Surrounded in scandal and suffused with celebrity, London’s West End is the largest theatre district in the world. From its origins in the 16th century to today’s bustling hub of commercialism and creativity, it remains at the centre of performers’ dreams and public affection
When Kevin Spacey was criticised in the British press after Resurrection Blues flopped at the Old Vic, one thing was clear. An award-winning Hollywood resume and tremendous acting talent wasn’t enough for an artistic director of a major West End theatre. To bring in the crowds and keep the critics happy, Spacey would have to do the same as every other London stage boss since James Burbage built his laconically named Shoreditch theatre, known simply as ‘The Theatre’, in 1576.
To achieve his West End stripes, Spacey would have to embrace British tradition, but also to renew and reinvigorate that tradition with his own creative vision and dynamism. For theatre lovers it was Spacey’s contribution – not his name – that mattered. Brits are fiercely proud of London’s West End, rebranded as ‘Theatreland’ by Westminster Council a few years back.
But as is the British way, we expect a lot from our artists, directors and producers. Anything but the very best isn’t just a sub-standard performance; it’s a slight on a noble tradition and an insult to past greats.
Olivier, Gielgud, Coward, Hurt, Mirren and Anthony Hopkins are just a few of Britain’s finest to tread those famous stages. And from the USA: Sinatra, Crosby, Charlton Heston, Judy Garland and Sammy Davis Junior. More recently, Hollywood actors including Christian Slater, Nicole Kidman, Orlando Bloom and of course, Spacey himself have been keen to add West End credits to their resumes.
Throughout history, leading performers have fallen over themselves to make it to the West End. Shakespeare himself is said to have been a part of an acting troupe called the Lord Chamberlain’s Men who played in Burbage’s original theatre. “It’s every performer’s dream to get to the West End, but not everyone makes it,” says actor and singer Tom Solomon who has performed in Chicago, Les Miserables and many other London shows, “there’s so much talent on show here every night.”
Walking through London’s West End
Take a walk down Shaftesbury Avenue, across Leicester Square and through Piccadilly. There’s a household name in lights on every street corner. The shows are famous, too: Phantom of the Opera, Hamlet, The Woman in Black, The Lion King, Billy Elliot and the longest running show of all – Agatha Christie’s timeless whodunit – The Mousetrap. All the classics are there, not to mention a whole host of stunning new shows such as War Horse, a story of the First World War told through the use of spectacularly lifelike puppets.
Whether you like musicals, drama, comedy or opera, there’s something for everyone. And that’s on top of the West End’s array of restaurants, cinemas and shops. “It’s like everyone is fighting for space here,” says Geoff Marsh, curator of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s theatre collection. Marsh, who organises tours of London’s Theatreland, adds, “We have the largest concentration of theatres in the world, wonderful diversity, extraordinary talent and so much else to support the entertainment.”
London’s Theatreland has always reflected the British way, that unique and never-ending dialogue between continuity and change that makes us who we are. Even the ‘Theatreland’ concept itself was an attempt, common in 21st-century Britain, to repackage and modernise the image of national treasures, without really changing them that much.
In the age of Peter Mandelson, New Labour and spin doctoring, specialist colleges and academies replaced state secondary schools and London’s Holborn, St Giles and Bloomsbury districts were turned into something called ‘Midtown’. So too did the West End became Theatreland, in the eyes of marketing departments at least. For theatre lovers, nothing much changed.
“We still have the same mixture of modernity and tradition,” says Paul Ibell from the Society of London Theatre. Geoff Marsh adds that most of the theatres were built before the 1930s, and retain their traditional look. “Some theatres still get public subsidies,” he says, “so people can try out new ideas that might not be commercially successful, immediately.”
The rise of theatre
London Theatre’s beginnings, on the south bank of the Thames, tell of a country where the ruling elite did not tolerate opposition and wouldn’t risk disaffection. The first Queen Elizabeth was still on the throne and a play could mean 2,000 people in one place. With no censorship laws or police to keep order, it was much easier to just ban plays, as the Mayor and Corporation of London did in 1572. In 1575 the authorities formally ejected all players from the city, too.
Burbage set up his theatre in Shoreditch, outside the city authorities’ remit. Newington Butts theatre in Surrey, followed, as did a third, not far from the Clink, a notorious medieval prison in Southwark. Outside London, the authorities didn’t seem as bothered if people got up to no good. Until the nineteenth century London had only three licensed playhouses.
Today there are 42 commercial West End theatres and many more not-for- profit organisations and producing houses. Like the Old Vic, some of these lie outside the geographical boundaries of Theatreland, but are every bit a part of its tradition.
