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The Duchess Theatre has the dubious honour of having hosted the shortest run on the West End ever. The play The Intimate Revue was forced to cancel its run without ever completing their first performance after audience members walked out halfway through.
The stalls and stage are below street level.
Its stage and iron curtain are originals over eighty years old and still in use.
The Duchess Theatre was lucky to have been built at all. Its site, which happens to have been bombed during a raid in the First World War, was affected by the archaic ‘Ancient Lights’ rule – that is, building was prohibited to not block any natural light coming to other buildings. The solution? Build the theatre mostly underground, with the circle at street level.
And so the Duchess Theatre opened its doors in 1929, with new decorations added to it in 1934 with the guidance of JB Priestley’s (An Inspector Calls) wife, Mary Wyndham Lewis. Its earliest big successes were Noel Coward’s ghost fantasy Blithe Spirit, which transferred and completed its near-2000 performance run, and the shared debut of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker, Pinter’s first triumph in the West End.
Among its longest-running productions, Oh Calcutta! called the Duchess Theatre home for much of the 1970s, while The Players’ Theatre Company (ejected from residency at the current Charing Cross Theatre) stayed for three years in the late 1980s. Marc Camoletti’s Don’t Dress for Dinner stayed there for five years in the 1990s too.
Although a relatively young theatre, rather impressively it still retains many of its original fixtures – its curtain, stage and some backstage equipment, as well as a lift with its original compartment. But don’t worry: the 80 year old lift is operated with new mechanisms!