London Theatre History and Timeline
Elizabeth I's reign
Elizabeth I was known for her cultivation of British drama and literature, most notably the works of William Shakespeare. Queen Elizabeth had regular private performances for her court, and she chose Shakespeare's company of players the most frequently. He makes one reference to Elizabeth in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' in the line "a fair vestal throned by the west" and she was allegedly thrilled. She also enjoyed the character of Falstaff in his play Henry IV, Part One, so much so that she requested that Shakespeare write a play about Falstaff being in love. 'The Merry Wives of Windsor' was written shortly afterwards to reflect the Queen's wishes. It's entirely possible that Shakespeare's works wouldn't have survived to this day were it not for Elizabeth I's support.
Inigo Jones introduced the idea of a proscenium arch (the arch which frames the stage opening) to British theatre as well as movable stage scenery. During the 1600s he worked with writer Ben Johnson to create gigantic set pieces for James I's and Charles I's private 'masque' productions.
The first permanent theatre was built
The first permanent public playhouse in London, called The Theatre, was built in Shoreditch by James Burbage. It's considered to be the first permanent theatre to be built in London purely for theatrical productions. The theatre was built on Curtain Road in Shoreditch, which is now part of the Borough of Hackney. Shakespeare's company of players regularly performed at the venue.
The Curtain was built
The Curtain theatre was built on Curtain Close in Shoreditch just 200 yards away from The Theatre. It opened in 1577 and housed plays until 1622. Between 1597 and 1599 it was the main venue for Shakespeare’s company the ‘Lord Chamberlain’s Men’
London theatres were closed due to the bubonic plague.
Between 1592 and 1594 all theatres in London were closed because of the plague. Bouts of the plague were intermittent during this period - the Great Plague struck later between 1655 and 1666 and killed 15% of London's population.
The Globe was built
The Globe was built in 1599 by The Lord Chamberlain’s Men on the south bank of the Thames. It was built from the timbers of The Theatre. Richard Burbage’s father James had built The Theatre – he had a 21 year lease on the building site but owned the theatre itself outright. The landlord Giles Allen said that he owned the building since the Burbage’s lease had expired. On 28th December 1598 the Lord Chamberlain’s men, their friends and the carpenter Peter Street dismantled The Theatre and moved the beams to Peter’s warehouse near Bridewell. The Globe was built using those timbers but in a slightly different, and larger, design. It was built in the shape of a letter O, which is referenced during the opening speech of Henry V.
The Earl of Essex tried to overthrow Elizabeth I with a play
The 2nd Earl of Essex Robert Devereux commissioned a performance of Shakespeare's Richard II, which is about the overthrow of an unpopular monarch, to try and remove Elizabeth I from power. He was tried for treason and put to death.
King James 1st
King James 1st was a huge supporter of the arts, especially drama. In his first year of rule he awarded a royal charter to Shakespeare's company of players and they subsequently changed their name to the King's Men. However, James loved theatre so much that many other performances were given exclusively for the monarchy and didn't have any sort of public outing. These performances were often called 'masques' and involved dance sequences, music and extravagant costumes. It became a fashionable, and often expensive, leisure activity for royal families all over Europe.
The Globe theatre burnt down
The Globe burnt down on 23rd June 1613 after a canon used during a performance of Henry VIII started a fire. A second theatre was built on the same site which reopened in 1614.
The Puritans closed all theatres in London
The Puritans, under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell, closed all theatres in Britain in 1642. The closure lasted for 18 years. The Puritans believed that theatre was too frivolous and attracted an indecent crowd; theatres often drew in thieves, prostitutes and beggars which had a negative impact on the surrounding area.
The Globe theatre was demolished
The Puritans demolished The Globe in 1644, two years after they closed all theatres. It was pulled down to make way for tenement houses.
The English Civil War ended in 1651 and the monarchy was reinstated in 1660 with Charles II, son of the overthrown Charles I. The monarchy gave their patronage to the stage again. The new king inspired the genre of Restoration Comedy which was quick witted, full of innuendo and cynicism.
Theatre Royal Drury Lane was built
The Theatre Royal Drury Lane was built, first called ‘Theatre Royal in Bridges Street’.
Female characters were only allowed to be played by women
King Charles II issued a royal decree that female roles should only be played by female actors, after feeling disturbed that male actors playing women had obvious facial hair. Margaret Hughes is thought to have been the first professional female actor when she played Desdemona on 8th December 1660.
The Dorset Garden Theatre was built
After the Restoration, Sir Christopher Wren designed a new theatre which was built on the banks of the Thames. It was named The Dorset Garden Theatre but was also known as the Duke of York's Theatre, and later as the Queen's Theatre. At the same time Covent Garden was being developed and The Dorset Garden Theatre was eventually overtaken in popularity by the Theatre Royal Drury Lane.
