In a follow up to the book in which he painted 100 piers, Paul Tracey has now turned his attention to the theatres of London. “The idea came to me one day when I was walking up the Haymarket and could not remember whether I had ever seen a production in His Majesty’s Theatre,” says Tracey, “It got me thinking that I had walked past them all so many times that I’d almost stopped noticing them. So, I decided to try and look at them anew and the best way for me to do that was to paint them.”
Here, we select 11 theatres from the book, with accompanying abridged text.
The Victoria Palace theatre had humble beginnings as a small room for unlicensed ‘harmonic meetings’ above the stables of the Royal Standard Hotel, a small hotel and tavern built in 1832. By 1840 the proprietor John Moy had obtained a licence for singing and dancing on the premises. He then enlarged the building and by 1850 it had become known as Moy’s Music Hall but was renamed the Royal Standard Concert Rooms in 1854. Alfred Brown took it over in 1863, refurbished it and renamed it the Royal Standard Music Hall. It became so popular that it was demolished and rebuilt as a larger venue in 1886. In 1898 it was renovated and improved, but by 1910 Victoria was becoming a major transport hub and the venue was again demolished to make away for the current Matcham-designed theatre which opened in November 1911, the last great variety house to be built in central London. The Era enthused about the new theatre in their November 1911 edition: “In the scheme of internal treatment the main object has been to combine a maximum of comfort and convenience with a prevailing note of simplicity.” Elizabeth Taylor made her London stage debut here.
Originally built in 1901 as a music hall, this theatre is regarded by many as a key example of Victorian and Edwardian architecture. In its early days Charlie Chaplin, W.C. Fields, Stanley Holloway, Stan Laurel, Marie Lloyd and Julie Andrews all performed here but by the 1950s, when the popularity of music halls had waned, it was used as a TV recording studio and transmitted shows such as Take Your Pick, Oh, Boy! and Opportunity Knocks. When threatened with demolition in the 1980s, actor-manager Roland Muldoon raised funds to acquire the freehold and return the theatre to its original use. The Hackney Empire was reopened as a permanent performance space in December 1986, in time for its 85th anniversary. In 2004 the auditorium and front of house areas were restored, with ceiling and wall paintings reinstated to impressive effect. The roof features a statue of Thalia, the Greek Muse of Comedy, and many of the UK’s most well-known comedians have performed here in recent times.
The Old Vic, Waterloo
Established in 1818 as the Royal Coburg Theatre, the venue was renamed the Royal Victoria Theatre in 1833, reopening in 1871 after rebuilding work as the Royal Victoria Palace. In 1880 it became the Royal Victoria Hall and Coffee Tavern, although by this time it was already known as ‘The Old Vic’. It was run on strict temperance lines. The penny lectures given in the hall led to the foundation of Morley College. At its foundation it was classed a ‘minor’ theatre and was thus technically forbidden to show serious drama. Popular staples in the ‘non-serious’ repertoire included ‘sensational and violent’ melodramas demonstrating the evils of drink, ‘churned out by the house dramatist’, teetotaller Douglas Jerrold. In 1858, 16 people were crushed to death inside the theatre during a mass panic after an actor’s clothing caught fire.
Sitting on the south side of the River, The Old Vic has always seemed to me somewhat less formal than traditional London theatres. While I love the splendour of Frank Matcham’s designs, there is just that feeling of being more at home in The Old Vic. It is also the only place where I have gone to see the same production more than once. Their Christmas Carol is a triumphant staging of the classic and a tribute to the designers who have taken a story that we all know so well and shown it to us in a totally new presentation. Sitting in the audience, you know that you are in the presence of something very special.
Globe Theatre, Bankside
William Shakespeare was a part-owner of the acting company The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, as well as its resident playwright. From its inception in 1594 the company performed at The Theatre, a playhouse in Shoreditch, but by 1598 their patrons had fallen out of favour with Queen Elizabeth and The Theatre’s landlord Giles Alleyn intended to cancel the company’s lease and tear the building down. Although Alleyn owned the land he did not own The Theatre, so on 28 December 1598 the company of actors, helped by volunteers, took the building down timber by timber, loaded it onto barges and made their way across the Thames to reconstruct it on a new site.
The new structure was similar to the old theatre, as was the neighbouring bear garden. The pillars were painted to look like Italian marble and images of classical gods overlooked the balcony. Known as the Globe, it opened in May 1599. A flag showing Hercules carrying the world on his back was raised above the theatre, inscribed with the Latin motto ‘totus mundus agit histrionem’, ‘all the world’s a playhouse’. During a performance of Henry VIII in June 1613, a cannon announcing the arrival of the king at the end of Act One set fire to the thatched roof; within an hour the Globe had burned to the ground but after only seven months an updated version was built on the same site. Like all other London theatres, the Globe was closed by Parliament at the outbreak of the First English Civil War; it was pulled down in 1644–45 to make room for tenements.
