the city. Don't bother to go in, as the interior has been remodeled into nondescript brewery modern." They also supply etymologies for phrases like "quicker than you can say Jack Robinson" and "in the limelight."
The book has some flaws, suggesting insufficient proof-reading. Whole paragraphs appear twice verbatim; inaccuracies occur, such as providing the bachelor Charles Lamb with a wife, misconstruing the suicide of the painter, Benjamin Robert Haydon, and confusing Nancy Astor with Mary Astor; and some typographical errors have crept in. But De Young modestly acknowledges possible faults, and supplies his FAX and e-mail numbers, inviting "factual corrections, notes on directions that were difficult to follow, and suggestions for new sites to include."
The authors conclude "London Walks" with a kind of benediction: "Walk in peace and above all care for this beautiful city. London, like Shakespeare, is for all time and all peoples, but it's truly special for those who hold a love of the art of live theatre in their hearts."
*Norman Anderson has led many groups of college students and adults on tours in England, with an emphasis on theater.