Counting down the 10 smallest theatres in the West End
London’s 230 theatre total over 100,000 seats! There are theatres across London that seat fewer than the smallest West End theatre. The Etcetera Theatre in Camden seats just 42, with The Lion and Unicorn Theatre in Kentish Town seating 60.
The 10 smallest West End venues
10. Garrick Theatre, 718 seats
Opening in 1889, the Garrick Theatre was named after David Garrick who appeared in Shakespeare’s works, notably Richard III. Initially, the auditorium was built to accommodate 800 seats across four levels. However, the gallery shutting has reduced the capacity to 718 seats across 3 levels. When the site was first built upon, they discovered an underground river running directly underneath.
In 1934, it was nearly converted into a ‘super-cinema’ and after WWII began, it became a ‘Forces Theatre’ which would entertain the armed forces during the war. In 1968, it was nearly demolished to make way for plans to redevelop and improve Covent Garden. In 1989, the theatre was redecorated, restoring it back to how it looked when it first opened in 1889.
The first production at the Garrick was A Pair of Spectacles in 1890. Many famous shows have been performed at the venue including No Sex Please, We’re British, An Inspector Calls and most recently Young Frankenstein.
9. Vaudeville Theatre, 694 seats
Mostly holding musical revues and vaudeville shows in the early days, the Vaudeville Theatre opened in 1870 and holds 694 audience members. CJ Phipps originally built it after realising there was more profit in theatre than billiards. The auditorium underwent renovations during this period, reopening in 1891. The foyer from this period still survives today.
Currently, it is owned by Max Weitzenhofer who assumed it from the previous owner Stephen Waley-Cohen in 2002. The first production at the Vaudeville was For Love or Money, which opened on 16th April 1870. Over its history, audiences have seen shows ranging from plays to comedy including Stepping Out, The Importance of Being Earnest and Stomp.
8. Duke of York’s Theatre, 640 seats
The Duke of York’s Theatre was opened in 1892 on St Martin’s Lane. The auditorium seats 640 people across its 3 levels and is Grade II listed by English Heritage.
The theatre was initially called the Trafalgar Square Theatre due to its location. In 1895, the theatre changed to the Duke of York’s in honour of the future King George V who stated ‘it is a right royal building with a theatrical tradition fit for a King.’
The first production held was an opera called The Wedding Eve, but this did not receive rave reviews. In 1929, the theatre was home to an agreement between the Actors Association and the Stage Guild. Between them, the formation of the Actor Union Equity was created, known commonly as Equity.
The building was closed from 1940 until 1943 due to bomb damage from WWII. Its reopening welcomed productions such as The Killing of Sister George in 1964 and Half Life in 1978. More recently, productions at the Duke of York’s include Doctor Faustus, Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour and Ink.
7. Criterion Theatre, 593 seats
The Criterion Theatre had its first performance to a paying audience in 1874 with a revue night including An American Lady by H.J. Byron and Topseyturveydom by W.S. Gilbert. In 1902, it closed for renovations, opening again seven months later.
During its history, the venue remained important in WWII, when it acted as an underground radio studio. Remaining ‘dark’ throughout the war, it broadcasted performances during the Blitz for the BBC.
In the 1980’s the Criterion was purchased by Robert Bourne, later creating the Criterion Theatre Trust which was dedicated to protecting the playhouse’s future. After this purchase, it closed for major refurbishment, partially completed by Lawrence Llewellyn Bowen who renovated the Victorian auditorium.
6. St Martin’s Theatre, 550 seats
Opening in 1913, St Martin’s Theatre seats 550 people and was designed by W.G.R. Sprague who designed the building to pair with the Ambassador’s Theatre. The interior has been refurbished with polished wood and is the only West End building to have this.
The first show at the playhouse was Houp La!, an Edwardian musical comedy. Other notable productions include The Shop at Sly Corner, Guilty Party and Sleuth.
In 1974, The Mousetrap opened at the St Martin’s, transferring from the Ambassadors where it originally opened in 1952. The play is still on today and it holds the record for the longest running show in the world. On the 18th of September 2018, The Mousetrap celebrated 27,500 performances.
