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Theatre History

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Every week, we will be posting the story of a new decade of the Shaftesbury Theatre’s history. Our story starts in 1911, with the design of a new building to be called The New Princes Theatre…

The story told here has been put together by Saskia Baylis, with help from the V&A Theatre and Performance archives, the Special Collections at the University of Kent and the Theatre Collection at the University of Bristol.


1980 – 1990

Hello Dolly, starring Carole Channing and Eddie Bracken, was the first show of 1980. The Theatre appears to have then closed for renovations, reopening in October with They’re Playing Our Song, starring Tom Conti and Gemma Craven. Ray Cooney, playwright and director, is credited as a producer. They’re Playing Our Song was a major gamble for the Shaftesbury – owner Laurie Marsh apparently threatened to close the Theatre if it flopped. The redecorations had apparently cost around £150,000, and the show itself cost £500,000. Fortunately, the show was a great success. It ran until 1982, with a couple of cast changes, before the building closed yet again for major renovations – for nine months this time.

They’re Playing Our Song had been such a success for Cooney that he was able to use that production as a launch pad for a new company – first called The Theatre of Laughter, which later changed to the Theatre of Comedy. This company produced the show that reopened the Shaftesbury – Run For Your Wife, written, produced and directed by Cooney, and starring Richard Briers, Peter Blake, Helen Gill, Royce Mills, Bernard Cribbins, Sam Cox, Carol Hawkins and Bill Pertwee. Run For Your Wife opened in March 1983, and was a resounding success.

I hope that the roof of the re-vamped Shaftesbury is now firmly battened down. The old rafters are going to take a hammering for some time to come if I’m any judge of an audience’s mood.

–     Daily Mail, March 30th 1983

The long-dark Shaftesbury has now been given a rude awakening.

– Punch, April 13th 1983

As well as launching his new company with a show at the Shaftesbury, Cooney went one step further and took out a five year lease on the Theatre.

The Shaftesbury has the advantages of being large and, having been closed for nine months, of needed an entirely new staff. So Cooney took the opportunity of hiring young, keen people – unversed, he says, in the quaint traditions of the West End. The box-office people have a background in public relations and take the computerised ticket system in their stride. The computer is itself an adventure. Cooney’s theatre may well be the only one outside the Albery group to have such a device. Apart from doing wonders for the accounting system, giving an accurate, instantaneous and detailed picture of a show’s financial health within minutes of closing-time at the box office each night, it will make tickets easier to come by.

–     Profile of Ray Cooney in the Times, 15th March 1983

As well as introducing computers to the box office, Cooney also instated a new profit-sharing scheme among the staff. 20% of the theatre’s profits were shared on a sliding scale, according to salary, with the production and theatre staff.

Cooney is the first to recognise that all the far-sighted ideas in the world cannot make up for a faulty product. Ultimately, it is the show that counts, and much hangs on his first venture. It is in this department that the ebullient Ray Cooney feels most in his element. For all his enthusiasm for new technology, the role of Victorian actor-manager still suits him perfectly.

– Profile of Ray Cooney in the Times, 15th March 1983

Cooney wasn’t committing to the Theatre of Comedy venture alone – in fact, a list of the most well accomplished and high profile actors of the day were with him.

John Alderton

Richard Briers

George Cole

Pauline Collins

Tom Conti

Ray Cooney

Tom Courtenay

Wendy Craig

Bernard Cribbins

Jim Dale

Judi Dench

Paul Eddington

Frank Finlay

Liza Goddard

Sheila Hancock

Nigel Hawthorne

Dinsdale Landen

Maureen Lipman

Geraldine McEwan

Julia McKenzie

John Mortimer

Derek Nimmo

Geoffrey Palmer

Leslie Phillips

Jack Rosenthal

Leonard Rossiter

Donald Sinden

John Standing

Sheila Steafel

Eric Sykes

Michael Williams

An entry in the programme for Run For Your Wife stated the origins and aims of the new company.

The creation of a Theatre of Comedy has long been the cherished aspiration of Ray Cooney. Having approached leading members of the theatrical profession to join with him in realising this ambition, by December 1982 the nucleus of the new company had been formed.

Included as Founder Members of the Company are several writers and some thirty leading actors and actresses all of whom are prepared to give, not only their names and their talents, but their time, energy and indeed financial involvement to the creation of the Theatre of Comedy, and most of their original deliberations have already become facts.

The first being the leasing of the Shaftesbury Theatre. This particular theatre well suits their purpose because of the ambience of the auditorium. Despite its large seating capacity it provides and intimate relationship between performer and audience, so necessary for comedy. But, because of its size, reasonable seat prices can be offered, one of the main policies albeit it is a commercial venture and does not enjoy any subsidies.

In the running of the theatre it was felt to be of prime importance to welcome and to create the right atmosphere for the audience. So it was determined that they should receive a pleasant greeting, a free cast list and only to be charged ‘pub’ prices at the theatre bars, all these facts have been much remarked upon already. One bar is kept open after the performance to serve both audience and theatre company alike, both thirsty hopefully, one after the demands of laughing and the other of creating the laughter.

A Theatre of Comedy Club has been formed; refreshments are served during the day so people can make use of the theatre and feel welcome at any time, including some Sundays where there are special concerts.

The welcome also extends to everybody who works at the Shaftesbury Theatre both backstage and front of house. They are made to feel concerned with and part of the venture. This has been achieved partly by the creation of a profit sharing scheme in which everybody participates.

But the main concept was to create a theatre with an identifiable policy of comedy, using existing talent to the full – both of the Founder Members and many others. To present four or five major productions a year at the Shaftesbury Theatre – a typical season containing perhaps a new comedy, a pantomime, a revival and a musical. The companies always being led by major stars.

At the same time the Theatre of Comedy Company wanted to nurture young writers, directors, designers, actors and actresses to ensure a future for the comedic talents which have been so excellently produced in this country for many generations. So the Theatre of Comedy with have a separate Little Theatre where they will be able to encourage new talent to experiment, utilise and perfect their skills whilst giving the already established exponents of comedy the opportunity to pass on their knowledge and expertise in a highly varied programme of productions.

So here is the Theatre of Comedy with all its exciting plans, but finally comes the vital ingredient in any comedy, you, the audience.

You are most welcome.

Several successful shows followed Cooney’s risky venture. First was Aladdin, for Christmas 1983. In February 1984, See How They Run starred Peter Blake, Michael Denison, Liza Goddard, Carol Hawkins, Maureen Lipman, Royce Mills, Derek Nimmo, Bill Pertwee and Christopher Timothy. The all star cast were very well reviewed.

There was a small course change towards drama a few months later with Pygmalion, with Peter O’Toole, Jackie Smith-Wood, John Thaw, Jack Watlking, Joyce Carey, Barbara Murray, Lally Bowers, Timothy Ackroyd and Amanda Prior, followed by A Friend Indeed with Derek Nimmo, Geoffrey Palmer, Moira Lister, Colette Gleeson, Jo Kendall, Mark Colleano and Julie Dawn.

One of the most popular plays of this era was Two Into One, written and directed by Cooney, and starring several of the Theatre of Comedy alumni. Donald Sinden, Michael Williams, Lionel Jeffries, Barbara Murray, Derek Royle, Linda Hayden, Jane Downs and Martin Connor.

It is a living, breathing, yelping testament to the vigour of our players’ farcical predilections and by far the most hilarious production yet mounted by Mr Cooney’s Theatre of Comedy at the Shaftesbury.

–     Michael Covenay, FT 25th October 1984

Michael Williams was the standout star, being described as a ‘farce actor of the first rank’, who played his character ‘like a demented otter’ (unknown paper). A cast change brought Tom Conti and Eric Sykes into the main roles in March 1985, and another one in December that year brought in John Thaw and Daniel Massey.

