Duchess Theatre History and Timeline
The Duchess Theatre was built

The Duchess Theatre was built

1927-05-07

The Duchess Theatre was built in 1927 on the site of a WWI Zeppelin bomb raid. The site had been empty for years because of the strange ‘Ancient Lights’ law, which prevented new buildings from blocking the natural light from others. The build’s designer, Ewen Barr, overcame this by digging deep down into the ground. The stage and the Stalls were set way below ground level and the Dress Circle was at the same height as the street. This meant that the top of the building came below the height for the ‘Ancient Lights’ law, and so the Duchess Theatre was born. However, this unusual design has caused the Duchess several problems over the years. Pumps are constantly emptying the basement of ground water to stop it compromising the theatre’s foundations.

The theatre opened

The theatre opened

1929-11-25

The theatre opened on 25th November 1929 with Hubert Griffith’s WWI play ‘Tunnel Trench’. The action is set on the day of the first British advance in September 1918. It only managed a run of two weeks however, because R.C.Sherriff’s famous war play ‘Journey’s End’ was also playing at the Savoy Theatre and it drew in larger audiences.

The shortest run in West End history

The shortest run in West End history

1930-02-10

In 1930 the Duchess Theatre housed the shortest run in the history of the West End. ‘The Intimate Revue’ closed without even finishing its first performance. The show is said to have been terribly under rehearsed; apparently the audience couldn’t stop laughing at the actors and dozens of people walked out.

The Rose Without a Thorn

The Rose Without a Thorn

2014-08-12

Clifford Bax's play 'The Rose Without a Thorn' starred Frank Vosper as King Henry VII. Vosper was a popular actor of the time, famous for playing villains. He was also a playwright and penned the play 'People Like Us', which was about the murder trial of Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters. The play was banned by the Lord Chamberlain and wasn't performed again until 1948.

J.B.Priestley's 'Laburnum Grove'

J.B.Priestley's 'Laburnum Grove'

1933-11-28

Laburnum Grove' was J.B.Priestley's first successful comedy drama. It's set in a dreary North London suburb where nothing ever happens. The story centres on the paper manufacturer George Redfern, who discovers that his son in law and his brother are trying to steal money from him. But George is discovered to be forging bank notes, and a hilarious cat and mouse chase results. The play ran for over 300 performances at the Duchess Theatre and had an equally successful Broadway transfer.

J.B.Priestley and his wife Jane join the team

J.B.Priestley and his wife Jane join the team

1934-04-17

J.B.Priestley joined the Duchess Theatre management team, and his wife Jane Lewis began extensive interior decoration of the theatre.

Murder in the Cathedral

Murder in the Cathedral

1936-01-05

In 1936 the Duchess put on T.S.Eliot's new play 'Murder in the Cathedral'. It was about the assassination of Archbishop Thomas Becket who was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. Eliot based a lot of his play on the writings of Edward Grim, a clerk who witnessed the murder. The play deals with an individual's opposition to authority, and many people saw it as an allegory for the rise of fascism in Europe and the tensions leading up to WWII.

Theatre closed following outbreak of WWII

Theatre closed following outbreak of WWII

1939-04-22

The theatre underwent a compulsory closure following the outbreak of WWII. ‘The Corn is Green’, a play by Emlyn Williams and starring Sybil Thorndike, was on at the time. The play was turned into a film in 1945 starring Bette Davis.

Noël Coward’s ‘Blithe Spirit’ transfers

Noël Coward’s ‘Blithe Spirit’ transfers

1942-10-11

Noël Coward’s play ‘Blithe Spirit’ had been on at the Piccadilly Theatre starring Margaret Rutherford. The play transferred to the Duchess Theatre where it ran to a total of 1,997 performances.

The Linden Tree

The Linden Tree

1947-06-08

J.B.Priestley's 'The Linden Tree' starred husband and wife Sir Lewis Casson and Dame Sybil Thorndike. It told the story of Mr Linden, a University history lecturer in a small town. His family gathers for his 65th birthday party and it becomes clear that all of his relatives are pessimists who have given up on their dreams. They all persuade Mr Linden to take his retirement but he refuses, believing he can still make something of himself and write a book. The only person who supports him is his youngest daughter, who still innocently believes that the world is a good place and we can make a positive mark on it.

