What’s in a name?

The majority of London theatres retain their original names, which has cemented their place in becoming popular landmarks across the decades. Occasionally, theatres will acquire new names, often prompted by new ownership. Here are some of London’s West End theatres which have lived under different names over the years since they were built, together with some of their highlights.

Noël Coward Theatre. Photo courtesy of Delfont Mackintosh website

Noël Coward (2006) / Albery (1973) / New (1903) The Noël Coward Theatre opened in 1903 as the New Theatre, seating 872, designed by leading theatre architect W G R Sprague for a group headed by Sir Charles Wyndham (Wyndham’s Theatre sits back to back with this theatre) and Mary Moore. In 1920, Noël Coward made his West End debut here, acting in his own play I’LL LEAVE IT TO YOU, his first in the West End. Lionel Bart’s OLIVER! ran here for seven years from 1960, achieving 2,618 performances. The theatre was renamed Albery in 1973 to recognise Sir Bronson Albery (Mary Moore’s son) who had managed the theatre for decades. In 2005 the theatre came under the ownership of Delfont Mackintosh Theatres, which refurbished the theatre and in 2006 renamed it the Noël Coward.

Gielgud Theatre.

Gielgud (1994) / Globe (1909) / Hicks (1906) The noted actor Seymour Hicks (later Sir) was a partner in this theatre’s construction, again designed by architect W G R Sprague, and the building was named after him in due deference when it opened in December 1906. However, he pulled out of involvement with the theatre in 1909 and it was then renamed the Globe Theatre, under the management of American impresario Charles Froman. The Globe name had become available after the previous Globe , on Newcastle Street, near the Aldwych, was demolished in 1902. In 1928 John Gielgud made the first of 15 appearances at this theatre with a short-lived comedy called HOLDING OUT THE APPLE. From 1937 until 1991 notable theatre company H. M Tennent based their operations in offices on the top floor at this theatre. The longest-running show to date at this theatre was the saucy romp THERE’S A GIRL IN MY SOUP which ran for over three years from 1966 before transferring to the Comedy where it ran for another three years. (You can see the front of house display at the time in my post about the West End in 1969, link here). David Gilmore’s DAISY PULLS IT OFF was another long run here – lasting three years from 1983. The renaming of the theatre in 1994 honoured Sir John Gielgud’s association with the theatre whilst also having the benefit of differentiating it from the newly-opened Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre on the South Bank. Seating just under 1,000, in 2006 the theatre was acquired by Delfont Mackintosh Theatres, and refurbished to their usual very high standard in 2008.

Novello Theatre.

Novello (2005) / Strand (1913) /Whitney (1911) / Strand (1909) / Waldorf Theatre (1905) The Novello started life in 1905 as the Waldorf Theatre, one of a pair at each end of the block occupied by the Waldorf Hotel (Now the Waldorf Hilton), the other being the Aldwych Theatre, both designed by prolific W G R Sprague. Seating 1100, it was operated by the American Shubert Organisation and renamed Strand in 1909. In 1911 its name became the Whitney Theatre, before reverting to Strand in 1913. From 1971 the legendary NO SEX PLEASE – WE’RE BRITISH! ran for ten years and 6,671 performances before transferring to the Garrick (and then Duchess) to eventually complete a record-breaking 18-year run. BUDDY ran for seven years here from 1995 (after transferring from the Victoria Palace where it had run since 1989). In its centenary year it was beautifully refurbished by new owners Delfont Mackintosh Theatres, reopening in December 2005, renamed in honour of Ivor Novello, the star, composer and playwright, who lived in apartments above the theatre from 1913 to 1951. The theatre is currently home to MAMMA MIA! which has already notched up seven years here and seems likely to stay for quite some time.

Harold Pinter Theatre.