Rowan Atkinson staged a Revue in March 1986, with Angus Deaton participating in some sketches and writing from Richard Curtis and Ben Elton. The same group returned a short while later, in April that year, for the first ever Comic Relief stage show. Comic Relief Utterly Utterly Live, raising money for the charity founded by Curtis and Jane Tewson, was a huge success. The stars taking part included Elton, Atkinson and Deaton, as well as Billy Connolly, Stephen Fry, Lenny Henry, Rik Mayall and the Young Ones, double act French and Saunders, plus musicians Midge Ure, Bob Geldof, Cliff Richards and Kate Bush! The show was filmed for broadcast, as well as recorded and released on vinyl. Oddly, for April, the show ended in a whole group rendition of ‘Feed The World’.

In June, the Theatre returned to drama with a run of The Entertainer which starred Peter Bowles, and then to farce, with Rookery Nook with Tom Courtenay in the lead role. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother attended a special celebration of the latter in November 1986 in celebration of the writer, Ben Travis.

An Italian Straw Hat, another Cooney farce, did not have the same success as it’s predecessots, despite a cast that included Tom Conti and Clive Dunn. The moment the curtain came down on the opening performance, the director Anton Rodgers was unceremoniously fired and Cooney took charge of the show. Rodgers was apparently feuding with Conti about the direction of the show, and the cast overall were reportedly in complete chaos. The Times strongly disapproved of Cooney’s version of the Labiche play, sarcastically characterising his style: ‘The Cooney treatment goes something like this: when in doubt, bring on a man with trousers round his ankles.’

A new start was needed, and this was provided by a hugely expensive refit of the Theatre, kitting it out with the latest technical equipment so that it was ready to host a lavish production of Sondheim’s Follies, produced by Cameron Mackintosh. The revival of this great stage musical cost over 2 million. The risk paid off, however, with the show running from 1987 to 1989. There were 42 cast members overall, and the technical facilities included 11 hydraulic lifts on stage, 22 dressers, electricians and follow spot operators, 5 stage managers, 6 wardrobe/wig staff and 22 musicians.

Cameron Mackintosh… has rebuilt the Shaftesbury Theatre. The new design has given work to several hundred builders and electricians and involves a revolving stage, multiple hoists, a cinema screen and an extended orchestra pit. The acting area has been extended with scaffolding cat walks, and the original Wedgewood decor of the boxes has been sprayed in frosted baby blue and pink to recreate the old Broadway Follies vaudeville theatre.

–     Telegraph Magazine feature on Mackintosh, 19th July 1987

Diana Rigg, Julia McKenzie, Daniel Massey, David Healey and Dolores Grey were in the first cast, with Eartha Kitt also appearing later on in the run.

[Eartha Kitt] ordered the fans who gather outside her dressing room at the Shaftesbury Theatre (where she is starring in Follies) to come bearing plants. In fact, Miss Kitt has decreed that no one should be allowed into her dressing room with cut flowers. Only potted plants will do. This is causing some confusion and a great deal of foliage at the theatre.

–     Evening Standard, 14th July 1988

When Follies was finished, the ‘baby blue and pink’ colour scheme was rapidly replaced with the one that we still see in 2020. New paintings above the boxes were commissioned from scenic designer Susie Caulcutt. Other changes, including adding 40 more seats in the Royal Circle, adding a new lighting box at the rear of the Royal Circle, new air conditioning and a restoration of the exterior stonework all helped modernise the Theatre building – which next presented a three week run of Eartha Kitt in Concert.

A production of M Butterfly with Anthony Hopkins was a controversial premiere at the Shaftesbury in April 1989. The story of the play took place in a Parisian prison in 1989, with flashbacks to Beijing and Paris, and was about a French diplomat who unknowingly has a 20 year relationship with a Chinese woman who turns out to be a man. Singaporean Glen Goei played the Butterfly part, in his professional debut.

Eiko Ishioka’s setting, developed in close association with John Dexter, was a triumph of Japanese simplicity – a huge spiralling ramp around a central focal point, wrapped around a vast diorama which was so smooth as to defy one’s focussing on it.

–     Interview in Cue International with lighting designer Andy Phillips

The play disturbs and challenges precisely because it weaves sex and politics together so skilfully.

– Michael Billington, Guardian 22nd April 1989

In the programme for M. Butterfly, one of the 11 Directors listed for the Theatre of Comedy company is an American called Donald Taffner. Taffner, who had become a significant shareholder in 1986, was the owner of his own television production company, DLT Entertainment.


1970 – 1980

It is beyond dispute that HAIR by word and simulated act portrays, approves, and preaches sexual immorality and perversion and the taking of drugs, all of which, together with an ingredient of blasphemy, are totally inconsistent with those Christian standards which the authorities of the cathedral, like ourselves, are pledged to uphold.

–     Letter written to the Times, December 10th 1971, in reaction to the company of Hair holding their own version of Communion at St Pauls Cathedral to celebrate their third anniversary.


Despite a chorus of objections, Hair was a roaring success. It looked set to run and run, until disaster struck. Hearing a loud noise, theatre fireman Bit Lamper entered the Theatre at 5:40 in the morning of the 20th July 1973. He found himself enveloped in a crowd of dust, and saw a 12 foot section of scrolled plasterwork from above the stage had fallen down. The Theatre was immediately closed down by the Council. Members of the Hair company gathered outside the Theatre and wept. The show had played 1998 performances, and would have played two more that very day if the ceiling had not collapsed.

This incident, however, was not as simple as a mere collapsed ceiling. The Shaftesbury had recently been sold to a company called Peureula Investments for £1.5m. Reports at the time had rumoured that they paid three times as much as the Theatre was worth because they believed they could convert it into office space. The accident at the Shaftesbury, and the weeping cast of Hair stranded outside the Theatre, was just the latest development in a story that had been ongoing in London’s Theatreland for years.

In 1972, the British Actors’ Equity Association began a campaign to protect 13 theatres, all of which were under threat by the Greater London Council’s plans to develop the Covent Garden area. The plans including road widening proposals in Maiden Lane and Charing Cross Road.

It was clear that firm and swift action was necessary if London’s unique entertainment area was not to be sacrificed to the demands of office blocks and the motor car.

–     1975 Report of the Save London Theatres Campaign

Throughout 1973, the Campaign sent letters, deputations and petitions to the Government and the Greater London Council. The Secretary of State ordered the withdrawal of the Covent Garden Plan. This meant that only a few theatres were still under threat – but this included the Shaftesbury. The Campaign believed that the new owners, Peureula Investments, intended to demolish the Theatre.

if we allowed the Shaftesbury to go without a struggle, before many weeks were out other theatres would have succumbed and a vicious chain of events set in motion. Every West End theatre by virtue of its position alone is worth vastly more as potential office space than in its present use.

–     1975 Report

An attempt to get the building listed was unsuccessful. However, the Minister of the Environment, Geoffrey Rippon, helped pass a request under Section 8 of the 1972 Local Authority Act. This meant that although the owners could not be forced to run it as a theatre, at least the building was prevented from being demolished.

You may imagine our dismay when in the early hours of 20th July – 6am to be precise – the ceiling of the Shaftesbury fell in. The run of HAIR was therefore terminated at the building empty and forlorn – we had won a particularly hollow victory

–     1975 Report

The attempts to save the Shaftesbury were rapidly derailed, with the building once again in danger. The cast, in protest to the planned redevelopment, performed their 2000th performance on the streets outside. There were few developments until October that year, when the Campaign received a call that the Stage and FOH staff have summarily been sacked and that the Theatre was to be gutted. The dismissed staff decided on the spot to remain in the building to protest this decision, and appealed to the Campaign for advice. The Campaign decided to mount a 24/7 picked to protect the Theatre. Many performers and enthusiasts took to the streets in support of the picket, which remained in place until the following Tuesday when an injunction was granted against Peureula.

The response to our appeal for volunteers was overwhelming and tremendously encouraging.

–     1975 Report

Peureula were forced to undertake to maintain the building, although it remained closed. The Campaign, in turn, gave up the protest. In 1974, Geoffrey Rippon passed a bill that included a clause allowing for penal rates to be levied on empty commercial buildings, which included the theatre. Camden Council enforced these rates on Peureula. Aided by these  measures, Peureula was therefore encouraged to re-open the Shaftesbury. They leased it to Chartergate, who sub-let to Bill Kenwright and Noel Pearson. The Shaftesbury Theatre opened with West Side Story in December 1974. The Sunday Telegraph wrote that: ‘The acclamation at the end almost brought the Shaftesbury’s new roof down.’

