The Arts Theatre is found on Great Newport Street in London and is known for various well known productions, which regularly present something a little different to those offered elsewhere in the capital and in the West End. This has been something that has taken place ever since it first opened its doors in the 1920s, when it was able to defy the censorship of theatre and showcase some risky productions. So ever since the venue reopened back in 2009 it has been a welcome addition to the theatrical landscape of the capital, with a unique and distinct list of shows to present regularly.
The 1920s were a difficult time for theatres, largely due to the restrictive censorship laws bestowed by the office of Lord Chamberlain. But the Arts Theatre was able to overcome its restrictions and present some challenging and risky plays in the capital thanks to its status as a members club. Today it is not unusual for a variety of plays and musicals to appear in venues across London, sometimes with controversial results, but back then it allowed the Arts Theatre to stand out and establish a positive reputation.
The venue emerged from the ashes of a former building under the designs of the architect P Morley Horder. Whilst some of the architects behind London theatres, such as W G R Sprague and others, are well known and in fact designed a handful of them rather than just one, Horder also designed many buildings in Cambridge (as well as Penge Congregational Church in Penge, London).
But in the years since then it has welcomed a host of shows and also provided the stomping ground for some of the most famous names and shows in theatre. This includes Sir Peter Hall, who directed “Waiting for Godot” at the humble age of 24 back in the 1950s, and more.
And these are not the only events that stand out across the century; in the 1960s there are reports that the venue went by the name the New Arts Theatre, though it would eventually revert back to its original name that remains today. It also managed to survive the Second World War and recent developments regarding the lease that managed to force the cancellation of shows during Christmas 2010/2011.
But it remains and this means it maintains its status as a unique part of the London theatre scene.
Once the venue opened its doors for the first time in 1927 it would soon welcome “Young Woodley” in 1928. Though it was not the first show to appear at the venue (that honour went to Harold Scott’s “Picnic”), it is certainly the first high profile production and one that would establish the reputation of the brand new Arts Theatre. “Young Woodley” would prove to be successful enough to transfer to the Savoy Theatre in the West End and would also enjoy a run on Broadway as well. Penned by John Van Druten in 1925 it would go on to be adapted into the movie of the same name in 1930 under the direction of Thomas Bentley.
Another high profile production would appear in the 1950s under the direction or Peter Hall who, at the time, was only 24. It took the form of the UK premiere of the now-famous “Waiting for Godot” by Samuel Beckett. The show would fall victim to some of the remaining censorship laws and requests were made to remove certain words. Featuring the tramps Estragon and Vladimir, it follows them as they meet one another whilst waiting for the mysterious Godot to arrive, with secondary characters passing them by as they waste time and bicker. The most famous recent production featured Sir Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart at the Haymarket Theatre in 2009.
More recent years, particularly following the reopening of the venue in 2009, have seen it continue to welcome some distinct shows. Some of these have taken the forms of shows like “Nunsense A-Men”, “The Music of the Blues Brothers (Live)” and “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)”, whilst others have featured some high profile performers like Shirley Jones.
2011 saw the opening of Woody Sez at the venue, a musical that looked at the life and work of the famous folk singer Woody Guthrie. The show originally appeared at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2007 and was written by its star David Lutken alongside director Nick Corley. It is a celebration of the life and work of a performer who inspired some of the best known folk performers of all time, including Bob Dylan, and joined various other jukebox musicals like “Thriller Live” and We Will Rock You.
Further Facts about the Arts Theatre
• The venue has been given various nicknames over the years, including the Other Theatre and the mini-National Theatre.
• Peter Hall reportedly did not understand all of Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” but decided that deciphering the whole thing would mean they would miss their opening night.
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