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Theatrical gifts: Our top pick of stagey books to buy

Want to buy a special page-turner for the theatre fan in your life or give yourself a little treat?

A spread from Time to Act, featuring Sheridan Smith, Felicity Jones and Ruth Wilson
© Time to Act

We've lost count of which lockdown we're in right now in the UK and, since there's no place to go, we want to give you some stagey gift ideas to treat your theatrically inclined loved ones or yourself!

We've selected a variety of books here – you can purchase them from a plethora of retailers.

Simon Annand
RRP: £39.95 (Amazon price: £27.47)
British photographer Simon Annand has been shooting candid photographs backstage at West End theatres in London for 35 years. In these gorgeous, intimate portraits, often shot in dressing rooms, he captures the focus and tension of world-class actors including Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Orlando Bloom, Anthony Hopkins, Jake Gyllenhaal and Judi Dench right before they go on the stage. Time to Act, with an introduction by Cate Blanchett, contains a hand-picked selection of Simon Annand's remarkable and unique portraits. This is the perfect coffee-table book for any theatre fan. It's definitely on our list.

"Simon Annand is one of the most amazing photographers I have had the pleasure of working with. He is an individualist with an eye for the unusual." - Dame Judi Dench

Gyles Brandreth
£20.00 (Amazon prize: £14.78)
Having heard Giles Brandreth at one of his after-dinner speaking engagements we can confirm that he is an excellent and highly entertaining raconteur. So as a lifelong theatre-lover he is quite literally the best person to compile an anthology of theatrical anecdotes. In the Oxford tradition he covers every kind of theatrical story and experience from the age of Shakespeare and Marlowe to the era of Stoppard and Mamet, from Richard Burbage to Richard Briers, from Nell Gwynn to Daniel Day-Lewis, from Sarah Bernhardt to Judi Dench. He was plugging this book on ITV's This Morning and gave a taster with a Judi Dench anecdote dating back to when he saw her play Juliet at the Old Vic in 1960. That story alone sold this book to us. Meatier than a stocking filler but not as dry and dusty as some Oxford style compendiums. Perfect for the downstairs loo!

Sweetpea Slight
RRP - £6.99

We have a confession to make. This came out in 2017 and then sat in a pile of books for quite a while due to being upstaged (no pun intended) by other publications that caught our attention. Thanks to COVID and a little more downtime it finally made it to the top of the pile and was thoroughly devoured for the entertaining, enchanting book that it is. More than three years on it's now available in paperback and would be the perfect stocking filler for anyone in the industry, aspiring to be in the industry or who has a higher than average interest in the industry. It chronicles the journey of Sweetpea Slight who, en-route to drama school in London in the 1980s, was snapped up to work as an assistant to the maverick and legendary theatre producer Thelma Holt. Her compelling memoir is both a poignant story of a young woman coming of age, and an exhilarating journey down the rabbit hole into the enchanting world of theatre.

Thelma Holt
© Dan Wooller for WhatsOnStage

LET'S DO IT: THE AUTHORISED BIOGRAPHY OF VICTORIA WOOD (Hardback) Jasper Rees RRP - £20.00 (Amazon Price: £10.00)

When the news of Victoria Wood's passing hit the WOS office in April 2016 there was genuinely a collective howl of woe. Her stand-up, sitcoms and sketches are embedded in TVs Hall of Fame but we still roar with laughter at her theatrical work particularly Talent and the glorious Acorn Antiques the Musical. Sadly she never wrote her autobiography telling the journalist Jasper Rees that she would one day and 'It would be about my childhood, about my first few years in showbusiness, which were really interesting and would make a really nice story.' That sadly never came to pass, so Victoria's estate asked Rees to tell her extraordinary story in full. He was been granted full and exclusive access to Victoria's rich archive of personal and professional material and conducted over 200 interviews with her family, friends and colleagues – including her children, sisters, ex-husband Geoffrey Durham, Julie Walters, Celia Imrie, Dawn French and Imelda Staunton. The result is glorious and highly recommended.

Julie Andrews with Emma Walton Hamilton
RRP: £9.99 (Amazon price: £8.19)

Home Work is the second instalment of Julie Andrews' internationally bestselling memoirs, beginning with her arrival in Hollywood for her screen debut in Walt Disney's Mary Poppins, closely followed by The Sound of Music, and the beginning of a movie career that would make her an icon we all know and love today. With her trademark charm and candour, Julie reveals behind-the-scenes details and reflections on her career from the incredible highs to the challenging lows. She shares her professional experiences and collaborations with giants of cinema and television, and also unveils her personal story of adjusting to a new and often daunting world. This included dealing with unimaginable public scrutiny, being a new mother, embracing two stepchildren, adopting two more and marrying Blake Edwards. Home Work takes us on a rare and intimate journey into a remarkable life that is funny, heart-breaking and inspiring.

