The Haymarket Theatre in the Haymarket area of London, also known as both the Theatre Royal Haymarket and the Little Theatre, is amongst the oldest theatres in the capital, having emerged in the 18th century and finding pride of place in its current home a century later. Over the years a whole host of well known names have appeared here, in addition to some stand-out plays and musicals, and as a result it has a long and dedicated history that makes it an integral part of the London theatre scene and amongst the most famous in Theatreland.
Two buildings have carried the history of the Haymarket Theatre between the opening of the first venue in 1720 and the second one in 1821. The first, under the name the Little Theatre, found itself near the site of the current venue, where it presented an array of shows and contended with the Licensing Act that forced its closure for many years. It was also the location of a stampede when the King visited the venue during this era, with patrons striving to get a glimpse of the monarch and causing the deaths twenty people in the process.
The current Theatre Royal Haymarket then arrived and it was redesigned by John Nash, a famous architect that designed a host of other well known locations around London, from Buckingham Palace and the Royal Pavilion to Marble Arch and Clarence House. So whilst he was not a prolific theatre architect similar to the likes of W G R Sprague, he is responsible for the look of some of London’s most famous landmarks. His exterior work remains to this day, though much of the interior has since been changed and refurbished, and as a result the theatre is an historical monument as well as a centre for some stand out works of art.
Across the 20th century the venue has regularly changed hands, whilst also providing the space for some major productions to take their firsts steps on the stage and it has continued to host some much-talked-about shows from “Waiting to Godot” to “The Rivals”. As such it is a venue that remains a vital part of the West End and as it is a Grade I listed building it is not going anywhere soon.
The first production to appear at the Haymarket Theatre, or Little Theatre as it is was known, was “La Fille a la Mode” in 1720, though its first major success would be “Horlothrumbo”, which would come close to being one of the most successful shows of all time up to that date. The intriguing musical play would run for around thirty performances and even featured its writer Samuel Johnson of Cheshire as a principal of the play. According to reports it would become the talk of the town and it certainly laid the foundations of a successful few centuries ahead for the venue.
After a little more than a century the Haymarket Theatre was redesigned and opened on a site near to the original venue and the first production to appear on its stage was “The Rivals”. Set in Bath the show sees a wealth of socialites descend upon the up-market town, with many of them taking the forms of some eccentric and colourful characters. It was not a well-received play but it would be reconsidered with time and returned to the venue in the 21st century, with Penelope Keith and Peter Bowles in the famous roles of Mrs Malaprop and Sir Anthony Absolute.
Further high profile shows would appear at the Haymarket Theatre as time went on, including two premieres from Oscar Wilde in the forms of “A Woman of No Importance” and “An Ideal Husband”. The former appeared in 1893 and features many examples of Wilde’s signature style in a story that looks at the upper classes. The latter appeared at the venue in 1895 and tells of a high profile government minister who has everything he wants; a great job and a loving wife. So when a woman arrives on the scene who can expose some misdeeds of his past he must work to clear up what could become a terrible mess.
Across the 20th century the Haymarket Theatre has been home to shows such as “The Beggar’s Opera” in 1940 under the direction of John Gielgud, “The Chalk Garden” in 1971 with Gladys Cooper and Dion Boucicault’s “London Assurance” in 1990. Then, in the 21st century its shows have included “The Blue Room” by David Hare and a high profile production of “Waiting for Godot” that featured both Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in the roles of tramps Estragon and Vladimir, with “Sweet Charity” and “The Rivals” following. As such it continues to welcome some high profile shows and looks set to maintain this tradition well into the future.
Further Facts about the Haymarket Theatre
• The venue was the final to use candle light.
• Like many venues, the Haymarket Theatre has been known to be visited by a ghost, in this case the spirit of the former manager John Baldwin Buckstone, who ran the venue from the 1850s to the 1870s.
• One of the managers of the venue was John Sleeper Clarke, better known as the brother-in-law of John Wilkes Booth - the man that shot Abraham Lincoln
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