J B Priestley's play Cornelius opens
J B Priestley’s Cornelius, starring Ralph Richardson, runs at the Duchess Theatre.
J B Priestley’s Cornelius, starring Ralph Richardson, runs at the Duchess Theatre.
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 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.
Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars has a run at the Duchess Theatre. The work by the Irish playwright one part of his well-known Dublin Trilogy and set amongst working class Dublin life in the run up to the Easter Rising.
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.
Jessica Tandy and Cathleen Nesbitt star in Christa Winsloe's Children in Uniform, directed by Leontine Sagan.
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.
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 joined the Duchess Theatre management team, and his wife Jane Lewis began extensive interior decoration of the theatre.
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.
Time and the Conways by J B Priestley opens, with Alexander Archdale, Wilfred Babbage, Eileen Erskine, Barbara Everest, Jean Forbes-Robertson, Helen Horsey, Marie Johns, J P Mitchelhill, Molly Rankin and Rosemary Scott in the cast.
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 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.
Nearby Aldwych experiences one of the deadliest V1 bomb attacks of the war. 46 people were killed and over 200 injured as the attack happened just as workers were returning from their lunch breaks.
Max Wall, popular variety entertainer, debuts new character Professor Wallofski. The grotesque piano player appeared in the revue Make It a Date.
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.
Miss Mabel by R C Sherriff runs at the Duchess, featuring Mary Jerrold, Josephine Middleton and Clive Morton. The play is a comedic murder mystery.
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
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.
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.
Flora Robson, Ernest Jay, Enid Lindsay and Ann Walford appear in The Return.
Sylvia Sims appears in A Kind of Folly for an extremely limited run of just a few days. The play is by Owen Holder, who was also part of the cast.
J B Priestley hires Tony Richardson to direct his play The Scandalous Affair of Mr Kettle and Mrs Moon.
Ronald Millar’s The Bride and the Bachelor is directed by Charles Hickman. The three-act farcical comedy went on to be a favourite of small and am dram companies.
Cranks, a new British musical revue, runs through 7 July. It transferred to Broadway’s Bijou Theatre later that year.
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 first West End success, ‘The Caretaker’, was performed at the Duchess Theatre with Donald Pleasence and Alan Bates.
Theatre impresario Peter Saunders takes on the theatre’s lease. Arthur Lovegrove’s new comedy Goodnight Mrs Puffin opens at the same time.
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'
Bill Naughton’s Alfie, which is later adapted into the film starring Michael Caine, transfers to the Duchess from the Mermaid Theatre. The film was remade in 2004 starring Jude Law.
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.
After a run on Broadway, Wait Until Dark comes to the Duchess starring Honour Blackman and Peter Sallis. The thriller is adapted into a film, and the West End run lasts for two years.
Three Months Gone by Donald Howarth runs at the theatre starring Diana Dors.
The Dirtiest Show in Town runs at the Duchess Theatre for nearly 800 performances. An attack on air pollution, the Vietnam War, urban development and technology, it is filled with sex, nudity, and ends in an orgy with the entire cast nude.
Terrance Rattigan’s In Praise of Love premieres, starring Donald Sinden and Joan Greenwood. John Dexter directs. In 1976 the play was made into a film, and recent revivals include Chichester Festival Theatre in 2006 and Royal and Derngate Theatres in 2011.
Oh Calcutta! transferred from the Royalty Theatre and performed at the Duchess until 1980, with a staggering run of almost 4,000 shows.
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 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'.
A triple bill of Harold Pinter plays called Other Places opens, featuring the play One for the Road.
No Sex Please, We’re British transfers to the Duchess after successful runs at the Novello and Garrick Theatres.
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.
The Players Theatre Company use the Duchess for their Late Joys Victorian Music Hall events whilst their new theatre is being built in Charing Cross.
Run for Your Wife, an adult comedy about a taxi driver leading a double life with two wives, transfers to the Duchess from the Aldwych Theatre. The show’s West End run lasted nearly 9 years and transferred to Broadway in 1989.
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.
The RSC’s production of The Herbal Bed by Peter Whelan runs here.
Eileen Atkins and Michael Gambon have a ten-week run in the RSC’s The Unexpected Man.
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.
In 2000 the theatre became owned by the Really Useful Group, Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s company.
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.
Alan Aykbourn’s trilogy Damsels in Distress opens. They originally played at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, then toured, before coming to the West End. One of the plays, RolePlay, was much more popular than the other two and the producers’ decision to give it more performances than the other two caused conflict amongst the creative and production teams.
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.
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?
Stones in His Pockets by Marie Jones begins previews for a short West End run.
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.
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.
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).
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 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' 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.
'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.
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' 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.
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 turns three years old and extends its booking period until September 2018.
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!
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.