To its initial owners, Walter and Frederick Melville, The Princes Theatre, as it was then called, stood as a vision to host fashionable melodrama, much like their other theatre, The Lyceum. Designed by Bertie Crewe, it was considered a flamboyant masterpiece in the early 1900’s from the life-size groups of statuary representing Comedy, Tragedy, Poetry and Music that still adorn the tops of the boxes, to the original paintings above the boxes.
On Boxing Day 1911, the Theatre opened with a production of The Three Musketeers. The Melville brothers became Popular Playhouses Ltd and The Princes Theatre was born. The Theatre changed its name to the New Princes Theatre in 1914 and the repertoire was slowly broadened under new manager Seymour Hicks in 1916 as light operettas such as Andre Messager’s Monsieur Beaucaire, starring the famous soprano Dame Maggie Teyte, were introduced. This tradition was then continued by Sir Charles Cochran, a famous veteran of variety, who presented the first Gilbert and Sullivan seasons by the D’Oyly Carte Company. The company returned over the following three decades presenting nearly every opera written by Gilbert and Sullivan.
Notable shows over the earlier decades include Sarah Bernhardt in Daniel (1921), Sybil Thorndike and Henry Ainley in Macbeth (1926) and Funny Face with Fred Astaire (1928). Then followed a period of change when manager Firth Shepard produced successful shows described as a ‘medley of mirth and music’ like Merrie England (1934 and 1945), Fun and Games (1941) and The Shepard Show (1939 and 1946). The Theatre remained open, despite two occasions of bomb damage, during the Second World War, offering audiences a cultural programme of international talent such as Serge Diaghaleff’s Ballet featuring Margot Fonteyn and the Sadler’s Wells Opera and Ballet.
The variety and revue producer Bertram Montague presented an equally diverse programme from 1947-52, including Ram Gopal and His Indian Dancers (1947), Broadway success Hellzapoppin (1948) starring Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson, as well as yearly traditional pantomimes which he devised and directed with Barry Lupino and Arthur Ash. At this time, the Theatre’s presenter was Jack Hylton, the infamous band-leader and impresario who interestingly is credited as the man who discovered an unknown Audrey Hepburn. He went on to launch shows at the Princes Theatre such as The Shrike (1953) with Sam Wanamaker, the classic musicals Pal Joey (1954), Wonderful Town (1955) and Urfaust (1959) directed by Ingmar Bergman.
A programme from The Princes Theatre