Get a tour of the West End from Sir Ian McKellan

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Sir Ian McKellan outside the Wyndham’s Theatre in London’s West End

Get an intimate tour of London’s West End with one of Britain’s greatest actors, Sir Ian McKellan, as he turns guide with the help of a new app.

west end, london, ian mckellan
Sir Ian McKellan outside the Wyndham’s Theatre in London’s West End

No trip to London is complete without experiencing the giddy delights of the West End theatre scene. And there’s no better way to get to the bottom of all the rich history, gossip and drama that pervades Theatreland’s world-famous venues than getting a local, who knows the place like the back of their hand, to show you the sights.

And what if that friendly local guide has tread the boards himself for many decades, as well as being a movie star and a knight of the realm to boot?

Now, thanks to a collaboration between Official London Theatre and VoiceMap, none other than Sir Ian McKellan is available to be your guide. With a new mobile phone app, he will guide you around London’s West End using the magic of GPS, on an audio tour that combines the history of Theatreland with memories of his career on the stage.

west end theayre
Get a behind-the-scenes tour of the glittering West End Credit: VisitBritain/Joanna Henderson

On this surprisingly intimate walk with McKellen the app uses the same technology as sat-nav devices and applications such as Google Maps, but does more than just provide directions. VoiceMap’s tours, are like podcasts that move with you, to automatically tell stories about what you’re seeing right now – and with surprising accuracy.

When McKellen asks if you can see a mousetrap hidden on top of the Agatha Christie Memorial near Leicester Square, you’re standing right in front of it. 

The audio tour is free and compatible with iPhones and Android devices. It starts at TKTS, Official London Theatre’s ticket booth on Leicester Square. From there, McKellen guides you on a circular route that takes in the district’s theatrical landmarks and transports listeners through centuries of history.

In Dickensian London, the West End was one of the city’s most disreputable neighbourhoods, “packed with gin shops and brothels, and teeming with cutthroats and pickpockets.”

Theatres burnt down regularly, wiping out their owner’s fortunes overnight. “It’s hardly surprising,” remarks McKellen along the way. “Even when I began on the stage there were ashtrays by every seat. I saw all my early audiences through a haze of smoke. I remember, if you held your audience, you knew you had them because nobody lit up.”

“The app lets you focus on your surroundings instead of the screen,” said VoiceMap chief executive and co-founder, Iain Manley.

McKellen sees the benefit in this too. “I know myself when I’m in a strange city that wandering around with your nose in a guidebook isn’t the best way to appreciate what’s going on. The important thing when you’re walking around a city like London is to look up and down the alleyways and round the corner – and, with a guide in your ear all this is much easier.”

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