The forgotten great closed theatres of the West End
Even though London is bursting with world-class theatrical venues of all shapes and sizes, the West End used to be home to theatres which have now closed down. Learn about the “lost theatres” of the city with us, as we take you through some of the busiest auditoriums in centuries gone by. You’ll begin to see London in a different light as you learn about theatres gone by in and around the West End, with maps to where the theatres would be today.
Closed theatres in the West End
Have London theatres closed before?
In the 17th century, London’s theatres were forced to close in 1642. Puritans deemed all theatres in England to be closed, as going to the theatre was deemed “unseemly”. However, theatres were reinstated in 1660 when King Charles II was in power, with two theatres opened under royal licensing: the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and the Theatre Royal Haymarket.
World War Two also saw theatres across London close, with the Queen’s Theatre (now Sondheim Theatre) and Piccadilly Theatre directly hit by Axis bombs during the Blitz. Some theatres stayed open, with performances staged to entertain the military.
Can I visit the West End’s closed theatres?
Situated in Leicester Square, the London Hippodrome is important to the music and cabaret scenes. Even though it is now home to a 325 seat theatre, the London Hippodrome used to be one of the leading music halls in London, holding an auditorium with 1340 seats. The London Hippodrome opened in 1900, equipped with a 100,000-gallon water tank, where sea lions and polar bears would be made to perform in front of a full house. Throughout the years, iconic performers would grace the stage, including Charlie Chaplin and Julie Andrews. The theatre was converted in 1958 to make way for “The Talk of the Town”, where the Folies Bergère would headline performances. Over the years, musical legends including Ella Fitzgerald and Stevie Wonder performed at the Hippodrome, until the theatre closed in 1982.
Also known as Weston’s Music Hall, Holborn Empire opened on 16th November 1857, quickly becoming one of the most popular theatres in the capital. Presenting the final variety theatre showcases at the turn of the 20th century, the venue began to put on feature films from 1914. After World War One, some of the leading names in theatre including Max Miller and Vera Lynn appeared on the stage, until a time bomb exploded outside the theatre in 1941. Hit by another bomb in World War Two, the theatre was past the point of repair and was finally pulled down in 1960.
Bedford Music Hall
Situated on Camden High Street, the variety performances at Bedford Music Hall entertained the London masses from 1861, later reopening in 1899 after licensing issues. The new theatre was luxurious; marble steps welcomed audiences into the auditorium that had statues of female figures on the sides of the stage. P.G. Wodehouse’s plays would regularly be performed at Bedford Music Hall, including The Bandit’s Daughter and a comedy revue titled Ha!Ha!!Ha!!! starring Peter Sellers. The theatre closed in 1959 and was demolished 10 years later, however remnants of the theatre are still noticeable if you walk past where the theatre used to be.
Now a thriving cinema in Leicester Square, the Empire Theatre began life as a venue showcasing the best of London theatre. Throughout its history, there have been three Empire Theatres. The first opened in 1884, entertaining audiences with a “grand musical spectacular” giving the theatre the nickname of “The Empire Theatre of Varieties”. The theatre closed in 1927 to then open in 1928, where films were screened until the theatre closed in 1961 due to a necessary reconstruction. The Empire Theatre opened for the final time in 1962. Today, the site is now open year round as a cinema and casino.
A Grade II listed building, the London Pavillion first opened its door in 1859, later renovated into a music hall in 1885. Ushering in a new era of theatre for the venue, the best actors in Britain would perform at the venue, including Lupino Lane who made his professional debut when he was 11. Decked with electric billboards in the 1920s, the theatre was a leading venue. However, the 1934 renovation halted any future productions, due to the cinema conversion costing £700,000, equivalent to £35 million today! The London Pavillion is currently home to the London Trocadero and used to be the location of Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museum.
Formed in 1927, the Players Theatre opened. The Players’ Theatre Club did not put their first show on until 1937, located at 43 King Street, Covent Garden. However, it grew to become one of the best-known music halls in the world, providing a night of original entertainment to audiences from around the world. Finding a last-minute performance space during World War Two, the club was able to continue holding performances in London until 2002, when the club’s priorities changed. The Players Theatre has now closed down, but the club continues to hold performances and galas with the best of Victorian entertainment.
Opening with a performance of Melita or the Parsee’s Daughter on 9th December 1882, the Novelty Theatre specialised in comedies, including The Private Secretary and Marigold. The theatre later changed names to the Kingsway Theatre, however this was a short-lived change of identity. In 1941, the theatre shut down due to war damage, later demolished in 1959.
Today, the location is now home to a cinema in Leicester Square, but the Alhambra Theatre was a popular destination for theatregoers to visit during the 19th and 20th centuries. Alongside a bill of music hall acts, the theatre also staged ballets, operas and “patriotic demonstrations”, with variety nights featuring the biggest stars in Britain. Losing its dancing licence due to a “sexually provocative” can-can in 1870, the theatre moved to performing revues. During World War One, shows including The Bing Boys are Here were performed. The theatre went into decline after the war, resulting in the theatre being demolished in 1936.
The Britannia Theatre was a large performance space in Hoxton, which represented what the common people of London wanted. Those who went to a night at the theatre would be treated to four plays, as well as pantomimes, variety acts and performances of Shakespeare texts. Throughout its time as an open theatre, it was owned by the Lupino family whose influence over British theatre in the Victorian era was unparalleled. The theatre closed in 1900 due to a fire which caused unrepairable damages.
Previously named the Charing Cross Theatre, the venue underwent renovations to become Toole’s Theatre in 1882. The theatre opened with a benefit performance to raise money for the theatre. Although British playwrights including J.M. Barrie would have their plays performed here, the location was not ideal. Toole’s Theatre closed in 1896 as a result of the inconvenience caused to Charing Cross Hospital.