New Princes Theatre
Shaftesbury Theatre in 2015
London, WC2H 8DP
|Public transit||Tottenham Court Road|
|Owner||The Theatre of Comedy Company|
|Type||West End Theatre|
|Opened||26 December 1911|
The Shaftesbury Theatre is a West End theatre, located on Shaftesbury Avenue, in the London Borough of Camden. Opened in 1911 as the New Prince's Theatre, it was the last theatre to be built in Shaftesbury Avenue.
The Theatre was designed for the Melville Brothers by Bertie Crewe and opened on 26 December 1911 with a production of The Three Musketeers. It was originally named the New Prince's Theatre, becoming the Prince's Theatre in 1914. The original capacity of the auditorium is unknown, but with standing room in the Stalls it is possible that over 3000 people were able to attend performances. The current capacity is between 1300 and 1400.
During the First World War, the Prince’s advertised itself as ‘The Laughter House where you can forget the War.’
In September 1919, the Theatre had considerable success with a season of Gilbert and Sullivan operas, presented by the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company. The success of these revivals led to a number of similar seasons over the next few decades, with the Theatre selling out every time. Other productions during this time included The Return of Sherlock Holmes starring Eille Norwood and a season of classical plays, including Medea and Macbeth, starring Sybil Thorndike. In 1928, Fred and Adele Astaire starred in Funny Face with Leslie Henson. The musical was a great success, but was cut short by a gas explosion on High Holborn outside the Theatre.
Despite heavy bombing in the West End, and several periods of forced closure, the Shaftesbury was able to continue a programme of shows during the Second World War. Many of these were presented by and named for Firth Shepherd, such as Shepherd’s Pie. Shepherd’s Pie was a comedic and musical revue of the kind that was popular in London theatres during the war, and was heralded as one of the most successful of its kind.
In 1948, Jack Hylton presented Burlesque starring Majorie Reynolds at the Princes. Hylton was also the producer for Buoyant Billions (1949), a play written by George Bernard Shaw when he was 93. In 1953, Hylton and Sam Wannamaker presented The Shrike by Joseph Kramm, and in 1955 Pat Kirkwood appeared at the theatre in Wonderful Town.
After a period of years presenting plays and musicals at the Shaftesbury, Hylton was reported to have bought the Theatre in 1961, but this was later corrected in the press. Hylton had been the lessee of the Theatre in June 1961 and had negotiated the sale of the building to Television Wales and West. Two months later, TWW sold it on to Charles Clore and EMI.
The programme in the 1960s under the ownership of EMI included a number of long running musicals, such as Broadway transfer How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1963) and Our Man Crichton (1964), based on a book by JM Barrie. The Theatre experienced a much less successful run with Lionel Bart’s Twang!! – a musical based on the story of Robin Hood which was plagued with creative and financial issues. Twang!! starred Ronnie Corbett and Barbara Windsor, and ran at the Shaftesbury for only a few weeks between December 1965 and January 1966. It was one of the most expensive musicals that had ever been produced.
Between 1968 and 1973 the Shaftesbury was host to the controversial and ground-breaking musical Hair. The opening of the show coincided deliberately with the removal of the Lord Chamberlains powers of censorship over theatre in England. While Hair was still running, the theatre was sold to a property development company called Peureula Investments. When on the 20th July the production was forced to close because of a small section of ceiling falling in the auditorium, it was rumoured that the new owners had wilfully neglected the building. There were allegedly plans to redevelop the theatre and the surrounding areas.
The company of Hair, who had been forced to close the show after the 1998th performance, led a campaign to save the Theatre. This included an occupation of the site itself. The Save London Theatres Campaign eventually succeeded in securing protected status for the Shaftesbury. In 1976, the Theatres Trust was formed by an Act of Parliament in 1976 to promote the protection of theatres.
The theatre reopened with West Side Story in December 1975. Other productions in the following decades included a musical staged version of Dad’s Army, starring Arthur Lowe, John le Mesurier and Clive Dunn, and Dracula starring Terrence Stamp, with scenic designs by Edward Gorey.
They’re Playing Our Song (1980 – 1982) starring Tom Conti and Gemma Craven was produced by actor and writer Ray Cooney. After a nine month period of closure, Cooney presented Run For Your Wife with Richard Briers, Bernard Cribbins and Bill Pertwee. This was the first play under the banner of the Theatre of Comedy, then called the Theatre of Laughter. The Theatre of Comedy became the lessee of the Shaftesbury, and later purchased the building. The Company was jointly founded and financially backed by a group of distinguished actors, playwrights and producers including Tom Conti, Ray Cooney, Tom Courtenay, Bernard Cribbins, Judi Dench, Liza Goddard, Sheila Hancock, Nigel Hawthorne, Maureen Lipman, Derek Nimmo, Geoffrey Palmer, Donald Sinden, Eric Sykes and Michael Williams. The intention was for the Shaftesbury to have a programme of British comedy showcasing existing and new talent.
Notable runs in the 1980s included Pygmalion (1984) with Peter O’Toole, Two Into One (1984 – 1986), a revue by Rowan Atkinson (1986), The Entertainer starring Peter Bowles (1986) and Stephen Sondheim’s Follies (1987 – 1989). From April 1989 there was a production of M. Butterfly starring Anthony Hopkins.
In 1986 Don Taffner became a significant shareholder in the Theatre of Comedy. Taffner went on to become the majority shareholder and Chairman in 1992. Shows in the 1990s included Kiss of the Spiderwoman (1992 – 1993) with Chita Rivera, Eddie Izzard in Definite Article and Tommy, the musical by Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff (1996 – 1997). From May 1998 the Shaftesbury was host to Rent, starring original Broadway cast members Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal.
The venue is currently owned by the Theatre of Comedy Company. Successful shows in the 21st Century have included the European premiere of Hairspray, which opened in October 2007 and ran for almost three years, winning multiple awards. Rock of Ages opened in August 2011 and From Here to Eternity, by Tim Rice, in September 2013. Beverly Knight starred in the West End premiere of Tony Award-winner Memphis in 2014.
Motown, which told the story of the Motown record label founder Berry Gordy, broke box office records and ran from 2013 to 2019. The show was both preceded and followed by short seasons of The Illusionists.
The external facades of the Theatre were renovated in 2010, and the original Edwardian canopy was uncovered and restored. In 2013 there was a project to lay the foundations and support structure for a new fly tower, construction of which was completed during the run of Memphis without disruption to the show’s performance schedule. The new fly tower tripled the existing loading capacity in order to make the building fit for the technical demands of modern productions. The project garnered five major awards including from a National RIBA award and a Civic Trust award.
The Shaftesbury Theatre is currently undergoing extensive renovations to improve the public areas of the building. This project is occurring in conjunction with Camden’s West End Project, which will include the pedestrianisation of the Princes Circus area immediately outside the theatre.
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