Emerging on the theatre in scene in 1929, after the First World War, following the time in which the theatre boom in London is said to have been complete, the Duchess Theatre is a relatively recent venue (compared to other West End locations such as the Theatre Royal Drury Lane at least). It is also a relatively small venue at less than 500 seats, but it takes pride of place on Catherine Street, close to Aldwych, and is close to many of the other theatres that make up Theatreland, meaning that it is still a vital part of the West End theatre scene and regularly presents some acclaimed shows.
But whilst the venue emerged between the wars, meaning that it was amongst those that survived the onslaught of the Blitz during the Second World War, this does not mean that it was not affected by the Great War over a decade earlier. The site on which the venue was built was a location badly affected during the conflict, meaning that there was a vacant plot of land on which something new could eventually emerge. So with the theatre boom essentially over yet another stage was constructed in Theatreland and it has presented a range of stand-out shows ever since.
The architect behind the project was Ewen Barr and whilst he was not a well known theatre architect such as W G R Sprague or Frank Matcham – two men responsible for a host of venues that cropped up in the capital – his work with the Duchess is greatly admired. As a result many of the original features remain, even as it edges ever closer to its 90th birthday (which it will celebrate in 2019).
The Duchess Theatre, like a range of West End venues, is currently the host to an abundance of shows across the years, contrasting with venues like Her Majesty’s Theatre that have presented the same productions for many decades (though the Duchess has had records of its own – such as “Blithe Spirit” in the 1940s). So the actors and the story witnessed by audiences changes through the year as plays and musicals appear throughout and as a result a host of well known performers have appeared here. Recently these have included the likes of Michael Gambon and others.
As the Duchess Theatre presents a range of plays, musicals and other productions throughout the year there have been a whole host of shows to appear here over the years. The first to appear on its stage on its opening night in November 1929 was “Tunnel Trench” by Hubert Griffith (also behind a play called “Youth at the Helm”), which would star the actress Emlyn Williams and would later be adapted as an ITV Play of the Week as part of the “For King and Country” series (1963).
The venue would later be managed by the well known playwright J B Priestley, responsible for classics like “Time and the Conways” and “An Inspector Calls”. He would present his play “Eden End” at the venue in 1934 with Ralph Richardson among its cast members and it would be followed by a run on Broadway the following year. “Eden End” refers to the location in Northern England where actress Stella Kirby decides returns after nine years away as a performer. It is allegedly a show for which Priestley had a lot of admiration.
In the next decade it was time for another show to stand out amongst the crowd in the form of “Blithe Spirit”. Noel Coward’s play had premiered at the Manchester Opera House in 1941 ahead of a London transfer to the Piccadilly Theatre, but it was at the Duchess Theatre in which the show would complete its record run of almost 2,000 performances. As such it is one of a few productions to enjoy a particularly long run at the venue and is still regularly performed all over the world. It tells the story of a novelist that hires a medium to research his latest book, only to witness her conjure up the spirit of his bitter dead wife, who is determined to destroy his current marriage.
More recently the Duchess Theatre has continued to present a wide variety of musicals and plays, with Ibsen’s “Ghosts” and Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape” in the latter category. “Krapp’s Last Tape” appeared in 2010 and featured Michael Gambon as the eponymous Krapp, who has recorded his year-long memories onto tape on every birthday. But on his 69th he makes the decision to listen to some and stumbles upon a heartfelt and tender memory.
Between 2010 and 2011 the venue was also the home to a musical version of the movie Love Story, concerning a man and wife from differing social backgrounds and the devastating news that will tear their love apart.
Further Facts about the Duchess Theatre
• Famous names to appear at the Duchess Theatre include Jessica Tandy, Ralph Richardson, Sybil Thorndike, Kenneth Moore, Penny Ashcroft, Donald Pleasance, Maria Aitken, Arthur Smith, Michael Gambon, Henry Goodman, Mark Rylance and Lesley Sharp, among others.
• Mary Wyndham Lewis oversaw interior decoration in the 1930s. She was the then-wife of J B Priestley.
|Sunday, 26 Mar, 2017||Duchess Theatre, London||The Play That Goes Wrong|
|Tuesday, 28 Mar, 2017||Duchess Theatre, London||The Play That Goes Wrong|
|Wednesday, 29 Mar, 2017||Duchess Theatre, London||The Play That Goes Wrong|
|Thursday, 30 Mar, 2017||Duchess Theatre, London||The Play That Goes Wrong|
|Friday, 31 Mar, 2017||Duchess Theatre, London||The Play That Goes Wrong|
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