While West Side Story ran in the evenings, The Wombles On Stage took over the Theatre for matinees. The Shaftesbury show was one of nine around the country that Christmas season, as the nation was gripped by enthusiasm for the tidy characters. This version was one of the best of a bad lot, with an audience in Belfast reportedly storming the stage in protest at seeing their favourite characters portrayed so badly.

In September 1975, the original cast of Dad’s Army took to the stage for ‘A Nostalgic Music and Laughter Show of Britain’s Finest Hour’. Arthur Lowe, John le Mesurier, Clive Dunn, Arnold Ridley, Ian Lavender, Bill Pertwee, Frank Williams, Edward Sinclair, John Bardon, Hamish Roughead, Joan Cooper, Pamela Cundell and Jan Davies all reprised their roles from the series. Michael Billington reviewed them in the Guardian, calling it a ‘meandering, aimless revue that looks as if its been cobbled up out of tea-stained leftovers of original scripts.’ Other press was more positive, with most agreeing that the acting and sketches were great, the musical numbers less so.

The prolific playwright William Douglas Holmes had three plays going on in London at the same time in spring 1977, one of which was Rolls Hyphen Royce at the Shaftesbury. Michael Billington was less than enthusiastic – ‘Admittedly I’ve seen worse Douglas Home plays but that’s rather like congratulating oneself on not having pneumonia when one is suffering from influenza.’ There was great applause whenever the cars that were the play’s centrepiece either left or entered the stage. The Financial Times noted that the audience were so appreciative because there was always that element of doubt that the cars would move when the play called for them to.

A number of musicals followed Holmes’ play, including Liza of Lambeth, and then Maggie, based on a book by JM Barrie. Neither were particularly successful, although the closure of Maggie was blamed on the rolling black outs in London at the tie. The public, apparently, were kept away by the uncertainty of the power cuts.

Kismet, opening soon after in March 1978, closed after three months. In July, a production of Godspell opened, with Anthony Head in one of his first ever onstage roles. This was the 5th West End run of the popular musical.

The illustrator and designer Edward Gorey, who is known now for his wonderful books like The Doubtful Guest and The Willowdale Handcar, was the scenic and costume designer for a controversial production of Dracula at the Shaftesbury in 1978. The show transferred from Broadway after over 900 performances. Terence Stamp paid the title character. At the Queens Theatre down the road, however, a play called The Passion of Dracula was being staged at exactly the same time. There was a great rivalry between the two shows. The verdict was that the Queens play was generally better, while the Shaftesbury version had better designs. Unfortunately, Gorey’s work was not enough to keep Dracula open, and it closed two months after opening. It had been one of the most expensive straight plays ever staged in the West End.


1960 – 1970

The sixth decade at the Princes Theatre began and ended with the future of the Theatre severely threatened. In 1960, three musicals followed on quickly from each other – Girl on the Highway, Johnny the Priest and Over The Bridge, and all of them closed within weeks of opening. Despite rumours of the Theatre being in danger, Hylton asserted in the press in May: ‘There is no question of the Princes Theatre closing. We have several people anxious to come in, and it is a question of deciding which.’

Despite Hylton’s confidence, next show The Laughing Academy withdrew after a week. It wasn’t just the Princes that was struggling – one paper reported that between March and June 1960 14 plays in the West End ran for less than a month.

Fortunes seemed heading in a better direction with one of the early options of 1961. King Kong – A Jazz Musical featured an all black cast from South Africa. The opening night of the show was attended by Princess Margaret, who afterwards went backstage to congratulate the cast. Featured in the cast was fifteen year old Lemmy Mabaso, a child-star already famous for being discovered by a record company playing a ten whistle at 12. The show stayed at the Princes for a triumphant six months before touring the UK. When the show finished, ten cast members met with Hylton and told him that they wanted to stay in the UK. Although Hyton had guaranteed their return to South Africa to the authorities, he was reportedly happy to pay the fine for their stay as it meant avoiding paying their fare home.

Later in 1961, the London stage saw another unusual sight – the Polish State Jewish Theatre performing five plays entirely in Yiddish.

A group simply calling themselves African Dance Company visited from Senegal in November 1961. The women performed topless, which sent the British press into various states both furious and rapturous. The Guardian called the show ‘a veritable torso concerto’. The Times described their ‘exquisite poise, muscular control and rhythmic precision’ while the The Mail rather perplexingly declared: ‘Once again there is a great agitation of bosoms at the Princes’.

Between 1961 and 1962, the Princes was owned by Television Wales and West, and under the management of Jack Hylton on their behalf. In 1962, TWW sold the building to Charles Clore and record company EMI for £400,000. The new owners shut the building down for several months for major renovations – and a name change.

The first production of the new era was Broadway transfer How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. The programme carried a grand introduction to ‘The New Shaftesbury Theatre.’

The problem facing the designers and architects when tackling the redecoration of the old Prines Theatre was how to modernise the theatre’s facilities whilst preserving its traditional atmosphere…

In close consultation with interior designer Miss Joan Jefferson Farjeon, the new owners concentrate their efforts in creating a decor that was not only pleasing to the eye and comfort of the audience, but also practical for optimum playing conditions on the stage. New seats, carefully selected colours and many other renovations, both seen and hidden, have contributed to the warmth and practicality of its present atmosphere.

The old stage, which was severely raked, has been levelled, and the facilities for the handling of scenery have been modernised and made as efficient as any newly built theatre today. Extensive work has been done on the electrical equipment throughout the theatre. Completely new dimmer banks have been installed to accommodate an automatic pre-selected system of controls operated by an electronic console, situated in the new, special built control box at the back of the Upper Circle.

Back stage in the dressing rooms, the painters, plumbers, carpenters and decorators have worked to make the surroundings practical, modern and comfortable.

The foyer, too, has been redesigned, including a larger box office and an additional entrance to the stalls

The renovation of this fine old theatre, was accomplished under the supervision of the Architects’ Department of Token Constructions Co. Ltd., and was completed just before the opening of its current and first attraction HOW TO SUCCEED…

The show, and the new Theatre, were both great successes. How to Succeed ran through 1963 and into 1964.

A few short, but successful, runs provided an interlude before the next big musical at the newly named Shaftesbury. Comedian Victor Borge did a highly popular two week residency, followed by seasons of the Alvin Ailey American Dance company and the Paul Taylor Dance Company.

Our Man Crichton, based on the book by JM Barrie, ran from December 1964 through most of 1965. The designer David Wainwright described the great rush to create 16 sets and 120 costumes within three and a half weeks – ‘I remember one night when I thought – God, four back-drops to do before morning. We did them. I used a lot of short cuts. For one, we took the heads from some Edwardian photographs and stuck them on. I hope it works.’ Apparently it did indeed work, and the show was a great spectacle. One visitor backstage commented on this new era of success at the Shaftesbury – ‘The show is going very well. The dressing rooms have carpets and potted plants now. That’s a good sign.’

The signs might have been good, but the Theatre’s good fortune wouldn’t last out the decade. In December 1965 a new musical Twang!! premiered at the Shaftesbury, after a few nights in Manchester at the Palace Theatre. The writer, Lionel Bart, at one point refused to have his name attached to the script. The Director, Joan Littlewood, walked out of rehearsals twice, the second occasion permanently after the first night in Manchester. Burt Shelove took over and rewrote the script, but to no avail. The cast, including Barbara Windsor, James Booth and Ronnie Corbett, valiantly continued with what they had and the show ran for 22 performances.

Ensemble member Ben Aris wrote a letter to the theatre collectors Raymond Mander and Joe Mitchenson shortly after the show closed.

A very belated note to thank you so very much for your kind good luck message and the magnificent photograph of Waller as Robin Hood. I was very touched that you should take such trouble and I will much enjoy looking at it in years to come when the horrors of the show “Twang” have added into ghostly wisps of memory.