In 1660, Charles II came to the throne needing to raise money after nine years of exile and Puritanical Parliamentarism. And what better way to make a fast buck than to set up patents. This meant wealthy individuals paid the Royal house vast sums of money for the right to stage theatre. “Back then, the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and the Covent Garden, now the Royal Opera House, were the only legal theatres,” says Geoff Marsh. From 1720, the Theatre Royal Haymarket opened in the summer when the other two closed, and Sadler’s Wells in Islington, was licensed, but only to put on musical entertainment.
Charles II also overturned a ban preventing women from performing on stage, although it’s more likely he did this to please his mistress, Nell Gwyn, than out of any feminist sympathies. Gwyn was on stage regularly, despite the fact that she couldn’t read or write. Before the King’s intervention, female roles like Juliet and Lady Macbeth were played by teenage boys. In subsequent years, female talent flourished.
Lavinia Fenton, who played at Haymarket in the 1720s, Frances Abington and Anna Maria Crouch, who performed in the West End during the late 19th century, star in a collection of Britain’s first actresses, currently on show at the National Portrait Gallery. So too, does Sarah Siddons.
That era’s definitive Lady Macbeth, Siddons was so popular that in her farewell performance, the Covent Garden audience refused to allow the play to go on past the famous sleepwalking scene, until their favourite heroine came out to make one final speech.
It was around this time that David Garrick revolutionised London theatre. Whilst in residence at Drury Lane, Garrick turned his hand to realistic acting. “Until then performances tended to be very mannered, more like reciting poetry,” says Paul Ibell whose book, Theatreland, was published in 2009. “Garrick made things more natural.” He also introduced set design, costumes and special effects, and adapted classic plays for modern audiences.
Smaller music halls sprang up in the early nineteenth century, but it wasn’t until the 1843 Theatres Act loosened government restrictions that the West End as we know it began to take shape.
In 1877 Charing Cross Road and Shaftesbury Avenue were built to open up central London. “Many properties in these areas had been bought by European émigrés, fleeing the continent after the failed 1848 revolutions,” says Geoff Marsh. “Some of these buildings were ideal for theatres – large with lots of land either side.” Between 1870 and the beginning of the First World War, theatres also sprang up around Piccadilly Circus, The Strand and Leicester Square.
Paul Ibell explains that these theatres reflected Victorian values. “The rich sat in the best seats and used entrances on the main street,” he says, “the poor had to make do with cheap seats and back-alley entrances.”
Three names are etched into the wall of Wellington Street’s Lyceum Theatre. Sir Henry Irving, the first British actor to be knighted, made the job socially professional in the eyes of the upper classes, who until then had considered thespians somewhat roguish. Irving acted, directed, produced and managed his shows at the Lyceum.
The second name on the Lyceum wall is Ellen Terry, Irving’s leading lady, great grandaunt of Sir John Gielgud and an actress whose career spanned seven decades. The third is Irving’s business manager. What appears at first a strange choice soon becomes an obvious one. In his spare time, this administrator wrote a play that would make him a household name around the world. The play was Dracula. The man’s name? Bram Stoker.
Theatre and social commentary
In the 20th century, Britain’s changing political culture continued to influence London’s theatre district. In 1956, John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger showed the world through the eyes of a post-war generation of angry young men who had lived through conflict, austerity and rationing. This play reflected popular discontent with government in the wake of the Suez crisis, during which Prime Minister Anthony Eden resigned after being accused of misleading Parliament, to allow Britain, France and Israel to seize back the Suez Canal. Look Back in Anger was Osborne’s response to the restrictive formality of British theatre and, in 1968, a new Theatres Act abolished government censorship of the stage. The day after abolition, the musical Hair saw nudity on a West End stage for the first time. A few years later, Andrew Lloyd Webber opened Jesus Christ Superstar, much to the chagrin of the religious diehards.
The 1980s brought musicals to the West End. Lots of them. Reactionary blowhard Mary Whitehouse initiated a private prosecution against National Theatre director Michael Bogdanov, for obscenity. It failed – a sign of the changing times. The late nineties saw plays about serious contemporary issues such as AIDS. Yasmina Reza’s Art, a one-and-half-hour play without intervals, meant theatregoers could now enjoy a meal and a show on the same night.
More recently, the West End has withstood the onset of couch potato culture fuelled by the internet, an obsession with celebrity and reality TV. More than 14 million people went to West End theatres in 2010. Geoff Marsh estimates 50,000 theatre seats are sold every night, and that 20,000 people visit, daily, just to have a meal.
Throughout all the changes, one thing has stayed the same: the West End atmosphere.
So whether it’s William Shakespeare waxing lyrical in London’s very first theatre; Siddons, Olivier and Spacey’s passionate updating of the classics; or Nicole Kidman stripping naked in Blue Rooms on the Donmar stage in 1998, legitimising the promiscuous times that had arrived in the late 60s: one thing is sure. There’s nothing like a night in Theatreland.