The Peacock Theatre, the West End’s home of contemporary dance, has taken on many different forms and names over the last century, before the current structure audiences see today was erected in 1960. Prior to that another theatre had stood on the site since 1911, with previous theatrical ventures undertaken on the same land since the 17th century, with one claim to fame being the first woman to appear onstage in 1660. So there is a long history of theatre on the property on Portugal Street and as the current home of Sadler’s Wells in the West End, audiences can expect some of the best dancers and companies in the world to continue to appear here in the future.
The 1911 building that stood on the site before the current Peacock Theatre was originally titled the London Opera House and had been commissioned by Oscar Hammerstein I, with Bertie Crewe leading the designs. Both men are well known in the world of theatre, the former being the grandfather of composer Oscar Hammerstein II (of Rodgers and Hammerstein fame) and the latter standing up alongside the likes of C J Phipps and W G R Sprague as an architect behind a wealth of London theatres. Crewe’s other ventures included the Lyceum Theatre, the Shaftesbury Theatre and the Piccadilly Theatre, amongst others, in addition to the Peacock’s sister venue Sadler’s Wells Theatre.
Between 1911 and 1960 the venue would change its name twice, transforming from the London Opera House to The National Theatre of England (it had struggled to compete with the Royal Opera House) in 1914, under which it would house some prestigious shows. Then, in 1916, the venue would change its name again as Oswald Stoll bought it, allowing it to transform into the Stoll Theatre, which would also became the Stoll Picture House during its time in the capital.
The latest venue, then known as The Royalty Theatre, opened in 1960 and was a grand arrival in London, being the first West End theatre to be built in some time. Between then and the modern day it would host a wealth of shows and movies, before the London School of Economics bought the venue and used it for a variety of University-related purposes. This arrangement remains in place today, whilst Sadler’s Wells continues to lease it to show off the best in dance in the West End.
During the early years of the 1911 venue, the first well known production to appear took the form of “The Queen of Spades”, which was the London premiere of a famous piece by Tchaikovsky. The show, based on a story by Alexander Pushkin, had received its world premiere in Russia in 1890 and had already been seen in Prague, Vienna and the US, and leading the UK production was Vladimir Rosing, a Russian theatre director who had hosted a number of productions on both sides of the Atlantic. Set during the time of Catherine the Great, “The Queen of Spades” would be the first of many stand out productions for the venue, which would also continue with “Madame Butterfly”.
A high profile show for the following Stoll Theatre was the musical version of the hit Edward Knoblock play “Kismet”. The story had already been told at the Garrick Theatre but the musical version, penned in 1953 and premiering in Los Angeles the same year, would be a huge success for the Stoll Theatre. It ran for more than 600 performances and allowed audiences to witness a story set during in Baghdad during the time of “The Arabian Nights”.
The current building opened its doors in 1960 and has since continued to welcome some acclaimed productions. At first these took the form of movies such as “Ben Hur” but eventually live productions such as “Bubbling Brown Sugar” and “Calcutta”. The former was a Broadway show set in Harlem, where some characters are led to a nightclub that is a step back in time to the times of black entertainers associated with Swing and Blues. The show had been a success in the US, having run for more than 700 performances, and would be a stand-out piece for then-Royalty Theatre late in the 1970s.
As the Peacock Theatre the venue has continued to welcome spectacular dance productions in the last decade such as “Traces” and its follow-up “Psy” from Les 7 doigts de la Main (The 7 Fingers), in addition to “Cirkus Cirkor”, “Havana Rakatan” and “Blaze”, amongst others. Les 7 doigts de la Main is a well known dance company from Montreal that won great acclaim with both “Traces” and “Psy”, the latter featuring dancers with an array of ticks and neuroses, giving audiences a window into the world of psychological ailments. It appeared at the Peacock Theatre from April to May 2010.
Further Facts about the Peacock Theatre
• There is often rumoured to be the ghost of a dolphin haunting the theatre, with guests claiming to hear the sounds of the ghostly mammal beneath the auditorium, where a dolphin is once said to have been held captive and died. This has been confirmed untrue and the noises attributed to other factors.
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