Nobody was sad when the fatal blow was given last Friday – in fact there was a considerable amount of subdued smiling, sighing with relief and hat raising. I’m sure nobody enjoys the thought of being out of work but such have been the tortures of Twang that the usually cataclysmic news brought about such universal relief.

I wonder what we will all be doing next? The show has been a great object lesson in theatrical waste. Time, money (£150,000 by the time we end) and talent have been wickedly (?) gallandered and I think a lot of people, including myself, have ‘grown up’ considerably through what we’ve seen and experienced.

It’s such a long time since I saw you both, I suppose it’s too late even to wish you even a Happy New Year. I sent no Christmas cards this year and this is the first ‘writing’ moment I’ve had. Forgive my tardiness. Many thanks again. Yours, Ben Aris.

For the final days of the show, Bart was reportedly paying £5,000 of his own money per week to keep the production going. Overall, Twang!! was one of the most expensive musicals ever produced.

After a closure of several months, Big Bad Mouse opened at the Shaftesbury starring Eric Sykes and Jimmy Edwards. This slapstick comedy must have been a welcome relief after the stress of Twang!! and the audience loved it, keeping the show running all the way until 1968.

It was at this point in the Shaftesbury’s history that the Theatre found itself at the epicentre of various issues shaking up the West End, and UK theatre as an industry.

Since Tudor times, playwrights in the UK had to seek approval for their compositions from the Lord Chamberlain. This office’s powers of censorship finally came to an end with the Theatres Act 1968. The day following this, the Princes opened the controversial self-described tribal love-rock musical, Hair.

In one of the few verbal passages of this ‘tribal love-rock musical’, someone remarks that we are living in a psychedelic stone-age ruled by electronic dinosaurs. The show bears out that description. It is at once aggressively primitive and crammed with technological sophistication. 

– Irving Wardle

I have seldom been more out of anything as I was of this production. Obviously I am the wrong age for it and possibly the wrong nationality. For this is the youth of America expressing itself in very American terms. To me the evening was a complete bore. It was noisy, it was ugly and it was desperately unfunny. It tried hard. A young man took off his trousers and handed them to somebody in the front row of the stalls and my reaction was very much what Queen Victoria’s might have been.

– Mr WA Darlington, 78, Daily Telegraph critic

There is plenty of blasphemy, perversion, and other material taboo until yesterday, to alarm unwary customers. But the unmistakeable purpose of the show – behind its strobe light massacres and transvestite parades of Western heroes – is to send up a great hymn of freedom and love; and for once the message really comes across.

– Irving Wardle

I have no wish to spend a night watching and listening to so much brassy defiance.

– JC Trewin, in response to Wardle’s review

The Shaftesbury Theatre is playing to capacity houses, grossing some 12,000 a week, and heavily booked until next May.

– John Barber, Daily Telegraph

Wearing a black trouser suit, she danced for about six minutes.

– Daily Mail article, describing Princess Anne visiting Hair and dancing on stage with the cast at the end of the show.

1950 – 1960

As the 20th Century progressed, the Princes increasingly became a venue for holding concerts and events raising money for a variety of charities. One such concert brought in the new decade, raising funds for the theatrical charity The Green Room Rags Society. Charity members, who were always men who worked in Theatre, were able to seek help from the Society if they fell into financial trouble. Arnold Bennett, in the event pamphlet, explains why the Theatre world is so inclined towards charitable events: ‘I must point out that these events are among the rare occasions upon which the theatrical profession publicly atones for sin. The unspeakable wickedness of this ancient profession has been the theme of the narrow-minded for centuries… But I will add to the list of sins one item which, remarkable to relate, the narrow minded have always forgotten. That is to say, the sin of being too generous, the sin of being so generous as to put the rest of the world at shame.’

The Theatre courted controversy in October 1950 with a production of Val Giulgud’s Party Manners. The play had previously been a television show, and had been taken off the air for fear of causing offence to the Labour government of the day. The story apparently implied that a left-wing government would put an election campaign above national security. At least two other theatres had refused to host the production. There was a great anticipation before opening night at the Princes, with extra police stationed in the area, but the evening passed with no great disturbance. In fact, many reviewers were surprised that such a well-mannered play had caused such a furore. ‘Mr Giulgud’, wrote the Daily Mail, ‘must be blushing to think what a stir he caused with such an unpretentious spoon.’

By this point, the Princes regularly produced a pantomime at Christmastime. 1950’s offering was Mother Goose, presented by Bertram Montague. According to the Mail, not all laughs on the first night were entirely as intended. There was an unfortunate moment when Fairy Happiness flew onto stage, made a three point landing, delivered her message and then failed to take off. She apparently swung back and forth on her wire until she managed to cover herself with the corner of the curtain and inch her way into the wings. During another moment, the changeover behind the curtains was taking so long that the Dame, worried about running out of jokes, stuck her head behind the curtain and asked: ‘Come on boys, how long are you going to be?’

The Princes was back on safer territory with a production of Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman in June 1951. This play is known for rarely being performed in full, standing at five and a half hours long unedited and including a 100 minute scene entitled Don Juan in Hell. The Princes seems to have embraced this challenge, although fortunately only scheduled the performance once a week during its run.

On July 15th 1951, The Daily Mail ran a feature on Frederick Charlton and Micky Worth, the two man act who between them ran the Princes Theatre box office…

Since 1936 they have appeared to the world at large as a pair of cheerful, disembodied faces framed in the oblong aperture of the pay-box at the Princes Theatre… One takes the bookings, the other mans the phones. ‘In their working life together they have taken about £4,500,000 through the windows of six theatre box-offices. But never has either seen a full performance of a play or show their theatre was giving. Both are terrified of seeing dress rehearsals and have to content themselves with catching the last act of the play when they have balanced their books for the night. They refuse to go to the theatre on their annual holiday. Fred disapproves of television. Micky has never seen it. Both enjoy the cinema.

By arrangement with Jack Hylton, Pearl Primus brought her company of dancers, singers and musicians across from New York in October 1951. The famous black choreographer and anthropologist, Primus was interested in promoting African dance as worthy of study. Her short season was followed by an Indian dance and music group, let by Uday and Amala Shankar.

Sam Wannamaker, now best known for his work on the Globe Theatre on South Bank, was involved in several shows at the Princes this decade. He presented and starred in The Shrike, with Constance Commings, in 1953. ‘Sam Wanamaker plays the husband with that combination of exhausting nervous tension and gesticulatory prowess which is his distinctive stock-in trade’, said the Evening Standard. I never want to see another like it, but I was fascinated all evening against my will’, said the Daily Mail. Cummings played ‘‘one of the most horrifying women the theatre has produced since Strindberg was at his misogynistic zenith’ according to the Illustrated London News.

Another charity performance, this one in September 1953, advertised one particular act as part of it’s lineup: ‘Item 5. Robert Eddison (OC) Who has kindly consented to amaze us with his erudition.’ A note inserted into the programme carried the disappointing addendum: ‘Due to professional engagements Mr Robert Eddison very much regrets that he is unable to amaze you with his erudition.’ The event was hosted by Richard Dimbleby, and raised £1700 for Charterhouse in Suffolk.

The Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, which in coming years would transform into the RSC, presented Anthony and Cleopatra between November and December 1953, with Michael Redgrave and Peggy Ashcroft in the title roles.

On December 10th 1953, the Princes was hired out by Mr Rodney Phillips of Athelhampton Manor, Puddletown, for his wife. Phillips’ wife, Maria de Rivera, performed a one woman two hour dance show, before an audience of 65 who were tempted into the auditorium by the prospect of free tea and cake. According to the Express, before each dance an announcer would ask the audience to imagine the scenery and described the dance to come, including such phrases as ‘She will be the shade of a priestess, earthbound, performing once again the rites’. The Express further noted that the only issue that marred the afternoon’s performance ‘was the announcement that police wanted to see people who had left the cars parked outside the theatre.’

