The history of the current New London theatre goes back to 1973, but if we are to take into account the site on which it stands, the history goes back even further – as far as the 17th century if we are to take into consideration the Great Mogul, which was a tavern with an adjoining entertainment venue. As a result there have been a number of buildings and names associated with the site well before the New London Theatre opened its doors and welcomed an array of west end shows, including its current production of “War Horse”, which has been running since March 2009.
The Great Mogul would be replaced by the Mogul Saloon in the 1840s, before becoming the New Middlesex Theatre of Varieties, a name given to a brand new theatre constructed by Frank Matcham – who was also responsible for The London Coliseum, the London Hippodrome, the London Palladium and the Victoria Palace Theatre, amongst others. But this name would not stick and by the 1920s had been transformed yet again to become the Winter Gardens Theatre. So whilst certain London theatres, including the Prince Edward Theatre, were yet to be built, the venue on the site of the New London Theatre already had a wealth of history behind it.
But after an array of shows appeared at the venue it would finally close its doors in the 1950s to make way to the current structure found on the site. It meant that London was without the theatre on the corner of Drury Lane until it re-opened at the New London Theatre in the 1970s, since going on to host a wide variety of acts and shows. This time it was Paul Tvrtkovic who designed the building, with its large grass front that dominates Parker Street on its corner with Drury Lane.
Perhaps the most significant portion of the New London Theatre’s history ran from 1981 to 2002 when the hit musical “Cats” took to its stage from composer Andrew Lloyd Webber. When the production ended at the beginning of the last decade it had become the longest running musical in the world (though this was surpassed by “Les Miserables” as the decade progressed) and place the New London Theatre in the history books.
Famous shows that have appeared at the New London Theatre are wide reaching and encompass a great deal of productions in different eras of playwriting. During the era of the Winter Gardens Theatre, under the watch of George Grossmith Jr. and Edward Laurillard, it welcomed a production of “Kissing Time”, which was one of many pieces of musical theatre provided by the famous P G Wodehouse, whose other credits included “Anything Goes” and a song for “Show Boat”, amongst novels and films.
Another famous writer’s work followed in the form of “A Night Out”, which featured a book by the American playwright Arthur Miller. As the decades progressed, so did the management and the actors appearing in the famous productions. Fred and Adele Astaire would appear at the venue in a production of “Funny Face” at the venue in 1929, a show that had originated on Broadway and would go on to be adapted into a Hollywood movie. “She Knew What She Wanted” was a British movie that was also adapted from the text and as a result it is clear that it is a show that has a lasting legacy.
Another show to make its way to the old Winter Garden Theatre was “The Iceman Cometh”, Eugene O’Neill’s monumental classic that is such a large undertaking it is rarely staged. Over the years it has featured some acclaimed actors as part of its cast, particularly when it has been staged on Broadway, and appeared at the Winter Garden Theatre in 1958.
It would be amongst the last to appear at the venue before it was removed to make way for the New London Theatre and with it a host of well known plays and musicals, from “The Unknown Soldier” and “Grease” to “Cats” and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”.
But the current production to be staged at the venue is the universally acclaimed “War Horse”, set within the horrors of the First World War and based on the book by Michael Morpurgo. The play originated at The National Theatre and quickly received praise for its heart warming story and its groundbreaking puppetry effect utilised to bring the character of Joey the Horse to life. Thanks to the Handspring Puppet Company the show has become hugely famous and is likely to remain for some time to come, with Steven Spielberg’s movie adaptation another version of the story that raises its profile even further.
Further Facts about the New London Theatre
• Famous names to appear at the New London Theatre – and the Winter Garden Theatre – include Stanley Holloway, Fred Astaire, Adele Astaire, Alec Guinness, Richard Gere, Ian McKellen, the Blue Man Group, Stephen Gately and Sylvester McCoy, amongst others.
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