The Foolish Gentlewoman

The Foolish Gentlewoman

1949-01-01

Margaret Sharp's 'The Foolish Gentlewoman' again starred Sir Lewis Casson and Dame Sybil Thorndike, who were regular actors at the Duchess Theatre. The play is about a woman called Isabel who lives in a huge house, and she invites her family to live with her. Her real motive eventually comes out - to reconcile her damaged relationship with Tilly who she

The Holly and the Ivy

The Holly and the Ivy

1950-07-20

Wynyard Browne's play 'The Holly and the Ivy' is about an English clergyman who has neglected his own grown up children in favour of his parishioners. The family gather at Christmas and tensions bubble over. Bryan Forbes, who featured in the performance, was described as a 'Renaissance Man' for his skills as an actor, screenwriter, producer and novelist. He is best known for his work as a film director and his significant impact on the British film industry. The play was so popular that it was turned into a film starring Ralph Richardson and Celia Johnson.

The Deep Blue Sea

The Deep Blue Sea

1952-08-09

Peggy Ashcroft and Kenneth More starred in Terence Rattigan's play 'The Deep Blue Sea', which explores the character of Hester Collyer. At the start of the play she is discovered by her neighbours after a suicide attempt. Some time previously she left her husband for an RAF pilot, who became an abusive alcoholic. Mr Miller, one of her neighbours, persuades her to carry on living. He is an ex-doctor who has been sacked for homosexuality. The two form a tender and genuine friendship after being struck off by the rest of their community. There have been several film and screen adaptations of the play, the latest in 2011 staring Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston.

The Unexpected Guest

The Unexpected Guest

1958-08-12

Agatha Christie's 'The Unexpected Guest' played at the Duchess from 12th August 1958. It begins as Michael Starkwedder enters the Warwick's family home through a window one evening, to find Richard Warwick dead and his wife holding the gun that killed him. The Queen secretly attended a performance on the evening of 16 February 1959 with Lord and Lady Mountbatten. None of the audience knew she was there. On the same evening the actor Christopher Sandford fell ill during the performance and had to be replaced by his understudy for the second half.

Harold Pinter's 'The Caretaker'

Harold Pinter's 'The Caretaker'

1960-05-30

Harold Pinter’s first West End success, ‘The Caretaker’, was performed at the Duchess Theatre with Donald Pleasence and Alan Bates.

The Rule of Three' - short plays from Agatha Christie

The Rule of Three' - short plays from Agatha Christie

1962-02-05

After the success of 'The Unexpected Guest' the Duchess Theatre produced another of Agatha Christie's plays. 'The Rule of Three' is a series of short one act plays exploring deception, murder and theft; 'Afternoon at the Seaside', 'The Patient' and 'The Rats'

Boeing-Boeing

Boeing-Boeing

1965-12-09

Marc Camoletti's French farce 'Boeing-Boeing' transferred from the Apollo Theatre to the Duchess in 1965 and ran for seven years. In 1991 the Guinness Book of World Records recognised it as the most performed French play in the world, most notably on Broadway.

Oh Calcutta!' had a spectacular run

Oh Calcutta!' had a spectacular run

1974-01-28

Oh Calcutta! transferred from the Royalty Theatre and performed at the Duchess until 1980, with a staggering run of almost 4,000 shows.

Private Lives

Private Lives

1980-05-08

Maria Aitken and Michael Jayston starred in Noel Coward's famous comedy 'Private Lives'. The play is about a divorced couple who are on their respective honeymoons with their new partners, only to find with horror that they are staying in the rooms next to each other at the same hotel. Bizarrely, they realise that they still have feelings for each other despite their divorce. The play has been enormously popular since its debut in 1930, and over the years the lead roles have been taken by actors including Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, Alan Rickman, Elizabeth Taylor, Maggie Smith, and even Noel Coward himself.