Instead of the traditional pantomime, Hylton brought in Podrecca’s Piccoli Theatre for the 1953 festive season. The Italian marionette group consisted of 20 operators, using ten miles of wire and string on their 1200 wooden puppets. To provide for any mishaps on tour, their group also carried with them an elaborate ‘puppet hospital’, with more than a ton of extra heads, legs, arms, cloth and wire, plus expert doll surgeons.

Hylton made some controversial changes to the Princes’ seating in time for his production of Pal Joey, a Broadway transfer. He removed the old wooden benches and replaced them with tip-up seats – a change that naturally brought with it an increase in the price – from 3s 6d. for a seat on the benches to 6s on the new seats.

Hylton had great faith in his next big musical production at the Princes, adding many new rows of seats into the Theatre just before it opened and even naming one of the cocktail bars after its star, Pat Kirkwood. The show was Wonderful Town, with music by Leonard Bernstein. A litany of misfortune, however, awaited Wonderful Town. The leading man, Sidney James, tripped and knocked himself over against the proscenium arch. A poodle belonging to actress Shani Wallis went missing from the Theatre, and staff had to lie to the beleaguered pet owner just to persuade her to go on stage. The final straw for the show came when Kirkwood collapsed in her dressing room and quit the show, going to the South of France to recover. When Hylton decided to close the show, he was unable to contact Kirkwood to tell her that she would no longer have a job when she returned to London. His office released a statement: ‘We have no idea where she is – except that she is somewhere on the Rivera.’ She had left no forwarding address and it was simply hoped that she would see the news in a paper.

It was presumably with relief that the Princes returned to form with a 1956 winter season by the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, with a well received programme of all the old classics.

Bonar Colleano starred in A Hatful of Rain, a play about the illegal drugs trade, with Sam Wannamaker in 1956. Tragically, during the opening performance Colleano’s father was taken ill, and died in the stalls before the second interval. The actor continued his part unaware of what was happening, and Colleano’s mother decided that her son should not be told until the end of the show. It could, she reasoned, be the most important role that he would ever play.

Two shows ended the fifth decade at the Princes Theatre: Kookaburra, set in Australia, which reportedly featured a live dog onstage as well as a real rainstorm. Noddy in Toyland was the Christmas show. The Guardian reviewer was skeptical, complaining that: ‘The whole business is so cute, and all the cuteness so businesslike, that indignation and nausea contend continuously for predomination over the souls of martyred parents.’

1940 – 1950

Even in the Princes’ regular D’Oyly Carte Company Seasons, the presence of the War could be felt. In a 1942 season that included all of the usual plays, there was a statement published by the company: ‘Ruddigore, HMS Pinafore, Princess Ida and Cox and Box would also have been included in the programme, but all the scenery, properties, and wardrobe for those operas have been destroyed by enemy action.’ The papers were rather less enthusiastic than they were for previous seasons. ‘There was a crowded audience, but not a hilarious one. The day seems to be past, and we shall not regret its passing, when London audiences waited breathlessly for Gilbert’s quips, and sometimes did not wait long enough, but laughed at what they knew was coming.’

It wasn’t just the Gilbert and Sullivan audience that changed for the Princes this decade. The Theatre saw several new owners and managers, many short runs of shows, more dance shows than ever before, and more international bent to the programming than had previously been seen.

The Sadlers Wells Company as good as took over the Theatre in 1944, with long seasons of opera and ballet throughout most of the year. In 1945, a play called Three Waltzes presented Evelyn Laye in a play described by the Picture Post: ‘plot and scene are tawdry, compared to Miss Laye’s dresses, Miss Laye’s singing and Miss Laye’s charm.’ In October that year, a revival of Merrie England brought a royal visit by the Queen, and the Princesses Margaret and Elizabeth.

In November 1947, and later returning in August 1948, the Princes hosted Ram Gopal and his ensemble of dancers and musicians from India. The company presented various traditional dances and were wildly popular among London theatregoers. Reviewers compared Gopal’s dancers favourably with Carmen Amaya and her company of Spanish Gypsy Dancers, also performing in 1948. Although Amaya’s troupe were apparently a great hit in the US, particularly with Roosevelt and the White House, the British public seemed to prefer the ‘expressive’ dancing of Gopal to the ‘stampeding’ of the Spanish group.

Also in 1948, Jack Hylton returned to the Princes to present Burlesque. Hylton was at that point presenting three other plays at other West End venues. Burlesque starred Majorie Reynolds, much better known for being a film star than a theatre actress. The British papers were skeptical, worrying that the presence of a film star brought ‘a new audience into the theatre, a film audience; and that is where the danger lies… Here, then, is a rule. When a film star appears on the stage, let him or her have the principle role. Film starts are like sleeping tablets. They must be used with discretion.’

Bertram Montague, who was now the lessee of the Theatre, presented Helzapoppin, described in the programme as ‘A Crazy Quilt of Hilarity, Noise and Organised Confusion’. The show proudly declared that it used ‘Thirteen blank revolvers, 250 rounds of ammunition, one live mouse, one dummy with detachable head, thunder, rain, cannon shots, four whistles, fifteen bells, one firing device for TNT, a leaping carpet, one gorilla, four soda syphons, one custard pie, three murders, one strangulation, 14 fights, one kidnapping, one suicide, four Napoleons, thousands of spiders, one dead rat, one sinking battleship, and a COMGLOMERATION OF CRAZY CONCOCTIONS CUNNINGLY CONCIEVED AND CALLOUSLY CONVEYED’. The Daily Mail was less than pleased with the frivolity of this piece, complaining that ‘The audience revels in the general commotion, but it might be spared all those pistol shots. Since they serve no particular comic purpose, and there is so much else to laugh at, I suggest that London has already had quite enough gratuitous gunfire without paying to hear anymore.’

Arthur Askey starred in The Kid from Stratford, based on the idea of a lost musical play by William Shakespeare. The show self-deprecatingly explained that said musical had been written while the great playwright was a little under the weather. The show ‘makes good, rough fun of Stratford’s ancient monuments, of the mixed bag of tourists, of the schoolgirls who are horridly uncertain whether they are out for a treat or in for a lesson’, said The Tatler in November 1948.

‘Rarely’, wrote the Observer in February 1949, ‘can a new ballet have made so violent an impact on the public as Roland Petit’s Carmen at the Princes on Monday. Each of Clave’s five sets were applauded, and the furore at the end seemed louder and longer than at any first or last night I can remember.’ The Ballets de Paris presented a very popular season of ballet in spring 1949, not withstanding an incident with a prop weapon in April – ‘Mlle. Jeanmaire appeared to make a false move which put her in the way of the dagger. Luckily she put her arm up, and caught the blade on her elbow. She suffered a nasty gash but continued with her performance.’ The dancer took 10 certain calls and danced the next day.

Spanish dancer Mariema brought her own dance show to the Princes soon after the Ballets de Paris Season. Mariema famously wore the costumes of the legendary Spanish dancer Argentinita, who left instructions on her death that her outfits should be given to the most outstanding young dancer who came after her.

In April 1949, the famous hypnotist The Amazing Ralph Slater took over the stage. Slater was known for great feats of healing through hypnosis. The programme emphasised: ‘Mr Slater makes no claim to be a super-man or a great healer, but he does want to demonstrate to the BMA the possibilities of hypnosis for the relief of pain and as an aid in treatment of neurotics.’ Apparently during the war his services were used by the US medial profession instead of anaesthetic. During one performance, Slater sent 16 out of 19 volunteers to sleep using hypnosis. Of these, five gave their full names, addresses and work places out freely. He also told them they were thirsty and gave them empty glasses, from which they drank with apparent refreshment, and then announced that they had in fact consumed a glass of whisky. All five immediately displayed totally different exhibitions of drunkenness.

After the great success of Slater’s feats, came ‘one of the worst flops ever seen in the London theatre’ (according to The Evening Standard) with A Man About a Dog by Alec Coppel. This play, apparently, contained a single line ‘which must almost have no parallel for ineptitude in drama ancient and modern.’ The highest praise which can be discovered for the lead actor, Griffith Jones, was that he had a lot of lines to remember and managed to be audible throughout.