Theatre Royal Drury Lane had its first fire
The Theatre Royal Drury Lane has suffered three fires in its lifetime - the first one in 1672 destroyed the entire building. Christopher Wren designed a new theatre which was built on the same plot and opened in 1674. It was renamed 'The Theatre Royal in Drury Lane' and lasted for nearly 120 years until the next fire.
David Garrick transformed acting
David Garrick was a prominent actor during the 1740s and he his partly responsible for how theatre operates today. He revolutionised acting by playing his characters in a more realistic way than they been previously; his performance as Richard III was allegedly the first attempt at realism. Other actors of the time would strike a pose and speak their lines very formally, but Garrick rejected this. He became the manager of Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in 1947 and made it one of the most popular theatres in Europe. It was normal for audience members to pay a little more for the privilege of sitting on the stage, where they would irritate actors. Garrick abolished this and turned the theatre into a space for watching performances, not for watching other members of the audience! We have a lot to thank Garrick for in modern theatre. He was buried in Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey, and The Garrick Theatre was built in 1889 in his honour.
The Beggar's Opera
John Gay's 'The Beggar's Opera' was allegedly the first musical in the world. When it was written in 1728 the form of satirical opera was extremely popular, but its the only surviving example that's still popular today. It was first performed in Lincoln's Inn Fields Playhouse.
The 1737 Licensing Act
The 1737 Licensing Act had a huge, and some would say devastating, impact on the development of British drama. It granted the Lord Chamberlain the authority to censor new British plays, removing anything that he considered to be inappropriate. Theatre owners could be heavily prosecuted if they staged a play that hadn't received official approval.
The Theatre Royal Drury Lane was rebuilt
The Theatre Royal Drury Lane had become so popular that it was often over capacity. Under the management of Richard Birnsley Sheridan the theatre was pulled down and a much larger building was put in its place. This, the third version of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, opened in 1794.
During the early years of the 19th Century only two patented theatres in London were allowed to show plays; the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and Covent Garden. They mostly showed productions of Shakespeare plays and works by Sheridan, who managed the Theatre Royal Drury Lane at the time. Other theatres in London began inserting a musical interlude into their plays to get around the Licensing Act.
The Sans Pareil was renamed as the Adelphi Theatre
The Adelphi Theatre was originally founded as the 'The Sans Pareil', meaning 'Without Compare'. It was renamed in 1919 after the Adelphi Buildings opposite.
The Theatre Royal Drury line caught fire for the second time
Richard Birnsley Sheridan, author of the popular 'The Rivals', owned The Theatre Royal when it caught fire in 1809. He had had it extensively refurbished after taking over the ownership from Richard Garrick. It's been said that Sheridan heard about the fire and went to sit at one of the public houses outside to watch it. A friend advised him to move it and he allegedly replied 'May a man not take wine at his own fireside?'
A gas explosion destroyed the Royal Opera House
In 1828 The Royal Opera House was destroyed by a huge gas explosion. They made and stored their own gas on the premises, but after the explosion they reverted back to using oil lamps.
The New Adelphi Theatre opens
The Adelphi Theatre grew in popularity, so much so that the cramped theatre was demolished and replaced with a larger and more elegant building. The New Adelphi Theatre could seat 1500 people with an additional 500 standing.
The Stage is first published
The theatre paper The Stage was first published in 1880 and is still a trustworthy source of theatre news to this day.
The Lyric Theatre opens
The Lyric was the second theatre to be built on the famous Shaftesbury Avenue, heart of London's theatre district.
The Garrick Theatre opened
The Garrick Theatre was built in the 1880s and funded by one half of Gilbert and Sullivan, W.S.Gilbert. During the build they discovered a Roman river running under the soil and had to find a way to divert it so as not to damage the theatre's foundations.
The premiere of Oscar Wilde's 'The Importance of Being Earnest'
Oscar Wilde's famous comedy of manners 'The Importance of Being Earnest' had its world premiere at the St James Theatre on Valentine's Day in 1895. The night has gone down in theatre history as the start of Wilde's huge professional success, but also as the beginning of his personal demise. Wilde was in a relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas at the time but homosexuality was illegal. Douglas' father also happened to be the Marquis of Queensberry. He had found out about the love affair a few days before and planned to ruin the evening by handing Wilde a bunch of rotting vegetables after the performance.
The Apollo Theatre opened
The Apollo Theatre was the first theatre to be built during the Edwardian period. It was designed by Lewin Sharp in three tiers, with the top tier (the Balcony) thought to be the steepest in London at the time.