Snoopy: the Musical

Snoopy: the Musical

1984-01-01

Snoopy: The Musical was a comedy written Larry Grossman and Hal Hackady, based on the Snoopy books by Warren Lockhart, Arthur Whitelaw, and Michael Grace. It featured many of the beloved characters from the 'Peanuts' comics. The musical had a sequel, 'You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown'.

Stoll Moss bought the theatre

Stoll Moss bought the theatre

1986-01-01

During the 1980s Stoll Moss Group bought a few West End theatres to add to their portfolio. They had been a huge theatre owning company at the start of the 1900s, known for their ownership of the Empire Theatre. They bought the Duchess Theatre in 1986.

Don't Dress For Dinner

Don't Dress For Dinner

1992-02-03

Following the success of his play 'Boeing-Boeing', Marc Camoletti had another farcical comedy at the Duchess Theatre. 'Dont Dress For Dinner'. The play first ran at the Apollo Theatre and then transferred to the Duchess where it ran for four and a half years. It had a successful run in Broadway in 2012.

Copenhagen

Copenhagen

1999-06-06

The National Theatre's production of 'Copenhagen' by Michael Frayn opened with it's orignal cast, Sara Kestelman, David Burke and Matthew Marsh. Frayn is best known for writing the comedy 'Noises Off', but 'Copenhagen' is a far more serious drama. It's about the physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg and their meeting in Copenhagen in 1941.

The Really Useful Group

The Really Useful Group

2000-01-04

In 2000 the theatre became owned by the Really Useful Group, Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s company.

Blue/Orange

Blue/Orange

2001-05-21

Joe Penhall's play 'Blue/Orange' starred Bill Nighy and the rest of the original National Theatre cast. The production team transformed the theatre from a classic proscenium arch auditorium into an 'in the round' space.

George Gershwin Alone

George Gershwin Alone

2004-02-04

Hershey Felder performed in the production 'George Gershwin Alone' which examined the life and works of the famous American composer. Felder created the role for himself; as an actor, pianist, playwright and composer he played the part of Gershwin as well as giving the concert-level piano performances.

Man and Boy

Man and Boy

2005-03-04

Terence Rattigan's play 'Man and Boy' starred David Suchet. The play is set in 1930s New York and explores the relationship between a father, Gregor Antonescu, and his estranged son Basil. Gregor is a wealthy and powerful financier who is facing the most catastrophic disaster of his working life. He visits Basil in his apartment in Greenwich Village to find solace and much needed forgiveness. As newspaper headlines begin to emerge that the FBI are looking for Gregor everyone begins to desert him. The only person left is Basil, but is Gregor worthy of his help?

Buddy - The Buddy Holly Story

Buddy - The Buddy Holly Story

2007-08-03

Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story' was one of the first jukebox musicals and was written in 1989. The original musical ran in the West End for 12 years, at the Victoria Palace Theatre and the Strand Theatre. The 2007 reopening was another success and ran for two years at the Duchess. The musical explores Buddy Holly's life, musical inspiration and back catalogue. On the 3rd February 2009 the theatre gave a special performance with new songs to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Buddy Holly's death.

Plague Over England

Plague Over England

2009-02-08

Nicholas de Jongh, the notable theatre critic, wrote his first play 'Plague Over England' which premiered at the Finborough Theatre. It was about John Gielgud and his little known arrest for homosexuality and lewd behaviour. It received such rave reviews that it transferred to the West End with an updated cast.

The Duchess Theatre's 80th Anniversary

The Duchess Theatre's 80th Anniversary

2009-11-25

On the 80th Anniversary of the theatre the venue still had its original iron safety curtain, its rigging grid, and wooden stage. They were all still in working order, as was the original 1929 cabin of the lift (although this is now run by modern machinery).

Krapp's Last Tape' with Michael Gambon

Krapp's Last Tape' with Michael Gambon

2011-03-09

The musical was conceived by Londoner Laurie Mansfield, who pitched the idea to film producer Greg Smith and writer Alan Janes in 1988. Paul Elliot, a West End producer took on the project, and support from Paul McCartney (who owned the copyrights to Holly's music and objected to inaccuracies in the movie) ensured the show's creation. Opening in 1989, the musical initially ran in London's West End for over 12 years, and also had a brief Broadway production, with numerous subsequent tours and productions continuing to run around the world.