In 1970 the American actor and director Sam Wanamaker set up the Shakespeare’s Globe Trust to pursue his dream of reconstructing the original Globe theatre. It took him and a team of experts nearly 30 years to reconstruct it as close to the original as possible. It opened in 1997, approximately 750 feet from the original.
Strand Musick Hall, Strand
The Strand Musick Hall was constructed in 1863, but fashion was changing and only a few years later, in 1868 it was renamed The Gaiety Theatre. Its last performance was in July 1903, after which it was demolished due to the Aldwych Road widening scheme. However, construction of its replacement was already underway and the opening production of The Orchid took place just four months later in October 1903. The new Gaiety Theatre was built on a site roughly opposite the original. Gertie Millar starred in a series of hit musical comedies at the new Gaiety Theatre, becoming one of the most photographed women in Edwardian England. In 1905 a besotted young admirer shot himself in Millar’s boudoir, dying in a nearby hospital a few hours later.
The theatre opened on 23 December 1905, when the first audience members queued from eight in the morning to see Ellaline Terriss and Seymour Hicks star in an expanded version of Bluebell in Fairyland. The management provided them with camp stools and playing cards while they waited. The Sunday Referee newspaper suggested that the management should perhaps also offer breakfast and dinner. In 1949, Laurence Olivier directed his wife Vivien Leigh as Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire.
In December 1960, Peter Hall established the theatre as the headquarters of the Royal Shakespeare Company, an arrangement that lasted for 20 years until the RSC moved to Stratford-upon-Avon. Joan Collins starred in a revival of Private Lives here in 1990/91, while in March 2018, the theatre saw the world premiere of TINA: The Tina Turner Musical.
The London Coliseum, one of London’s largest and most opulent theatres, with an original seating capacity of 2,939 seats, was designed by Frank Matcham and originally called the London Coliseum Theatre of Varieties. It opened on Christmas Eve 1904 but after a brief closure reopened in 1907 as The London Coliseum and ran successfully as a variety theatre until 1931. Most of the great variety stars appeared on its stage at one time or another. One of the first theatres to use electric lighting, the Coliseum also featured a triple revolving stage which, although rarely used, had three concentric rings which could all be rotated independently in either direction. The London Palladium would later also feature a similar device, but sadly neither has survived.
Another feature of the Coliseum was underfloor water tanks holding 20,000 gallons to be used for aquatic spectacles. The Era on 17 December 1904 described spacious tea rooms on every tier: the Terrace Tea Room, Grand Tier Tea Room and Balcony Tea Room, as well as confectionery stalls and an American Bar. Between performances a band played in the Terrace Tea Room.
‘Talkies’ arrived at the Coliseum in 1933 and ran here for a year. The greatest sensation of the time was King Kong, with several daily showings for months and 10,000 people seeing the film every day. Pantomimes began in 1936 with Cinderella and continued regularly until 1946. From 1947 the musical Annie Get Your Gun ran for 1,304 performances, the longest run in theatrical history at the time, followed by a long run of major American hits beginning with Kiss Me, Kate (1951), Guys And Dolls (1953), The Pajama Game (1955) and Damn Yankees (1957). In May 1961 MGM took a long lease on the theatre which was converted for full-time cinema use, opening in June 1961 with Gone With The Wind. Two years later it was converted for Cinerama and equipped with the largest cinema screen in London at the time, deeply curved and eighty feet wide by 30 feet tall. It opened with the three-strip version of The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, which ran for five months.
The Sadler’s Wells Opera Company moved into the building in 1968, changing its name to the English National Opera in 1974. Today the theatre is used primarily for opera, as well as being the London home of the English National Ballet.
King’s Head, Angel
Founded in 1970 by Dan Crawford, on the site of the 16th century King’s Head tavern in Islington, this is the oldest operating pub theatre in the UK. Crawford ran the venue for 35 years until his death in 2005, when his wife and associate artistic director Stephanie Sinclaire took over with help from Caroline Smith and Crawford’s old team, as well as supporters such as Maureen Lipman and John Mortimer. The theatre is located behind the bar in a back room that had been used in the past as a pool hall and boxing venue.
For over 20 years after decimalisation the bar continued to show prices and charge for drinks in pre-decimal currency. I used to occasionally drink here while working at Anthony Benjamin’s studio in the 1980s. The barman would tell you the price in old money, you paid in new money and got your change in new money.
In October 2010 it was announced that the theatre would become ‘London’s Little Opera House’, the first new opera house in London for over 40 years. The first opera performed was an adaption of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, or, in this case, of Salisbury, set in Jane Austen’s time.