The 1916 production of Chu-Chin-Chow at His Majesty's Theatre was the most successful production during World War I, running for 5 years to a total of 2,238 performances. It's based on the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, with music by Frederic Norton. The production has been described as an 'oriental extravaganza' and was famous for its luxurious costumes and set pieces.
The Fortune Theatre opened
Building work on the Fortune Theatre began in 1922 and the venue opened two years later. The building was designed by Ernest Schaufelberg who also redesigned the Adelphi Theatre.
Noël Coward wrote his famous play 'Hay Fever'
Noel Coward allegedly wrote his well known play 'Hay Fever' over just one weekend in 1924. It's the work which marked the start of his illustrious writing career, and was followed by others including 'Private Lives', 'Blithe Spirit' and 'Relative Values'. Coward's works are still performed regularly all over the world.
The Duchess Theatre opened
The Duchess Theatre was built on the site of a WWI bomb raid. It was dug deep into the ground to comply with building regulations imposed by the Ancient Lights Law; new buildings couldn't be built if they would stop natural light from reaching others.
The Great Depression
The effects of the Great Depression of 1928/1929 rippled around the world and had a huge effect on Britain's creative industries. The country was still recovering from the huge financial losses of WWI and there was simply not enough money or demand for big theatre productions, especially in the West End. Theatres didn't take any gambles on the plays they put on - they opted for conservative shows which the public knew well.
The Cambridge Theatre opened
The Cambridge Theatre was one of many London theatres to open in the 1930s. It's situated in the heart of Seven Dialls and has always been a popular choice for evening theatregoers.
The new Adelphi Theatre opened
The Adelphi Theatre was completely redesigned by Ernest Schaufelberg in a fashionable Art Deco style. The design was extremely daring at the time, especially the plain frontage which has a striking art deco window cut out of one side.
The shortest run in West End history
The shortest run in West End history took place at the Duchess Theatre just months after it opened. 'The Intimate Revue' closed before the first performance had even finished, with audience members laughing the cast off stage. The show was apparently under-rehearsed and extremely badly performed.
The Apollo Victoria opened
The Apollo Victoria Theatre originally opened as the New Victoria, a huge art deco cinema with 2500 seats. It was converted into a theatre in 1981 and is now one of the largest venues in the West End.
The Blitz began on 7th September 1940 and continued for 57 consecutive nights, killing 40,000 civilians and destroying one million houses in London. Central London suffered the worst of the bombings, including the West End. The Queens Theatre and the Piccadilly Theatre were hit directly and other theatres were damaged from debris. Some theatres closed during the war but others remained open, including the famous Windmill Theatre which showed ‘tableaux nudes’ performances and refused to close.
The Mousetrap opened
Agatha Christie’s murder mystery The Mousetrap has been running in the West End since 1952, making it the longest running performance in the world. It’s been at St Martin’s Theatre since 1974 and enjoyed its 25,000th performance in 2012. Agatha gave the rights to the play to her Grandson as a birthday present which protects the work from any outside influence. The rights state that only one other production can run each year in the UK in addition to the West End version, and a film adaptation can only be made once the West End play has been closed for six months.
Harold Pinter's 'The Caretaker'
The Caretaker' was Harold Pinter's first West End success at the Duchess Theatre. He has since become one of the most prolific British playwrights and 'The Caretaker' is seen to be a modern classic.
Edward Bond's 'Saved'
Edward Bond's play 'Saved' was extremely controversial for its time and partly lead to the abolition of the Licensing Act in 1968. It's set on a London council estate in the 1960s and examines the poverty of young people. The Lord Chamberlain refused to grant a license for the play without seriously altering the content. Instead of pursuing a license, the play was produced illegally in private member's clubs and anyone who participated was prosecuted. Lawrence Olivier wrote a letter to The Observer praising the play and heavily criticising the Licensing Act. The play was produced properly in 1969 at the Royal Court Theatre in London, a theatre which has always encouraged challenging and provocative works.
Abolition of the 1737 Licensing Act
The 1737 Licensing Act was abolished in 1968 following the controversy over Edward Bond's play 'Saved' in 1965. The abolition of the Act stripped the Lord Chamberlain of the authority to censor plays, old or new. This lead to a wave of new writing in the UK as well as the production of plays which the Lord Chamberlain had previously seen as too divisive.
No Sex Please, We're British
No Sex Please, We’re British is the longest running British comedy. It premiered on 3rd June 1971 and played in three venues until 1987 (it began at the Strand before moving to the Garrick and then the Duchess). It ran to a total of 6761 performances. There have been many adaptations of the production all over the world, including an American version on Broadway which only ran for 16 performances.
