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The Harold Pinter Theatre was one of the first to break away from censorship on stage, premiering banned plays at the time such as Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge and Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
The controversial and risqué Rocky Horror Show had its West End theatre debut at the Harold Pinter in 1979.
It opened the same week as the much grander and larger Savoy Theatre. Originally intended to also be built with electric lighting like the Savoy, it ended up only having gas lighting.
The sunburner, though no longer providing light to the theatre, is the original piece which was there when the Harold Pinter Theatre first opened.
It was originally called the Royal Comedy Theatre, even though it had no association with royalty.
The orchestra pit currently there is the same as the original one from when it opened in 1881, but is rarely used. It was utilised for a 2009 production for the first time in 25 years!
Though these days the Harold Pinter Theatre doesn’t always show comedies, this 796-seat venue was purpose-built in 1881 as a home of comic opera and was known as the Comedy Theatre until 2011. Its name change came about by way of tribute to the late great British playwright, many of whose works were staged here.
One might think that opening on a dreary rainy day would be a bad omen, but instead the Comedy / Harold Pinter Theatre used it to work in its favour; most of the guests who attended the first performance of its debut production The Mascotte on 15 October 1881 did so to avoid the bad weather.
It went on to stage controversial Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams plays in the mid-20th century, setting up the ‘New Watergate Club’ as a private club in 1956 with its own production ‘rules’ to dodge the theatrical censorship that loomed over all West End productions in those days. Luckily, the censorship law was overturned 12 years later, which was just as well seeing as the Harold Pinter Theatre welcomed the raunchy Rocky Horror Show in 1979, which had already been a runaway hit for six years on smaller stages (and had spawned a record-breaking cult film). The Harold Pinter has also had no shortage of sex symbols dazzle its audiences, with Ewan McGregor, Sex and the City’s Kim Cattrall and Joseph Fiennes of Shakespeare in Love fame all taking it in turn to headline plays.
Despite its rebellious history though, it has a traditional side too – the Harold Pinter Theatre’s long-running association with its British Nobel Prize-winning playwright namesake means as many as six of his plays have been staged in only the last few years. And although it has undergone several tweaks over the years to its bars, dressing rooms, entrance and seating, it boasts plenty of original features, including its sunburner, set-changing equipment and auditorium with its horseshoe-shaped tiered seating.