Celebrating the great theatres of master architect W G R Sprague

A very poor reproduction of W G R Sprague (the only one available), with thanks to arthurlloyd.co.uk

On the anniversary of his passing, we take this opportunity to celebrate one of the greats of UK theatre architecture, William George Robert Sprague (?/?/1863 – 4 December 1933).

Sprague was born in Australia in 1863 to actress Dolores Drummond, who spent some years in Australia, before returning to London in 1874.

At the tender age of sixteen, Sprague became an articled clerk for the legendary architect Frank Matcham for four years. In 1880 he was an articled clerk for Walter Emden for three years. He then formed a partnership with Bertie Crewe until 1895. His work rate was quite prolific, designing a number of theatres and music halls, mostly located in London. At the height of his powers he produced six intricately detailed and richly detailed jewel-box theatres in Westminster in less than four years. Unlike Matcham and Emden, Sprague studied architectural forms and conventions and applied his knowledge into his designs, was quoted that he “liked the Italian Renaissance” as a style for his frontages, but was happy to take liberties when needed “to get the best effects”. In 1902, the theatre newspaper The Era described him as “Britain’s youngest theatrical designer, with more London houses to his credit than any other man in the same profession.”

Novello Theatre

Sprague favoured two-tier auditoria, which invariably paid off for audiences in terms of atmosphere and sight-lines. Wyndham’s is a personal favourite and, to my mind, one of the most perfectly designed theatres I have ever had the pleasure to sit in.

Noel Coward Theatre

Today most of his surviving theatres in the West End are owned (and lovingly restored) by the Delfont Mackintosh organisation. The Strand (now the Novello)(1905), The Globe (now the Gielgud) (1906), Wyndham’s Theatre (1899), The Queen’s (now the Sondheim) (1907), and the New (later the Albery and now the Noel Coward) (1903) all form part of DMT’s classy and well-maintained portfolio of theatres.

Other surviving Sprague West End theatres include two intimate under 500-seaters, the St Martin’s Theatre (1916) (current home of the Mousetrap) and the neighbouring Ambassadors Theatre (1913). There is also the Aldwych (1905), the “sister theatre” to the Strand, Outside the West End we can still find the Coronet in Notting Hill (1898) (for most of its life a cinema but now returned as a theatre), and The Camden Theatre (1900) (now a nightclub called KOKO).

Camden Theatre, now KOKO

His most significant design outside London was the Sheffield Lyceum (1897), thankfully restored and now a Number One touring house.

SHEFFIELD LYCEUM By Harry Mitchell – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28105563

Later years saw Sprague designing fewer buildings, but he left with a wonderful swansong. The Streatham Hill Theatre was the last theatre credited to him (in association with W. H. Barton), opened in 1929. A massive suburban hall seating more than many a West End House, 2800, its size made it vulnerable later but thankfully it still survives today (read more in my article here).

Streatham Hill Theatre

Regular readers of this blog will also be interested to know that Sprague was the architect of the now-lost Fulham Grand Theatre, which was featured in my Lost Theatres collection (find the article here)

Sprague died in Maidenhead in 1933, leaving a legacy of some of London’s most beautifully intricate houses. It is fitting that we remember this great architect whose work has given such pleasure to so many audiences- and will continue to do so for years to come.

For those interested, the encyclopaedic ArthurLloyd.co.uk site has an interesting article headed A Chat with Sprague from 1905, which you can find here.


Exhibitions and events with a theatre theme to enjoy across the UK – now and soon!

COUNTRY-WIDE From 13 to 22 September, there are over 100 theatre-related events going on across the country during Heritage Open Days. Most likely a theatre near you will be opening its doors to offer tours of the buildings. Intrigued? Then take a look at their website here where you can search what’s happening near you.


LONDONV&A – Discover the creative process behind designing for performance, from costume to set design at Staging Places, which celebrates the diversity of British performance design across spaces and genres. This display, in collaboration with the Society of British Theatre Designers, presents costumes, set designs, models, photos, drawings and puppets that reveal the creative process behind designing for performance. And best of all, its free! Running now until 29 March 2020. More information here


Stockton Globe

STOCKTON ON TEES – Preston Park Museum – A fascinating exhibition about the life -and rebirth- of Stockton’s magnificent Globe is now on. The building has had a splendid history. Opened as a 2400-seater cinema in December 1935, the building closed in 1996 and has lain empty for over 20 years, falling into terrible disrepair. Thankfully Stockton Council have saved the building and it is undergoing extensive modernisation works, with a planned reopening in Spring 2020. Explore the story of the Globe and its restoration in this fascinating exhibition.  Find out about the famous acts – including Buddy Holly, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Elton John – who played at the venue. Plus, discover the exciting future for the newly restored Globe. The exhibition is on now until October 6th at the Preston Park Museum. Admission into the museum is paid but the Globe exhibition is presented at no extra cost. More information here. And to find out more about the reborn Globe, see their new website here.


Collins’s Music Hall on Islington Green – sadly long gone!

LONDON – ISLINGTON MUSEUM – “Ta-Ra-Ra Boom-De-Ay!” is an exhibition about Islington’s many popular Music Halls. For over 100 years, throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the borough’s many music halls and variety theatres entertained generations of Islingtonians. Each venue promised a unique evening’s entertainment and local residents and visitors would drop in to see their favourite ‘turns’. Explore a time when variety was definitely the spice of life. The exhibition is free and a range of attached talks, shows and walks have been curated to further visitors’ enjoyment. On until 22 October. More details here