The Palace Theatre is amongst a large group of West End venues to appear in the capital in the 19th century and continue under different names before settling on its current one. As such it is a venue steeped in history, premiering some famous operas in its original incarnation as the Royal English Opera House and surviving through a 20th century noted by huge conflicts under the name The Palace Theatre. And as it has survived audiences can continue to enjoy large-scale productions here, with some long-running musicals – such as “Les Misérables” and “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” - calling the theatre their home in recent decades.
It was the famous talent agent and theatre impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte that commissioned the building of the Royal English Opera House at around 1888. He had previously commissioned the Savoy Theatre as well, with the famous architect C J Phipps handling the designs. But with the Royal English Opera House he employed Thomas Edward Collcut to carry them out, putting together a structure that remains mostly the same even in the modern day. Whilst Colcutt was not a famous theatre architect like Phipps he was a well known and celebrated architect of other buildings in London and throughout his career he was also responsible for the Savoy Hotel (also commissioned by Carte), the Imperial Institute, Wigmore Hall and the Lloyd’s Register of Shipping Building on Fenchurch Street.
The Palace Theatre remains as one of the few buildings to retain his original designs and as a result audiences that have visited the venue over the last century have enjoyed some wonderful architecture to go with the famous shows.
Such shows began with operas, but they were not successful and as such the venue would only retain its title of the Royal English Opera House until 1892 when it became the Palace Theatre of Varieties. Then, in 1911, it was granted the title that it would retain for the next century – the Palace Theatre.
Since then it has been famous for the wealth of high quality forms of entertainment it has presented, beginning with its famous orchestra early in the last century, the Palace Girls, hired by then-musical director Herman Finck between 1900 and 1920 to perform, and the modern-day musicals that continue to attract a crowd. The venue also has the distinction of being a Listed Building and as a result is a protected structure that will continue to entertain well into the future.
In the venue’s capacity as the Royal English Opera House it presented a well known show as its premiere production - Arthur Sullivan’s “Ivanhoe”. Based on Walter Scott’s famous novel, “Ivanhoe” would be a notable success for the venue – an exception during a run of shows that would fail to make an impact in comparison. With the Royal Family in attendance the night of the premiere the show would go on to run for over 150 performances and give Walter Scott’s already-popular novel a new lease of life. So popular was the original story that Sullivan felt it did not need to be completely re-told onstage, and so the audience had to use their knowledge of the story to piece together the unconnected passages adapted in front of them.
But as mentioned “Ivanhoe” was an exception to the rule and the Royal English Opera House would eventually become the Palace Theatre of Varieties and in this incarnation screened various films, including newsreels and a wildlife documentary presented by Oliver G Pike (an influential wildlife photographer) . During this time dancers and other forms of entertainment would also pass through its doors and the venue would become a popular home of variety acts, allowing it to flourish during this era.
After the venue became the Palace Theatre in 1911 it would welcome a range of well known performers, from Fred Astaire to Sir Laurence Olivier, among others. One of the shows to appear during this time was “No, No Nanette” in 1925. Though originally a Broadway play, the adapted musical would premiere at the Palace Theatre and become one of the most successful shows of the decade. It tells the story of Jimmy, a wealthy Bible-publisher who becomes a benefactor to three young women. Pretty soon he and his lawyer are forced to take them to his country-cottage in an attempt to get rid of them. Trouble ensues when their wives, believing them away on business, arrive on the scene.
The Palace Theatre would welcome various other musicals over the decades, but few more famous than “Les Miserables”, which began at the Barbican in early 1985 and ran at the Palace from December 1985 to 2004 when it transferred to its current home of the Queen’s Theatre. It follows the lives of certain characters over a period of twenty years in Napoleonic France and is now the longest running musical in the capital.
More recently, “Priscilla Queen of the Desert”, featuring Jason Donovan and others, has appeared at the venue. Based on the 1994 Australian movie it has been running since March 2009.
Further Facts about the Palace Theatre
• Famous names to appear at the venue include Fred Astaire, Sir Laurence Olivier, the Marx Brothers, Derren Brown, Jason Donovan, Ray Meagher and more.
• Various long-running shows have appeared here: “No, No, Nanette” was amongst the longest running of the 1920s, “Jesus Christ Superstar” ran from 1972 to 1980 and “Les Miserables” ran from 1985 to 2004. Currently, “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” has been running since 2009.
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