Lenny Henry stars in 'Fences'

Lenny Henry stars in 'Fences'

2013-06-27

Lenny Henry starred in Harold Wilson's play 'Fences', one of Wilson's so called '10 Pittsburgh Plays'. The story revolves around Troy, a 53 year old garbage collector who lives with his wife Rose and their son Cory. It takes place in their run down house and front yard where a series of different characters come to visit Troy. It transpires that Troy moved to the area in the 1930s to build a good life for himself before being involved in a murder, a crime he spent time in prison for. Henry was commended for his ability to play a serious character given his comic background.

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui

2013-09-18

'The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui' is one of Bertolt Brecht's best know political works, and is an allegorical play about Adolf Hitler and the rise of the Nazi Party. Brecht wrote the play in only two weeks in 1941 whilst he was in exile in Finland waiting for a visa to the USA. He'd anticipated the effects of Hitler's rule when he first came to power in 1933 and consequently fled Germany. 'The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui' tells the story of gangsters in Chicago with the ruthless Arturo Ui, representing Hitler, at the helm. Henry Goodman played the lead role in this production at the Duchess Theatre.

Alex Jennings in Alan Bennett's 'Untold Stories'

Alex Jennings in Alan Bennett's 'Untold Stories'

2013-04-01

'Untold Stories' first played at the National Theatre before transferring to the Duchess for a West End run. It's a double bill of two autobiographical Alan Bennett plays, 'Hymn' and 'Cocktail Sticks'. Alex Jennings played Alan Bennett in both pieces. 'Hymn' is about the influence of music through childhood, reflecting on Bennett's own fraught relationship with his violin, and featured a beautiful score by Geroge Fenton. 'Cocktail Sticks' is based on Bennett's memoir 'A Life Like Other People's', where a son talks to his dead father about his mother's unhappiness.

Bakersfield Mist

Bakersfield Mist

2014-05-27

Kathleen Turner starred in Stephen Sach's play about Maude, a woman who accidentally becomes involved with the art world. She lives in a trailer in Bakersfield which she's decorated with cheap kitsch and tacky memorabilia. She goes to a local thrift shop and finds a really ugly painting which she buys as a joke for $3. But a high school art teacher convinces her that it could actually be a lost Jackson Pollock painting worth millions. She invites an expert art dealer over to her trailer to view the painting, but instead of a price estimate she gets into a deep conversation about modern society and the values we place on each other.

The Play That Goes Wrong

The Play That Goes Wrong

2014-09-18

'The Play That Goes Wrong' is the hilarious tale of the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society as they valiantly try, and of course fail, to put on the murder mystery play 'Murder at Haversham Manor'. The actors battle the set, the costumes and mostly each other as they try to survive the performance and get to the curtain call.

The Play That Goes Wrong gets it right!

The Play That Goes Wrong gets it right!

2015-04-12

Hilarious farce The Play That Goes Wrong swipes the 2015 Olivier Award for Best New Comedy, beating out Handbagged and Shakespeare in Love.

The Play That Goes Wrong travels to Broadway

The Play That Goes Wrong travels to Broadway

2017-03-09

Continuing at the Duchess Theatre, the original Mischief Theatre cast take The Play That Goes Wrong across the waters to Broadway! Beginning previews on March 9th 2017, the unlucky company open at the Lyceum Theatre. This means the play is currently going wrong across the UK and Ireland, in the West End and on Broadway AND in Australia!

Our Boys

Our Boys

2012-09-26

Jonathan Lewis’ play 'Our Boys' starring Matthew Lewis, Laurence Fox and Arthur Darvill. The drama focuses on five young soldiers recovering from injuries in a Woolwich military hospital in 1984. But a new officer arrives and threatens to divide their new friendships. The play questions the real affects of military service on the armed forces, particularly vulnerable young men.

Past Shows at Duchess Theatre