Harold Pinter (2011) / Comedy (1881) The Comedy Theatre opened in 1881 as the Royal Comedy Theatre, to designs by Thomas Verity, but by 1884 it was usually known just as The Comedy, as there was no formal permission to use the term “Royal”. The first lessee intended the place to be the home of comic opera, although this didn’t last more than a few years, and the theatre became known as a playhouse with occasional excursions into avant-garde plays and later, revues. In the 1950s the theatre was notable for innovation thanks to producer (and I am proud to say, my colleague) Anthony Field, who also managed the venue on behalf of its owner Harold Wingate. As well as creating additional revenue by building offices and ancillary spaces on top of the theatre, he crucially used the theatre to play a central role in overturning stage censorship by establishing the theatre as the New Watergate Club in 1956; This was because the Theatres Act 1843 was still in force, which required scripts to be submitted for permission by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office to be publicly performed. By running the theatre as a club and creating a “membership”, his move allowed plays that had been banned due to language or subject matter to be performed under “club” conditions. Plays produced in this way included the UK premières of Arthur Miller’s A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE, Robert Anderson’s TEA AND SYMPATHY and Tennessee Williams’ CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF. The law was not revoked until 1968, but in the late 1950s there was a substantial loosening of conditions in theatre censorship, allowing the club to be dissolved and Peter Shaffer’s FIVE FINGER EXERCISE premièred to a public audience. In 2011, the current owners renamed the theatre the Harold Pinter Theatre in recognition of the playwright’s contribution to British drama. Long runs include the musical SUNNY AFTERNOON which ran for two years from 2014.

Trafalgar Studios.

Trafalgar Studios (2004) / Whitehall (1930) The Whitehall Theatre opened in 1930 to the designs of Edward A Stone, with Art Deco interiors, seating 634. During World War II it was known for revues, and later saucy striptease shows under the auspices of legendary ecdysiast Phyllis Dixey who made the theatre her home for five years. Later on the theatre became famous for the string of comedies affectionately known as “The Whitehall Farces”, starring actor-manager Brian Rix and his stock company from 1950-1966, several of these shows being televised as a Christmas treat by the BBC, which always pulled huge viewing figures. Rather out of the Theatreland area, the Whitehall struggled, housing a nude revue for five years from 1969 and then languished, mostly unused, for over a decade. Refurbishment work took place and the Whitehall reopened in 1986, once again with a rather chequered show catalogue but including some substantial runs. In 2004 the then owners, Amabassador Theatre Group, renamed the theatre, splitting the theatre horizontally to create a 380-seat main house in the old circle and underneath a 100-seat studio theatre in the previous rear stalls area. It has since survived on a diet of shows usually scheduled for 12/13 week runs. The Jamie Lloyd Company presented two very popular seasons of work there in two one-year residences in 2012-2014. Since 2016 the theatre has been owned by Trafalgar Entertainment Group. Sadly most of the Art Deco detailing has been either lost or painted over.

Shaftesbury Theatre.

Shaftesbury (1963) / New Prince’s (1911) The last theatre to have been built on Shaftesbury Avenue to date, the 1400-seat New Prince’s opened in 1911 to designs by Bertie Crewe. In the 1920s it was known for successful seasons of Gilbert and Sullivan operas, presented by the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, and was most usually a musical house from then onwards. EMI bought the theatre in 1962 subsequently renaming it the Shaftesbury. This was where the progressive musical HAIR enjoyed a run from 1968 of almost 2,000 performances before a section of the ceiling fell in and the theatre was closed for repair, during which time its future was in jeopardy. In 1984 the Theatre of Comedy company bought the theatre and presented many comedies here, interspersed with visiting productions. Long-runners here include HAIRSPRAY which ran three years from 2007. The theatre was internally refurbished in 2006.

Gillian Lynne Theatre.

Gillian Lynne Theatre (2018) / New London (1973) One of London’s newest theatres, the New London was built on the site of the previous Winter Garden Theatre, and opened in 1973. Designed by architect Paul Tvrtkovic and scenic designer Sean Kenny with a Germanic, ultra-modern feel to it, it was a distinct break from the traditional West End theatre stock. Seating 1,000, its longest-running hit so far has been Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical CATS which ran from 1981 to 2002, which boasted having the first few rows of the front stalls on a revolve, giving birth to that legendary advertising line “No Admission While the Auditorium is in Motion”. CATS was choreographed by Dame Gillian Lynne, who the theatre was renamed for in mid 2018, some months before her death, making her the only female non-royal person named for a West End Theatre. The building has been owned by Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber’s LW Theatre group since 1991.

All photos by Unrestricted Theatre, (taken May 2019), unless otherwise credited

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