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The History of Her Majesty’s Theatre London

Saturday, 21st Nov 2015  

There has been a theatre on the site of Her Majesty’s since 1705. In fact, only Drury Lane has a longer uninterrupted history as a theatre. Following generations of great success, the structure’s magnificent atmospheric appearance is something to be admired and without a doubt something that many other West End venues aspire to replicate. 

The building we see today was designed by Charles J Phipps and built in 1897 before he passed away just days before its official opening. Incorporating up to date building techniques and machinery, the theatre soon became an event in itself and a place for everyone to come together to engage with not only the performances on stage, but also with each other whilst admiring the impressive building.

Steeped in history

The first theatre on the site was built in 1704 when an old stable yard was leased by architect and playwright Sir John Vanbrugh. During this time it was only Drury Lane and Covent Garden theatres that were licensed to perform spoken drama plays, however Vanbrugh wanted to change this in a bid to give writers and actors the opportunity to be paid fairly for their work.

Vanbrugh partnered with comic playwright William Congreve and actor Thomas Betterton and together they formed a dramatic dispute against Drury Lane. On the 9th of April 1705 Her Majesty’s opened with an introduction spoken by one of theatres first great female stars, Ann Bracegirdle, who called the theatre “By beauty founded and by wit designed.” Unfortunately, once the actors resolved their dispute with Drury Lane it proved almost impossible to make money, causing the trio to split up to work on their own individual projects.

Years later in 1709 the theatre became home to the thriving art form opera. After two more owners and a fire in 1798 the theatre was rebuilt by Phipps using concrete and steel to reduce the fire risk. Stone foundations where laid in July 1896 before the theatre we see today was built in 1897 – the outer walls and Royal Arcade are the only remaining parts left of the old theatre. 
Royalty and the theatre

As Queen Victoria was in rule during this time the theatre was named Her Majesty’s. After her death her son King Edward VII took the thrown and the name changed to His Majesty’s, which it remained whilst his son King George V ruled. Eventually in 1952 Queen Elizabeth took the throne and it has stayed Her Majesty’s ever since. 

All theatres built after the 19th century have a Royal Box and Her Majesty’s is no exception. Behind the box is a royal retiring room for royal dignitaries to be entertained before the performance and during intervals.

There’s a place for everyone in the theatre

During the 1830s and 1840s romantic ballet became popular amongst theatregoers, whilst in 1843 opera once again took centre stage after spoken drama restrictions were lifted. Many famous operas have been performed at Her Majesty’s including La Traviata, which premiered in 1856.

However it wasn’t until Herbert Beerbohm Tree in 1897 that the theatre became a real success and known as the most distinguished playhouse in Europe, highly regarded for its Shakespeare productions. In 1904 Tree founded the Academy of Dramatic Art and although its location has now changed, it is still known around the world as a top school for actor training.

After the Second World War the theatre became a popular venue for musicals such as Blue for a Boy, West Side Story and Fiddler on the Roof. Her Majesty’s stage is also no stranger to stars and has been graced by the likes of Rex Harrison, Elain Stritch, John Mills, Judy Dench, Frank Finlay, Chita Rivera and Robert Morley.
On the 9th of October 1986 the theatre finally became the home of smash hit musical Phantom of the Opera, which has run there ever since. The original cast starred Sarah Brightman and Michael Crawford and the musical went on to become the second longest running musical after Les Misérables.

It does seem a coincidence that the theatre’s current musical depicts a story based on the secrets of the theatre and the mystery that lies beneath. With so much history and tales to tell, Her Majesty’s is certainly worth a visit on your next trip to the West End, even if it’s just to walk by and admire.

Article filed under: Theatre News | Articles |