Jenny Landreth
RRP - £16.99 (Amazon price: £12.61)

Whilst professional theatre is able to return (socially distanced obviously) sadly Am-Dram is still prohibited under the current rules. Until it is able to return to its former glory revel in this joyous celebration of amateur theatre; a triumphant mix of memoir, social history, interviews and manifesto, Jenny Landreth opens our eyes to a vibrant world that is a crucial part of our culture. Starting with the Mystery Plays of the Middle Ages, via Shakespeare, to the Georgian aristocrats who built opulent private theatres in their own homes and on to the present day Landreth visits several thriving theatres and meets a cast of characters who convey the joy amateur theatre brings them. Without it, there would be no professional theatre, no Judi Dench or Kenneth Branagh or Brenda Blethyn. Break a Leg is an emphatic celebration and a rallying cry to appreciate how amateur theatre enriches communities and many people's lives.

Jeffrey Richards. RRP - £30.26 (Amazon price: £22.85)
When COVID-19 closed UK theatres back in March we don't think anyone honestly expected that they would still be closed come Panto season. For many people it's their only theatre outing in a year and equally venues rely on those annual visits to keep the lights on. In the absence of many pantos this year this fascinating history of a genre that is all too often dismissed as tacky or trite is absolutely riveting. Panto was attended by everyone from the working classes to Charles Dickens to Queen Victoria and the royal family.

A vivid and illuminating account of Victorian pantomime, Richards examines the potent combination of slapstick, subversion and subversion that still prevails today as well as the contribution of writers, producers, designers and stars to the success of the panto in its golden age. If you can't get to one of the few socially-distanced pantos being staged this Christmas, pour yourself a mulled wine, grab a mince pie and curl up with this.

Stephen Purdy
RRP: £19.99
This is a provocative and revealing narrative of a group of musicals that cost millions and had spectacular potential, but bombed… Purdy delves into the production histories of these shows which are all bound together by a common thread; seemingly infallible theatre creatives that weren't destined to repeat their successes with the shows discussed in this volume. The legendary creators of Les Miserables, pop superstar Elton John, wunderkind Julie Taymor and many others are rightly known for being inspired storytellers of iconic musicals. What they also have in common is the fact that they created shows that for one reason or a dozen just couldn't find an audience. An engaging book for any fan of musical theatre with thoughtful observations about luck and creative differences, botched adaptations and alienated audiences, all of which can determine the fate of a musical; smash hit or box office flop?

Some of the books on offer

Robert McCrum
RRP: £14.99 (Amazon price: £10.99)

"Enchanting" - Simon Russell Beale
"Wonderful . . . compulsively readable" - Nicholas Hytner

Why do the collected works of an Elizabethan writer continue to speak to us as if they were written yesterday? When Robert McCrum began his recovery from a life-changing stroke he discovered that the only words that made sense to him were snatches of Shakespeare. Unable to travel or move as he used to the First Folio became his ‘book of life', a source of inspiration through which he could embark on ‘journeys of the mind'. An acclaimed writer and journalist, McCrum has spent the last twenty-five years immersed in Shakespeare's work. During this prolonged exploration Shakespeare's poetry and plays became his guide and consolation. Shakespearean is a rich, brilliant and superbly drawn portrait of one of the greatest writers who ever lived. Witty and insightful, he makes a passionate and deeply personal case that Shakespeare's words and ideas are not just enduring in their relevance – they are nothing less than the eternal key to our shared humanity.

Michael Coveney with photographs by Peter Dazeley
RRP - £37.91 (Amazon price: £24.99)

This is a fully revised and updated version of the hugely successful and sumptuous London Theatres originally published in 2017. Now featuring an additional ten theatres including the Bridge Theatre, the Victoria Palace Theatre and the Sondheim Theatre (the latter two having undergone multi-million pound, dazzling transformations in recent years) the latest edition is just as stunning as the original. Former WhatsOnStage critic and leading drama writer, Michael Coveney invites us on a tour of more than 50 London theatres and we promise you, they're far more beautiful than you thought. He details the architecture, the people and productions behind each one and the opulent photography of Peter Dazeley literally sweeps you into the building from the foyer, into the auditorium and backstage. We adored the first edition and now want the "sequel". Looks like we're gonna need a bigger coffee table.