The Playhouse Theatre on Northumberland Avenue in London has a history defined by rebuilding, rebranding and even a tragic accident that resulted in the deaths of six people, but has managed to retain its place in the West End, whilst surviving two world wars, to become one of the best known venues in the capital. It is now famous for hosting well known musicals such as “Footloose the Musical”, “La Cage Aux Folles” and “Dreamboats and Petticoats”, amongst others, as it continues to draw in the crowds. And as the current venue dates back to 1907 (and the theatre as a whole back to 1882), it is also a step into a historical landmark, as well as a gateway to some spectacular performances.
The original Playhouse Theatre, then known as the Royal Avenue Theatre, opened in 1882 and in the two-and-a-half decades that it stood it welcomed some big name comedians, actors and writers through its doors, quickly building up a reputation and laying the foundations for the time ahead. It had been built by Sefton Henry Parry, a theatre manager who had been behind other venues, such as the old Globe Theatre on Newcastle Street, making him a much-remembered name in the London theatre scene.
Then it was rebuilt in the first decade of the 20th century, with Blow and Billerey taking on the designs this time around. The theatre at this point would lose some of its seating and be renamed The Playhouse, but these are not the factors for which the revamp was best known; the venue hit the headlines when the roof of Charing Cross station collapses, damaging some of the venue in the process and resulting in six deaths from the station and the theatre. As a result it was not until 1907 that the theatre finally opened its doors and welcomed in a new century of theatrical productions.
But despite the setbacks that occurred during the construction work in the 1900s, the Playhouse Theatre would enjoy a great century, welcoming a host of well known stars and also welcoming the BBC as the stage became the home of performers such as the Goons. Then, in more recent years, it continuously changed management and alternated regularly between musicals and plays, emerging in the last decade as the home to some of the most famous musicals in town.
The first production to see the light of day at the then-Royal Avenue Theatre in 1882 was “Madame Favart” by Jacques Offenbach, the composer popular with audiences in Europe in earlier decades. “Madame Favart” focuses on a story that is derived from the real life actress Marie Justine Benoîte Duronceray and its status as a comic opera would lay the foundations of the early years of the venue as it welcomed various other such productions across the 1880s.
Perhaps one of the highest profile shows of the early years of the venue was “Arms and the Man”, which was the first West End production of the famous George Bernard Shaw. The show turned out to be one of his early successes and would allow his career as a playwright to blossom. “Arms and the Man”, which appeared at the theatre in 1894, tells a comic story set in 1885 Serbo-Bulgarian War and after its appearance at the venue would go on to find success on Broadway and on stages around the world right across the last century.
In the early days of the 20th century a whole host of productions made their way to the stage, from “The Drums of Oudh”, which was the opening production of the new Playhouse Theatre in 1907, to “Libel!”, which saw the stage debut of Alex Guinness in 1934. “Libel!” saw the well known actor appear in only a small role (he would make his proper debut in John Gielgud’s “Hamlet” at the Albery Theatre two years later), but it would kick-start a career that would also see him take on the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi in the “Star Wars” movies.
Next up was the venue’s tenure as a BBC studio, which would see it welcome many well known names of the time such as The Goons and the cast of “Steptoe and Son”, before the venue was left unoccupied in the 1970s. Though it was threatened with demolition it would once again emerge as a top place to witness high profile productions as “Girlfriends” opened at the theatre in 1987.
In the last decade the Playhouse Theatre has continued to welcome some well known shows and amongst them was “Footloose the Musical” - based on the high profile Kevin Bacon-starring movie of the same name – and “La Cage Aux Folles” - which appeared at the venue following a successful run at the Menier Chocolate Factory. More recently it has seen the show “Dreamboats and Petticoats” appear, a well known musical that has been seen by audiences across the country.
Further Facts about the Playhouse Theatre
• Famous names to appear at the Playhouse Theatre include Arthur Roberts, Florence Farr, Nigel Bruce, Alex Guinness, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Paul Eddington, Felicity Kendal, Kirsten Scott Thomas, Val Kilmer, Bob Hoskins, Roger Allam and Graham Norton, amongst others.
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