A beginner’s guide to the history of the West End
Ever since the 1660’s, London’s theatreland has undergone massive transformations, leaving the oldest theatres unrecognisable. From Theatre Royal Drury Lane as London’s oldest theatre, to the newer buildings which are located in central London, read all about the history of the West End with us.
History of Theatreland
1663: Theatre Royal Drury Lane founded
First built on the orders of Restoration-era dramatist and theatre manager Thomas Killigrew, the Theatre Royal Drury Lane is the West End’s oldest theatre. Originally known as the Theatre Royal in Bridges Street, King Charles II’s mistress Nell Gwynn is said to have trodden the boards of the theatre. Today, the building is owned by Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Want to know where all the West End theatres are located? Read our handy guide and you’ll find yourself walking around Theatreland in no time.
1806: The Sans Pareil founded (later renamed the Adelphi Theatre)
The Sans Pareil was built by John Scott, investing £10,000 in buying the leases of old properties located at the side, and in the rear, of his dwelling house, and built a small theatre. On 75% of the programmes there was a line in italics stating that “the whole of this evening’s entertainment is written by Miss Scott.”
1889: The Lyric and Garrick Theatres founded
Although it was the second theatre to be built on Shaftesbury Avenue, the Lyric Theatre is now the oldest along the famous West End street. The Lyric Theatre initially staged light operettas when it first opened before subsequently staging light comedies and dramas.
The Garrick Theatre was built in the same year, with deep excavations made at the time of building the venue so that the back of the Dress Circle would be level with the street. During the build they discovered a Roman river running through the land and had to find a way to divert it.
The Garrick Theatre is one of the West End’s smallest theatres; count down the ten smallest with us.
1930: The shortest run in West End theatre history
The Intimate Revue ran for just half a performance on 11th March. After some of the scene changes began taking up to 20 minutes each, seven scenes were scrapped in order to get to the finale before midnight. The performers were under-rehearsed and were laughed off stage by the audience members, with the show closing the next day.
1946: An Inspector Calls makes its British premiere
J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls is a gripping three-act drama that takes place over the course of one evening. The play is a scathing attack on the theatregoing upper classes and caused a stir at the time. It was last performed in the West End in 2016 at the Playhouse Theatre, where it ran for six months.
1952: The Mousetrap opens at the Ambassadors Theatre
Written to celebrate Queen Mary’s 80th birthday, The Mousetrap is now the longest-running play of all time and a legendary piece of theatre history. Although over 10 million people have seen The Mousetrap, it’s a tradition that no one reveals the murderer’s identity, the only way you’ll find out is by seeing this theatrical event for yourself.
Take our quiz all about this iconic production and see if you’d be able to solve the mystery.
1976: The National Theatre is founded
The National Theatre is an icon on the Southbank. It contains three theatres, The Olivier, The Lyttelton and The Dorfman, which opened separately between 1976 and 1977. Many believe that the concrete building is designed in a typically Brutalist style, although many architecture experts disagree. The National Theatre has quickly become one of the most prestigious theatres for an actor to perform in. Actors such as Peter O’Toole, Ian McKellen, Alan Rickman, Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi have all graced its stages.
Want to know more about the National Theatre? Read our complete guide to the riverside venue here.
1985: Les Misérables opens
Since premiering in 1985, Les Misérables has been produced around the world in 44 countries, translated into 22 languages and been seen by over 70 million people. The first reviews in 1985 were exceptionally negative, saying it was too over the top, but its continuous West End run shows that the musical is still a big hit today. The musical features the most powerful, spine-tingling songs including “I Dreamed a Dream”, “Can You Hear The People Sing”, “On My Own”, “Bring Him Home” and “One Day More”.
1986:The Phantom of the Opera opens
Just one year later, West End audiences were treated to The Phantom of the Opera. Featuring a score from the legendary composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and produced by theatrical juggernaut Cameron Mackintosh, The Phantom of the Opera is the epitome of the musical theatre genre. Combining spectacular scenery and jaw-dropping special effects with some of the most mesmerising music in theatrical history, this show will captivate you with its beauty and majesty. You’ll struggle not to be swept up in this haunting love story and moved by the tragic figure that is the Phantom.
1990: A fire guts the inside of the Savoy Theatre
The inside of the Savoy Theatre, where many Gilbert and Sullivan operettas were first staged, was destroyed by a fire while it was being renovated, leaving only the stage and backstage areas intact. It took 3 years to rebuild. A spokesman for the fire department said flames as high as 50 feet destroyed the roof and interior floors of the 19th century theatre. The cause of the fire is still unknown.
2004: The History Boys premieres at the National Theatre
The History Boys by Alan Bennett opened at the Lyttelton Theatre in 2004 and played to sell-out audiences with its limited run being frequently extended. Richard Griffiths, James Corden, Dominic Cooper, Russell Tovey, Sacha Dhawan, Samuel Barnett and Andrew Knott were among the original cast and the production was then made into a hugely successful film in 2006.
2013: The Apollo Theatre roof collapses
76 people were injured after part of a ceiling in the Apollo Theatre collapsed during a performance of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, bringing down part of the lighting rig. Luckily, there were no fatalities. After an investigation, it was understood that the collapse occurred owing to weak and old materials.