World Theatre Day 2023
Posted 27th March 2023
A look back in to the history of our iconic theatre family
To mark World Theatre Day 2023, we’ve taken a look back into the history of our six iconic theatres to find out where they started and what drama has taken place along the way, that didn’t happen on their famous stages.
Theatre Royal Drury Lane
The recently restored, Theatre Royal Drury Lane is the fourth theatre building to occupy the site, making it the World’s oldest theatre site in continuous use. The current theatre was designed by Benjamin Dean Wyatt it first opened its doors in 1812 and its grand Regency front of house spaces are little altered to this day, although the auditorium has been reconfigured a few times, the current auditorium now seats 1996 each with better sight lines and more leg room.
The first theatre opened in 1663 but was destroyed by fire in 1672. The second building lasted for 117 years and a third building erected, to Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s orders, in 1794. This building was the first in the world to have a safety curtain and rudimentary sprinkler system but despite these innovations burnt to the ground in 1809. During renovations backstage in 2003 this glass fire extinguisher was discovered in an old fireplace. It’s moulded glass markings read ‘The Harden “Star” Hand Grenade Fire Extinguisher Co. Ltd. London’. When thrown into a fire the glass would break, on impact the liquid inside would engulf all the air there and without oxygen the fire would be extinguished. Safety measures are much more rigorous today meaning the current building has survived for 210 years so far.
The London Palladium
Opened in 1910 as a Grand Music Hall The London Palladium has followed entertainment fashions over the years adapting to changes successfully and gaining different reputations over the years as the home of variety entertainment, spectacular pantomime, family musicals, television shows, the Royal Variety Performance and music and comedy concerts.
In the 1970s Moss Empires controlled The London Palladium and introduced a limited range of merchandise to capitalise on the venue’s popularity. Cards and notelets were produced along with the Trinket Tray pictured featuring a transfer illustration of the theatre frontage and its advertising by-line “The World’s Ace Variety Theatre”. Produced for the theatre by Wade these were often presented to people as thank you gifts and would very often be found on the desks of theatre managers and impresarios who generally employed them as ashtrays.
Her Majesty’s Theatre
Although there has been a theatre on this Haymarket site since 1705 the current building designed by renowned theatre architect C J Phipps dates from 1897. This incarnation of Her Majesty’s Theatre was all the brainchild of actor/manager Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree.
Beerbohm Tree’s dream was to provide a playhouse in which he could stage spectacular productions of Shakespeare and literary adaptations starring himself and Lady Tree. Her Majesty’s was the first theatre in the UK to be built with a flat stage and Tree installed a complex set of stage lifts and machinery to create his desired effects. For most of his productions he also produced lavish souvenir brochures and portfolios with illustrations of key scenes and portraits of the actors. This is the brochure for his 1899 production of King John and the opening spread includes a mounted photograph of Tree in the title role.
Having been a theatre site since 1806 the current Adelphi Theatre opened in 1930 with a Jessie Matthews musical called Ever Green and it has been a home to musical theatre ever since. Productions include the London premieres of The Music Man, Charlie Girl, Love Never Dies, The Bodyguard, Kinky Boots and Back to the Future. Amongst many successful revivals are Evita, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and the long running Me and My Girl and Chicago.
When Oklahoma! opened in London to great acclaim in 1947 a smaller British musical was achieving equal success down the road at the Adelphi Theatre. Musical maestro Vivian Ellis and politician A.P. Herbert wrote Bless the Bride specifically to suit the talents of their chosen leading lady – radio star Lizbeth Webb “The Champagne Soprano”. Unlike her co-stars, Georges Guetary and Betty Paul, Webb was employed by Charles B. Cochran on a run of show contract and with the show running for more than three years she sang her signature tune ‘This Is My Lovely Day’ more than 850 times.
The Cambridge Theatre opened in 1930 when there was an inter-war mini building boom of theatres and cinemas employing the new technology of building quickly by means of poured concrete. Over the years it has proved to be a successful home for revue, plays and musicals. It has been home to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s musical version of Roald Dahl’s Matilda for over 11 years.
This small silver cup on a marble base is a reminder of the first new musical to open at the Cambridge Theatre in this millennium. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new musical The Beautiful Game opened following workshops held at the theatre the previous year. The musical dealt with the travails of a Northern Irish boys football team in the time of troubles with a cast led by Josie Walker and Hannah Waddingham (later to find football related fame in Ted Lasso). Sadly the terrorism vital to the plot failed to appeal to audiences following the shocking events of 9/11 and the start of the “War on Terror”. Before that sad turn of the events though the cast exchanged first night gifts on football related themes and this little trophy was a direct reflection of the show’s publicity design featuring a boy holding a silver cup on high.
Gillian Lynne Theatre
Opening in 1973 as The New London Theatre this state-of-the-art building was designed to act as a multi-purpose entertainment and conference centre with a fully flexible auditorium that could work in the round and with a traditional proscenium arch.
It was renamed after Dame Gillian Lynne, the choreographer of Cats, its longest running production, in 2018.
During its 21-year run at the theatre Cats broke many records. This programme cover was especially produced for Monday 29 January 1996 when the producers provided the entire audience with champagne to celebrate the fact that upon reaching 6,141 performances the show became the longest running show in the history of the West End and Broadway, breaking the previous record set by A Chorus Line. When Cats closed in 2001 it still held that record which has long since been taken over on Broadway by another Andrew Lloyd Webber musical – The Phantom of the Opera.