An ensemble dance show, called Stars of the Ballet, looked fairly doomed from the start when 3 of the 5 principal dancers supposed to appear did not, as they were banned from dancing after breaking their contract with the Paris Opera. Those that were allowed on stage might have regretted it, after dancers in the wings were hit by a 500 gallon deluge of water after a wax seal of a fire sprinkler was knocked off by a piece of scenery. There was an emergency twenty minute show stop before the action resumed on a stage covered with small puddles.

There was a great anticipation for the Princes’ big show of October 1949 – the first ever performance of a new Bernard Shaw play Buoyant Billions. Describing opening night, The Daily Mail described an audience who ‘settled down with the air of expectancy worn by a spinster aunt reading her favourite nephew’s forbidden novels.’ The famous playwright, however, by this point was 93. He declined to attend the opening night, remaining at home in bed. The Telegraph rather cynically asserted: ‘it is safe to say that it is almost certainly the best play ever written by a man of 93. One could as safely hazard that, written by anyone else, it would never have seen the footlights.’ Buoyant Billions closed early after five weeks, having played to houses mostly only a third full.

1930 – 1940

A farce called Oh, Daddy! opened the new decade in November 1930, presented by Leslie Henson and Firth Shephard and by the same author as A Warm Corner. WH Berry was, according to the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, the ‘beginning, middle and end of the farce’, with the rest of the company doing their jobs ‘cleverly enough’. According to the Sunday Times, ‘the only thing which fell flat during this entertainment was a super-giant xylophone which insisted during the interval upon perpetrating Lizst’s Hungarian Rhapsody a good quarter-tone below its accompanist’s pitch. For the rest the show was top hole.’

A period of closure appears to have followed a series of moderately successful farces brought in by Shepherd. No records can currently be found for any productions at all in 1932, and the programme for a new season of plays in 1933 states that the Theatre is being reopened after a period of standing untenanted. The man behind the opening was Charles Macdona, who arranged to present a series of popular plays, by established authors, at lower prices than usually charged by theatres of this size. Macdona’s plan was called one of the ‘most ambitions attempts in recent years to popularise the theatre’. This was a world in which theatre was competing more and more with cinema, and certainly at the beginning of the season, Macdona seemed to be winning. His production of Diplomacy, with its maximum seat price of 5s, was packed to the rafters.

Macdona had promised to produce numerous plays, including the complete works of George Bernard Shaw. After Diplomacy, however, he only produced one more – The Wandering Jew, starring Matheson Young. Very shortly after, the Theatre changed hands once again. The new owner was a man named Lawrence Wright. Wright reportedly bought the Theatre in order to stage a specific revue called On With The Show. This variety performance opened on December 30th 1933, and was an unmitigated disaster.

Under headline ‘Leading Lady in Tears’, one review described: 

A mingled tumult of ‘boos’ and cheers, partly ironic and partly friendly; a leading lady in tears; modest but manly explanations from the producer and from Mr Lawrence Wright, the presenter, who told us that the theatre had ‘looked like an earthquake’ when they finished the last rehearsal at four in the morning; an apology from a comedian who had been shouted off the stage to the effect that he was ‘still learning his part’ when he walked on – all these combined to make the finish of last night’s production at the Princes more dramatic than anything that had happened previously.

The state of affairs was simple. The ‘Show’, in itself a mammoth affair, involving a reconstruction of the whole theatre with a cinema-organ and internal galleries to be crowded with coryphees, a company of a hundred, brass bands and orchestras on and off the stage, and twenty events, at least half of them of a big spectacular order. It needed a year to get in trim, and it only had a fortnight.

The disastrous show included, among many other acts, a sketch featuring the boxer Len Harvey and his wife. For this short appearance he was paid around £700 a week, more than any salary received by a professional actor before on the London stage.

Miraculously, the show staggered on into January and rebranded itself as On With the Show of 1934. Critics were invited to a second opening of the revamped, improved version – and reluctantly acknowledged that it was ‘now is a competent show of the popular order.’

Lawrence Wright is listed as the lessee of the Theatre for one more show (another Macdona production), before it was handed over to Harold James Pilbrow. The newly formed Princes Players Production presented Merrie England, a comic opera by Basil Hood. The show included Morris Dancers, apparently wearing highly accurate costumes which had been copied from a manuscript in the British Museum. The same production company also performed Jonson’s The Alchemist in April 1935, a production that offered a discount to any students of English Literature who wanted to see it.

In 1935, the original owners of the Princes Theatre, The Melvilles, made an appearance on the scene. The Melvilles had sold the Theatre to Pilbrow for £140,000 of which £90,000 was left on mortgage. Pilbrow was in negotiations with a cinema company in order to have the building converted into a cinema – but there were delays in obtaining permission for the necessary building modifications, and it seems the Melvilles didn’t want to wait. They issued a petition to a judge for ‘the compulsory winding-up of the Princes Theatre’.

By April 1936, the Theatre was back in the hands of the Melvilles and out of danger of conversion into a cinema. The programming returned to familiar territory with an adventure play presented by Firth Shepherd, The Frog. The show featured a particularly exciting realistic explosion in a Scotland Yard office. During rehearsals, a rope snapped during this effect and a large wooden shutter fell onto the lead actor – knocking him unconscious for several minutes. Despite this bad luck, the show was very successful and ran for over a year and 417 performances. It was seen by over a million people, and went some way to proving wrong the popular perception of the Princes as an ‘unlucky’ theatre.

Shepherd followed the success of The Frog with Wild Oats, ‘a new song and laugh show’ opening April 1938. The opening night review from The Observer rather sarcastically described the jubilant scenes at the curtain call – ‘At the embracing and orating, Mr Shephard joined his flock. Spotlights were flashed on boxes. All of the stage dealt handsomely in mutual felicitations. Everyone, it seemed, was in the highest state of bliss and simply adored working with everybody else. Good news, but in need of sub-editing.’ The show ran for a respectable five months.

In December 1938, Jack Hylton appears on the scene. Hylton was already a famous man in the entertainment world, as a Big Band leader, radio star and later theatre producer and owner. His first show at the Shaftesbury was called The Band Waggon and was adapted from his immensely popular BBC radio show.

When Britain declared war with Germany, in September 1939, the West End as a whole suspended performances. Before long, they all reopened, and a new kind of show took over London’s theatre land – the wartime revue. The Princes’ version was apparently one of the best, and was named in honour of its producer Shepherd’s Pie, opening December 1939. These popular shows featured music, dance and sketches, often with a patriotic theme – Shepherd’s Pie featured, for instance, a send up of Hitler with Arthur Roscoe playing a character called ‘The Furore’. On the back of the programme, an ARP notice informed audience members:

You will be notified by an illuminated sign in front of our footlights if an Air Raid Warning has been given during the performance. This does not necessarily mean that an air raid is taking place. If you wish to leave the theatre, you are at liberty to do so, but if you must go, all we ask is that you depart quietly and without excitement. We recommend that you remain in the theatre. Don’t forget your gas mask.

The Daily Mail on February 27th reported that 1,500 Grenadier Guards were invited to a show. A mother of a soldier, Mrs Annie Crawford, came to London from Birmingham to try and pick out her son as she had read that they would go to the matinee. She had not seen him for 11 weeks since he had joined the Grenadier Guards. She decided to stand by the Theatre entrance and try and spot him as he entered or left the Theatre. The star of the show, Sydney Howard, was also at the stage door watching the audience arrive, and Mrs Crawford told him about her mission. Howard passed the message on to the Captan of the Guards, who jumped up on stage at the start of the performance to order: ‘Private Crawford, fall out!’. 20 year old Crawford fell out, and his mother was given a seat beside him.

Shepherds Pie ran at the Princes until at least May 1941.

1920 – 1930

The second decade of the 20th Century began with ‘an evening of amiable and clean fooling such as the public usually likes’, according to one reviewer. The show was Pretty Peggy, written by Arthur Rose and Charles Austin and starring Australian sisters Lorna and Toots Pounds.