5. Duchess Theatre, 494 seats
The Duchess Theatre holds 494 seats and was built in compliance with the rights of neighbours around, so other buildings were not affected by the lights.
The venue is home to the world’s shortest run of a production. On 11th March 1930, a production of The Intimate Revue opened and closed on the same night! The first-night audience found the show so bad that they walked out before the show was over.
The Duchess was also home to Harold Pinter’s West End directorial debut, where his play The Caretaker ran for 444 performances before departing London for Broadway.
More recent productions include the opening of The Play that Goes Wrong, Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story and Snoopy! The Musical. Shows also use many original mechanisms, including the curtain, the stage and parts of backstage equipment.
4. Ambassadors Theatre, 444 seats
Built with the intention to be an intimate venue in Central London, the Ambassadors Theatre seats 444.
Opening in 1913 with a production of Panthea, the first production ran for only 15 nights. In 1914, Charles Cochran led a new performance at the theatre called the ‘intimate review’, where audiences were up close to the performers. His production Odds and End ran for over 400 performances.
In 1996, the venue was split into two smaller performance spaces, then was restored to its original design in 1999 which was renamed as the New Ambassadors Theatre. Wanting to put on smaller shows that would not typically be seen in the West End, it has housed shows such as The Vagina Monologues and Some Explicit Polaroids. The venue changed back to its original name in 2007.
More recently, the venue has been home to Love Song starring Cillian Murphy and Neve Campbell and a 10 year run of Stomp, ending in January 2018.
3. Fortune Theatre, 432 seats
Not to be confused with the Elizabethan playhouse also called the Fortune, work began on the Fortune Theatre in 1922. It was the first theatre built after WWI and only has 432 seats. Currently, it is the oldest public building that is designed by using concrete as the textured façade on the outside walls.
During WWII, the Entertainments National Service Association would perform there. Castmembers would entertain service personnel, with a lineup including Noël Coward and Ivor Novello.
After the war, the venue has hosted many productions, including Agatha Christie’s The Hollow in 1951 and Beyond the Fringe in 1960, a show that aimed to bring together comedians from Cambridge Footlights and the Oxford Revue. The show saw the start of Alan Bennett’s performing career.
In 1989, The Woman in Black opened at the venue which continues to run to this day.
2. Trafalgar One at Trafalgar Studios, 380 seats
Formerly known as Whitehall Theatre until 2004, the Trafalgar Studios has 480 seats across its two performance spaces. However, only performances at Trafalgar One can be nominated for Olivier awards, whereas those in Trafalgar Two cannot. For this list, we’ve taken this into account and Trafalgar One at Trafalgar Studios comes in as the second smallest West End theatre.
The building opened in 1930 and was built on the site of a public house. Edward Stone designed the interior to have an art deco feel. In the 1990’s, the venue was used as a television and radio studio, broadcasting Jack Doherty’s talk show and Live from London hosted by BBC Radio 4.
In 1996, the building was Grade II listed by English Heritage, praised for its original fabric and the prettiness of the auditorium. In 2003, the process began for converting to the Trafalgar Studios. Studio One opened with a production of Othello by the Royal Shakespeare Company on 3rd June 2004. Trafalgar Studios has recently been home to The Maids, starring Uzo Aduba, Laura Carmichael and Zawe Ashton. It has also hosted Apologia starring Stockard Channing, as well as The Grinning Man.
1: Arts Theatre, 350 seats
The Arts Theatre takes the title of the smallest West End venue, with just 350 seats. It opened in 1927 as a members-only club which hosted unlicensed plays. The venue was intended to hold experimental performances which would later transfer.
The pair Alec Clunes and John Hanau ran the theatre from 1942 for a decade, producing plays and securing the venue’s financial stability of the ‘pocket national theatre’.
Audiences witnessed a change in British drama with the English-language premiere of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, directed by Sir Peter Hall. There are now two rehearsal rooms and a studio space called ‘Above The Arts’ which holds 60 people. Recently, it has been home to American Idiot, Murder Ballad and A Christmas Carol with Simon Callow.