The Phoenix Theatre in London, which is found on Charing Cross Road – with its entrance on Phoenix Street – is best known to audiences in the modern day as the long-time home of “Blood Brothers”, the Willy Russell musical that has been staged here since 1991. Its history, however, has seen it host a wide variety of shows and even maintain a lasting relationship with the late great Noel Coward, in addition to the ups and downs that would be natural for any theatre open for such a long time (more than eighty years). As such the venue remains an integral part of the West End theatre scene.
The men responsible for designing the Phoenix Theatre were Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, Cecil Masey and, a name that is well known in the London theatre scene, Bertie Crewe. Scott is best known for his work designing the Battersea Power Station, whilst Crewe is a well known name when it comes to the designs of West End theatres, standing up alongside the likes of C J Phipps and W G R Sprague, with his works also including the Lyceum Theatre, the Shaftesbury Theatre and the Piccadilly Theatre, amongst others. Cecil Masey, on the other hand, was one of Crewe’s pupils.
After its construction the venue joined a host of other London theatres that opened their doors for the first time in 1930 and in the eighty years since it did so has survived the onslaught of the Second World War and maintained a lasting presence in the West End. During the war, the venue in fact continued to operate and produced one of its most famous productions in the form of “Love for Love” by John Gielgud and it is one of many shows that demonstrate the well known names that were associated with the Phoenix.
In the last few decades, plays and musical theatre productions have taken centre stage, with some well known international shows making their way here. For the last twenty years, however, “Blood Brothers” has been the show to end the venue’s 20th century and provide audiences with entertainment for the beginning of the 21st. The production started out life at the Albery Theatre (now known as the Noel Coward Theatre) and transferred to the venue in 1991, remaining here to this day.
The very first show to be staged at the Phoenix Theatre upon its opening was “Private Lives” by Noel Coward. The show had been seen by audiences prior on a national tour and it eventually made its way to the Phoenix where it ran for more than a hundred performances, making it an early success for the venue. It tells the story of an ex-husband and wife accidentally meeting one another in France when they are on their honeymoon with their respective partners. Despite the differences that originally forced them apart their feelings for one another reignite in an evening of passion and betrayal, making for a compelling show that was recently seen in the West End once again with Kim Cattrall at the Vaudeville Theatre.
Coward would bring further shows to the theatre during the 1930s and then, during the Second World War, the venue became the home to “Love for Love”. The production was from the acclaimed John Gielgud and appeared during a time in which the actor and director was having success with a host of other shows around the capital. The venue found success with the production despite the fact that it was the Second World War – a time in which various other venues suffered great damage in the Blitz.
Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” was another stand-out show for the venue when it appeared in the 1960s and enjoyed a considerably long run. Based on the collection of stories written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the middle ages, this musical production gave the piece a new lease of life and first appeared at the Oxford Playhouse in 1964, before appearing at the Phoenix from 1968. The show benefitted from the recent repeal of censorship on the venue that had plagued so many previous productions, allowing the show to take to the stage unhindered.
But no mention of the shows to appear at the Phoenix Theatre can go by without mention of “Blood Brothers”, which has been seen by an enormous number of people since it transferred to the venue in 1991. The show, by Willy Russell, had originally appeared in Liverpool and then in London earlier in the 1980s and failed to find an audience. But after a tour and a revamp, it reopened in the late 1980s at the Albery Theatre, attracting enough attention to become the most successful show ever to appear at the Phoenix. Its two-decade long run makes it amongst the longest running shows in the West End.
Further Facts about the Phoenix Theatre
• Further well known names to have worked at the Phoenix Theatre include Noel Coward, John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Julia McKenzie, Mel C and more.
• Other theatres to open in the same year (1930) include the Cambridge Theatre, the Adelphi Theatre, the Leicester Square Theatre and the Whitehall Theatre (now Trafalgar Studios).
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