Pretty Peggy provided a short interlude before the Princes returned to the shows that would bring it so much success in the coming decade, with a full season of the D’Oyly Carte Company’s Gilbert and Sullivan operas in August 2020. Short runs of The Mikado, The Goldolier, Yeoman of the Guard, Patience and Iolanthe were followed by The Man Who Came Back, by Jules Goodman and starring Mary Nash.

From February 1921, the Reandean Company staged The Blue Lagoon. The programme for this production states that the Theatrical Managers’ Association were declaring a protest against government restrictions by refusing to allow their Theatres to be used freely for charitable events. The restrictions prevented Theatres from selling chocolates, sweets or ices after 8pm, and was apparently a hangover from wartime rules.

For a limited two week run in April 1921, Charles Cochrane presented the French actress Sarah Bernhardt in Daniel. She played the leading male part, an opium addict. Bernhardt, who was one of the most famous performers in the world at that point, had been performing since she was seven (in 1851). She was 76 when she appeared at the Princes, and apparently chose the play because it required little movement. Bernhardt’s leg had been amputated in 1915, due to an injury from an onstage incident a decade before. The veneration for her talents in London were such that 100 leading British performers went to meet her at the end of a performance of Daniel. They presented her with a tribute:

To Madame Sarah Bernardt. We actresses of England desire to express our great veneration and deep affection for you on this your visit to London. To us your great genius, your indomitable spirit and glorious courage shine out as the splendid qualities of France, our great Ally, whom we delight to honour in you. As the greatest artist of our time we greet you.

She died less than a year later, in March 1923.

April and May 1921 were filled with Cohrane’s Seasons of French Plays (Le Cour Dispose, L’Epervier, Arsene Lupin, Couer de Lilas and Couer de Moineau) and Serge Diaghilev’s Season of Russian Ballet. Diaghilev was the legendary founder of the Ballets Russes dance company. This Season was the first of two that he brought to the Princes, with the second in 1927 just two years before his death in Venice in 1929.

The scale of the regular Gilbert and Sullivan Operas began to step up with the 1921 – 1922 Season. The company first performed a different show every couple of weeks, and then between February and April 1922 they performed all of the most popular shows in rep. At the close of the season there was huge excitement about the final performance, which was to be decided by an audience vote. One paper reported: ‘For weeks past audiences had been voting for the opera they wished to be performed on this last night.  Though many were the guesses, no one knew how the vote had gone. No programme was published; no opera was announced. It was described simply on the bills as ‘the last performance,’ and no secret was ever before kept half so well.’ The public queued for the whole previous night and day to get a seat, with 1800 apparently in the queue by the time of the show. ‘There was a moment’s pause before Mr. Toye lifted his baton, A thrill of the highest expectancy ran through the house, and then – the opening bars of ‘The Gondoliers’, and at once, without any overture, the curtain went up on the first act of one of the most joyous of all the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, and storm after storm of applause greeted each number and each artist.’ But the surprises were not finished yet – after the interval, the orchestra played, not the music for the opening of the second act of the Gondoliers, but selections from all the twelve operas of the season. ‘When the lights went down again there was another thrill of excitement. A moment more and the second part of the secret was out – the second act of ‘The Mikado’.

At the end of the show, the audience remained in their seats, demanding that leading man Henry Lytton give a speech. The safety curtain went up, but they continued to cheer for half an hour. Eventually, Lytton appeared in one of the boxes and tiredly begged leave to depart the Theatre: ‘We love London, but we also love our homes’.

Despite the great success of the early 20s, the Princes Theatre was put up for auction by the Melvilles in November 1922. The deeds of sale documents described it as ‘the Highly Important Freehold Property known as Princes Theatre. Well planned and substantially constructed on the most modern principles, with Good Entrances, Stairways and Exits, and having Accommodation for an Audience of about 2100.’

The Princes reopened in February 1923 with The Cousin from Nowhere, a new musical comedy. The design of the musical received a great deal of praise – it portrayed a typically Dutch scene (the show was set in Holland), with ‘a canal, bordered with acres of tulips, glistening in the moonlight, while a couple of picturesque windmills dominate the foreground.’ (The Play Magazine). The Theatre had been cleaned and repainted during its closure and reportedly looked very handsome on opening night.

The actor Eille Norwood is famous now for playing Sherlock Holmes in a series of silent films. In October 1924, he also played the eponymous detective in The Return of Sherlock Holmes, by J.E. Harold Terry and Arthur Rose. Out of a cast of 22, Holmes found himself with 22 villains to deal with. These included a beautiful young woman played by Hilda Moore. Reviewers called her surprise turn as a villain as ‘one of the best ‘shockers’ ever put on the London stage’, and another questioned if he would ever trust a pretty woman again.

In January 1924, a young fan wrote to Norwood. We don’t have the letter that Jack d’Avigdor-Goldsmid (who grew up to be a British army officer and Conservative politician), 12, wrote, but it presumably described the boy doing his own performance of Sherlock Holmes with a cast of five. Norwood replied:

There are twenty two characters in this play, and I notice that your Company consists of five, if each of you plays four that will leave two over, and I would suggest you cut out Holmes and Watson, especially the former, who is a talkative person, and always wants the best bits in the play. It would serve him right to leave him out altogether.

I remember once in a small theatre, a visiting touring manager told the theatre Proprietor that for the purposes of his play he would require supers to be engaged, he wanted a small army of soldiers, a few opposing rebels, some drunken sailers, and gypsies. He asked the Proprietor how many men he had on his staff, and he replied “One”. “That will do” said the Touring Manager, and I suppose it had to! Your enquiry gives me one of the greatest problems I have ever been sent to solve, and goes one better than “The Sign of Four”, as there are five of you.

If, in the meantime, you hit on any method of playing this play with your five members, I should be grateful to know how, as I am taking the play on tour very soon, and it would help me very much in the matter of railway fares and salaries.

With all good wishes, I am

Yours faithfully,

Eille Norwood.

Inevitably, a further season of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company followed soon enough in 1924, and remained as popular as ever. In October 1924, audiences were highly enthusiastic about a new play, The Blue Peter by Alban Limpus and Charles Kenyon. The cast included a group of West African actors, which was unusual for the London stage.

In March 1925, The Repertory Players presented Tunnel Trench by Hubert Griffin, set in France in 1918. Arnold Bennett was reviewing for the Observer, and was curious to see how accurate Griffin’s depiction of trench life was to someone who had fought in the War. ‘“How is it for truth?” I whispered to a Flying Colonel near me. “Lifelike!” he answered.’ ‘Imagine it! A score and a half men – and not a woman! No visual beauty, and not much spiritual beauty. He hits and hits and hits. We should like in our moral cowardice to forget what war is and what men suffered in it. We are tired of being grateful to the sufferers.’ The reviews, generally, were a little uncomfortable that the play was wholly critical of war and portrayed soldiers who were not fully heroic.

The new musical comedy Frasquita was apparently greeted by ‘shouts of welcome’. One reviewer praised the musical, as ‘even in these trivial days, when so many musical plays seem to be written merely for the gramophone, here is a great young public for dramatic power and genuine musical accomplishment, colour, temperament, simple and robust passion – things which only the stage can give!’

From September 1925 the Princes hosted a play called White Cargo, by Leon Gordon. The play portrayed the adventures of four white men living in Africa. Despite what would today be considered highly racist writing, and black-face casting, today, the play was highly popular and ran for over 800 performances, closing sometime mid 1926.

Reviewing Secret Service by William Gillette, a play set during the Civil War in Virginia, one reviewer advises the playgoer to ‘surround yourself, before it begins, with an appropriate atmosphere of heroism and sentiment. The Princes Theatre makes it easy. Turn in your seat and observe the vast place – the gilded balconies, the yellow lights, the crimson upholstery, the tiers of faces vanishing into an upper mist; theatres must have felt very like this in William Gillette’s day.’ One of the main female parts was played by an actress, Margaret Clingan, who had never been on stage before. She was apparently spotted through a window at the Royal Academy by the Director of the play, who decided immediately that she should be in his play.