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
Opening in 1732, the theatre operated during its first 100 years primarily as a playhouse, with the Letters Patent granted by Charles II giving the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden and Theatre Royal, Drury Lane exclusive rights to present spoken drama in London. It presented its first ballet in 1734, while a second theatre opened in September 1809. Early pantomimes were performed as mimes accompanied by music, but as music hall became popular, the pantomime dame was introduced, along with audience participation.
In 1817 bare flame gaslight replaced the candles and oil lamps that had previously lit the stage. In a further improvement, limelight was introduced in 1837 during a pantomime performance. Limelight used a block of quicklime heated by an oxygen and hydrogen flame, allowing for the use of spotlights to highlight performers on the stage.
On 5 March 1856, the theatre was again destroyed by fire. A third incarnation of the theatre opened as the Royal Italian Opera House in May 1858 with a production of Les Huguenots by Meyerbeer; this building remains the nucleus of the present theatre. It was renamed the Royal Opera House in 1892.
During the first world war the theatre was requisitioned by the Ministry of Works for use as a furniture repository, while it became a dance hall during the second world war, reopening in February 1946 with a performance of The Sleeping Beauty.
In 1975 the government provided land adjacent to the Royal Opera House for modernisation, refurbishment and extension. This added new ballet studios, offices, rehearsal and dressing rooms. In 1997 much of the site, including several adjacent buildings, was demolished to allow for a substantial increase in the size of the complex. The auditorium itself remained, but over half of the complex is brand new. The Royal Opera House claims to be the most modern theatre facility in Europe.
Empress Theatre, Brixton
The close of the 19th century saw a boom in theatre building across the country. The Empress, with a seating capacity of 1,260, opened in Brixton with a variety show on Boxing Day 1898. It was hugely impressive building both inside and out, and was described as one of the finest venues of its type in London. Its first manager, Doyle Crossley, would greet patrons in the foyer dressed in tails and smoking a cigar. It had many name changes over the years, including the Empress Theatre, Empress, Theatre of Varieties, Empress Music Hall and Granada Cinema.
The exterior was updated in 1931, and the 1950s and 1960s saw a range of vaudeville artists performing here: comedian Max Brown, the ‘Heavyweight Champion of Humour’, singers, ventriloquists, acrobats, novelty acts including Shann ‘The Memory Girl’ and many household names including Tony Hancock, Joe Brown, Max Miller, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy and Bruce Forsyth. The wrestling matches held here proved highly popular and were broadcast weekly on Saturday television.
As variety moved from the stage to the TV, the theatre became a Granada cinema in around 1957, then a bingo hall in the 1970s, before suffering the ignominious fate of becoming a furniture storage depot. The building was demolished in 1992 and no trace of it survives.
Wyndham’s Theatre, Charing Cross Road
Wyndham’s Theatre sits on Charing Cross Road, next to Leicester Square Tube station and at the crossroads for anyone walking between Piccadilly Circus and Covent Garden. Standing outside the theatre any day at about 7pm, just before the theatres fill up and you would think the whole world was walking past.
The theatre opened in November 1899 with the play David Garrick by T.W. Robertson. Sir Charles Wyndham himself played David Garrick, and Mary Moore, his future wife, played Ada Ingot. Charles Wyndham had an interesting life. Born in 1837, he had attended boarding schools in England, Scotland, Germany and France. As a young man he studied medicine by day and amateur theatricals in his spare time. For three years he was a surgeon on the Union side in the American Civil War, but managed to fit in a couple of appearances on the stage in New York while there. He later returned to the US to play in theatres all over the country and in 1882 his Criterion company was the first English troupe to reach America’s west coast.
The theatre was designed by W.G.R. Sprague, who also designed six other London theatres including Charles Wyndham’s second theatre, the New Theatre, today known as the Noël Coward Theatre, built at the rear of Wyndham’s Theatre. The New Theatre was St Martin’s Lane’s second, after the Trafalgar Square Theatre, now named the Duke of York’s. The London Coliseum was also being built on St Martin’s Lane at this time. The Wyndham established itself as a theatre presenting good quality drama, light comedy and farce, Wyndham’s own specialities.
I first saw Art, by Yasmina Reza in 1996 during its long run at Wyndham’s. At the time the cast was Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay and Ken Stott. The play turns up for short runs every few years in London. I’ve seen it three times. Godspell ran for two and a half years in the 1970s and Madonna made her West End debut here in 2002 in a production of Up For Grabs.
The West End transfer of the National Theatre’s production of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys in 2006, Much Ado About Nothing starring David Tennant and Catherine Tate in 2011, and Quatermaine’s Terms starring Rowan Atkinson in 2013, were all successes. In 2014 the ‘London Waterfront’ was opened at Universal Studios, Florida, and for their example of a London Theatre, they built a large-scale replica of the façade of Wyndham’s.
100 Theatres: Portraits of the Playhouse by Paul Tracey, published by Unicorn Publishing.
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All images © Paul Tracey