The National Theatre was built
The National Theatre (officially the Royal National Theatre) was designed by Sir Denys Lasdun and Peter Softley, and structural engineers Flint & Neill. It contains three theatres, The Olivier, The Lyttelton and The Dorfman, which opened separately between 1976 and 1977. The building is made purely out of concrete and many believe it to be typically Brutalist in style, although many architecture experts would disagree. The National Theatre has quickly become one of the most prestigious theatres for an actor to perform in.
The Donmar Warehouse opened
The Donmar Warehouse is well known for producing some of the most groundbreaking performances in the UK, in one of the smallest new theatres in London. The building itself has a rich and interesting history. Sir Donald Albery and his wife Margot Fonteyn bought the building in 1961 for their theatre company 'Donmar', a fusion of their two first names. In the 1870s the building was a hops warehouse for the local Covent Garden brewery, was later used as a 1920s film studio and then a warehouse for ripening bananas for the Covent Garden fruit market.
Les Miserables opened
The London version of Les Miserables opened on 8th October 1985 at the Barbican Centre, which was then home of the Royal Shakespeare Company. The first critics’ reviews were exceptionally negative, saying it was too over the top and even ‘synthetic’. But public opinion differed and the show sold out. It’s now the longest running musical in the West End closely followed by Phantom of the Opera. The production was transformed into a film in 2012 which won three Acamedy Awards, four BAFTAs and three Golden Globes.
Phantom of the Opera opened
Andrew Lloyd Webber's now legendary show Phantom of the Opera opened in 1986 and has been running ever since. In its first year it received an Olivier Award and in 1988 it was given a Tony Award; signs that the show was there to stay. It's the second longest running musical on the West End after Les Miserables, and the Broadway version is the longest running show in Broadway history.
Starlight Express opens at the Apollo Victoria
Andrew Llyod Webber's epic show Starlight Express opened at the Apollo Victoria in 1986. The whole auditorium was transformed into a giant roller skating track so that the performers could skate around the audience. The show ran for a staggering 7406 performances over 18 years.
A fire destroyed the inside of the Savoy
A fire gutted the inside of the Savoy Theatre whilst it was being renovated, leaving only the stage and backstage areas intact. It took 3 years for it to be rebuilt. An extra storey was added, including a health club for the Savoy Hotel. The hotel swimming pool was built directly over the stage.
Shakespeare's Globe opened on the South Bank
American actor Sam Wanamaker set up the Shakespeare Globe Trust in 1949, with the aim of reconstructing Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London. The Trust spent the following 23 years extensively researching the original Globe's architecture, as well as planning an education centre and a space for a permanent Shakespeare exhibition. In 1993 the building plot was secured on the South Bank and the Globe finally became a reality three years later.
The Noel Coward Theatre opened
The Albery Theatre was renamed as the Noel Coward Theatre after it underwent major refurbishment in 2006. It was renamed to celebrate Coward's legacy in theatre.
Wicked the musical opened
Wicked the musical opened at the Apollo Victoria in 2006 and has since become one of the most popular shows in the West End. It's a retelling of The Wizard of Oz, and questions whether the Wicked Witch really is all that wicked. It features the musical hit 'Defying Gravity'.
The Lord of the Rings was the most expensive musical of all time
The Lord of the Rings opened on May 9th 2007 and quickly became one of the most expensive musicals of all time. It cost £12million over it's 13 month run and had to take £350,000 a week to break even. The set was so elaborate and heavy that the original listed stage had to be carefully dismantled and removed from the building for the show's run.
Comedy Theatre is renamed after Harold Pinter
Ambassador Theatre Group honour the famous playwright Harold Pinter by renaming the Comedy Theatre after him. Many of Pinter's plays were produced at the venue, which closed for six weeks to be refurbished before unveiling the new signage on Pinter's birthday.
Andrew Lloyd Webber sells the Palace Theatre
Nimax Theatres acquire the Palace Theatre from Andrew Lloyd Webber for an undisclosed sum. The decision was made by Lloyd Webber in order to finance the refurbishment of his other venue, the London Palladium.
The Apollo Theatre roof collapses
The roof collapses on audience members during a performance of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. 58 people were hospitalized but there were no fatalities. After an investigation it was understood that the collapse occurred owing to weak and old materials.
Cameron Mackintosh buys two major London theatres
Sir Stephen Waley-Cohen sells the Victoria Palace Theatre and the Ambassadors Theatre to Sir Cameron Mackintosh. A year long refurbishment is planned for the Victoria Palace Theatre to extend its stage. Mackintosh announces the Ambassadors Theatre will be renamed to the Sondheim Theatre in honour of the famous composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim.
Christopher Marlowe was killed
Christopher Marlowe was killed, but the circumstances of his death remain disputed. Some believe that his death was faked so that he could write under Shakespeare’s name. Others believe that Shakespeare never really existed and Marlowe used his name as a pseudonym.