There was some controversy around the production of The Mikado during the 1925 – 1926 Season of G&S Operas. The costume designs, which had apparently remained the same in every production of the popular opera, were redesigned in order to bring them closer to authentic Japanese clothing. The public, who knew every word, character and costume by heart, did not take particularly well to this, and made their objections known in dozens of letters to newspapers.

Sybil Thorndike, later Dame Sybil, performed in several different productions in 1926 and 1927. These included Macbeth, The Greater Love, and the Medea of Euripides. She was outstandingly reviewed for every part. During this period, there was also a run of Contraband, a drama about the Navy, which apparently included ‘the most realistic submarine ever devised by stagecraft.’ (The Sketch).

In November 1928, it looked like the Princes had a great success on its hands with music and dance show Funny Face. The book for this show was by Fred Thompson and Paul Gerard Smith, the music by George Gershwin and the lyrics by Ira Gershwin. The production starred Fred Astaire, Adele Astaire and comedian Leslie Hensen. The Tatler reviewed the opening night:

‘The Princes is a big theatre… Mr Rupert D’Oyly Carte can pack it to overflowing at any prices and at any time. Mr Leslie Henson and the Astaires crammed it so full on the first night of Funny Face (with ‘No Smoking’ if you please, and stalls at 24s. a time) that those who adventured forth at half time in search of tobacco smoke and refreshment returned from the melee around the temple of Bacchus muttering dark things about the architect’s narrow passages, and rejoicing that the programme envisaged only one interval. How long Funny Face will run it would be rash to prophesy. It may be for years, it may be forever.’

Funny Face was ‘a perfectly chosen constellation of stars shining together in mutually reflected glory… The Princes Theatre to post war audiences means Gilbert and Sullivan. Henceforth its role of fame must admit two more partnerships – Fred and Adele, Leslie and Henson. I have purposefully multiplied Mr Henson by two because he is at least as twice as funny and twice as inventive as he’s ever been before.’

As the review suggests, it looked likely that Funny Face would continue for months or years to come. However, just before Christmas that year, just a few short weeks after opening, there was an explosion immediately outside the Theatre. This was caused by a gas main, and caused such severe damage that the play was immediately closed, and the Theatre itself threatened.

After a nine month closure, the Princes reopened in September 1929 with The Flying Fool by Arnold Ridley and Bernard Merivale. The former is perhaps better known for his turn as Godfrey in Dad’s Army. In December, Leslie Henson and Firth Shephard presented the apparently hilarious farce A Warm Corner. Shephard, who appears in this history here for the first time, would go on to be a driving force behind the Theatre’s success over the coming decade.

1911 – 1920

Frederick and Walter Melville were part of a long family line of actors, theatre managers and playwrights. They commissioned Bertie Crewe, a leading theatrical architect, to build the New Princes Theatre (the Theatre that we now know today as the Shaftesbury). It would be added to the Melville collection of theatres that already included the Lyceum. The building of the New Princes was completed in just five months and it opened on December 26th 1911 with a production of The Three Musketeers. The cast included Ethel Warwick as Milady. At this time, seats in the Theatre could only be reserved by letter, telegram or phone.

The programming for the (soon renamed) Princes’ Theatre was occasionally surprisingly progressive. In February 1912 the Theatre hosted the Women’s Writers’ Suffrage League, an event to raise funds towards the suffrage cause. It included a performance of Shakespeare’s Dream with many of Shakespeare’s famous female characters appearing. The programme was full of advertisements directed at the women of the time, with products including ‘an indispensable book for 1912, The Ladies’ Court Book or Who’s Who in Society’.

Just a few days after this charity event, the Theatre played host to the rather less modern Women and Wine by Ben Landeck and Arthur Shirley. An account at the time described the part played by East Robertson, a ‘Parisian coquette’ who ‘causes the deep abasement of the hero through her evil machinations.’ He also noted that ‘the great sensation is a fight with knives, when the two women remove their bodices and duel to the death.’

In March 1913 there was a production of Romeo and Juliet starring Lillian Hallowes as Juliet. The reviews conclude that this was a good, if not outstanding, revival of what was even then a very familiar play to London audiences. One particularly snobbish account notes that ‘I did not have very great hopes of being satisfied, as the play was produced by the Melville Brothers, and one somehow always associates them with cheap and melodramatic productions.’ He concludes, however, that ‘that both Ethel and I thoroughly enjoyed the play, and it was on the whole a good all round Shakespeare revival in the orthodox manner.’ Several accounts of the opening night recall some audience members reacting in a particularly rowdy way to Juliet’s speeches. One review specifically accuses ‘a somewhat Suffragettish contingent in the gallery’.

The Story of the Rosary received a review from the Daily Chronicle that said: ’It showed what the public wants. Let theorists and ‘intellectuals’ prate as they may, there are human ears hearing still who devoured Mr Walter Howard’s quite wholesome romance with an enthusiasm that it was a joy to see and hear.’  The Daily Express added that ‘its good taste is never for a moment in doubt. No one’s susceptibilities will be offended by it, all is reverential and sincere.’ So sincere and inoffensive was this show, in fact, that in February 1914, 200 members of the London clergy were invited to attend a special matinee performance.

A ballet troupe of ‘English Girls’ led by Lila Fields entertained the crowds in November 1915. One of Fields’ dancers, Joan King, featured in the Prince’s pantomime that year. In the programme, she is called ‘the smallest ballet dancer in the world’.

In 1916, West End stars Seymour Hicks and Ellaline Terriss became involved with the Princes Theatre with their production of Broadway Jones. As well as performing on the stage, Hicks and Terriss also became the Theatre’s lessees, with the Melvilles remaining owners. They put on several shows during the war years, including Bluebell in Fairyland and The Catch of the Season. On the back of the programmes published during this period, the Princes is advertised as ‘The Laughter House where you can forget the War’. On April 17th 1917 there was a special matinee in aid of The Metropolitan Special Constabulary Motor Ambulance Fund to Provide Motor Ambulances at the Front. The show included a one act comedy No Servants. The programme also advertised A Gaiety Theatre Party, and said that ‘At 4:15pm Mr Seymour Hicks will be Sold by Auction’.

The theatre impresario Charles B Cochran’s first show at the Princes was Carminetta in December 1917, followed by Yes, Uncle! in March 1918. The show programme for the latter carried the disclaimer that ‘the male members of this Company have either served with the Colours, or have been rejected as ineligible for military service.’ Also in the programme was an advert for a ‘Patriotic Meeting and Celebration of the Women’s Suffrage Victory’ to be held at the Royal Albert Hall, with speakers including Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst.

On the front of one programme for The Purple Mask in September 1918 there is a notice to all patrons.

Under arrangements approved by the Commissioner of Police, the audience will be informed when an Air Raid is impending. This will be indicated by turning up the Ceiling Electroliers for the space of one minute. The “All Clear” notice will be indicated immediately it comes through by turning up the Electroliers twice for a period of 30 seconds. Should the warning be received during the interval, an announcement will be made from the Stage. The audience are invited, at their own discretion, to remain in the Theatre if the “All Clear” has not been received before the end of the performance.

The Management are requested also to give any Naval or Military Officers whose duty requires them to go to their posts, the opportunity of immediately leading the Theatre for this purpose.

After the war, the programming of the Princes reflected the nations’ nostalgia for a pre-war rural simplicity. Monsieur Beaucaire was praised on all counts, but especially for the exquisite charm of its countryside scenery. There was a ‘boxwood hedge’ on stage which was, according to The Play magazine, ‘a scenic achievement of genuine poetic conception.’

In September 1919, running into 1920, there was a season of revivals of the D’Oyly Carte Company’s repertoire of Gilbert and Sullivan musicals. The appetite among the public for these revivals can hardly be expressed – the season was a sell-out success and was repeated again and again, often twice a year over the next few years. The Theatre developed a tradition of making the final show of the run an event in itself, handing out beautiful souvenir booklets. There were often people queueing for these final shows from well over 24 hours before the performance. One reviewer wrote that ‘You can’t get into the theatre for ‘love’, and only with difficulty will money, plus luck, obtain you a seat.’

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