Current Show: The Play That Goes Wrong
First preview: 5th September 2014
Booking until: 26th September 2021 (Resumes 6th May 2021)
Running time: 2h 5m including interval
Address: 3-5 Catherine Street, London WC2B 5LA
Air Conditioning: Yes
Current Owner: Nimax Theatres
Box Office: +44 (0) 3303334810 (operated by Quay Tickets)
Discounts, Day seats, Rush tickets & Lotteries
Box Office: +44 (0) 3303334810 (operated by Quay Tickets)
Stage Door: +44 (0) 20 7632 9600
Access Bookings: Call +44 (0) 330 333 4815
Society of London Theatre also offers useful information for visitors with a disability or specific access need.
Nearest Tube: Covent Garden
Buses: RV1, 6, 11, 13, 23, 59, 68, 87, 171, 172, 188, X68
Check out Transport for London’s excellent TFL Journey Planner
Luxury: One Aldwych, 1 Aldwych, London WC2B 4BZ
Mid: Strand Palace Hotel, 372, Strand, London WC2R 0JJ
Budget: Travelodge Covent Garden, 10 Drury Lane, London WC2B 5RE
The Duchess Theatre opened on Monday 25th November 1929 and is one of the smallest West End theatres with a proscenium arch. When it opened it seated 499 on two levels although this is currently configured for approximately 480.
The theatre was built on a site in Catherine Street which had been destroyed in WW1 during a German Zeppelin-raid. The site, owned by Mabel Ainsworth until about 1927 and then by Willy Clarkson (a famous theatrical wig-maker), had remained vacant,apart from a stall selling coffee, for over 20 years due to buildings on all three sides claiming ‘Ancient Lights’ for windows which opened on to the vacant site; Ancient Lights is an English property law stating that any building which had received natural light through its windows for 20 years or more had an enduring right forbidding any building which would block that light.
Comment was made of the theatre’s location being somewhat inconspicuous despite it being a mere stone’s throw from The Strand Theatre (now the Novello Theatre) and the mighty Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Nonetheless, the project continued unabated.
With the backing of theatre impresario Arthur Gibbons, architect Ewen Barr’s design allowed construction of the stalls below street level, thus maintaining sufficient light to neighbouring buildings to counter any objections. Construction was undertaken by F G Minter Ltd with seating on two levels. Barr’s design made the circle noticeably narrower than the subterranean stalls with the foyer, box office and dressing rooms cleverly concealed in various locations under or above various parts of the auditorium.
With the stage and stalls below ground level, the ingenuity of the design has also created some enduring problems for the Duchess Theatre’s various managers, since ground water has to be pumped out of the basement using pumps similar to those used on boats, to prevent inundation.
The exterior frontage proved less problematic and allowed design free from the restrictions placed upon Barr by the building’s location. The building’s ornamented stone façade has been described as both ‘vaguely Elizabethan’ and ‘modern Tudor Gothic’ and three projecting bays with enamelled panels under the windows and a delicate blue and silver canopy were praised for their understated elegance.
The Duchess is built on two levels and was praised for having fewer steps to the seats than in any theatre in London, making entrance and egress particularly easy for theatregoers relative to many Victorian theatres.
Original interior décor by Marc-Henri Levy and Gaston Laverdet made extensive use of concealed lighting, silver plaster and coloured glass. Sight lines from all seats were excellent due to the circle being suspended from the roof.
The Duchess Theatre’s stage is small, with restricted wing space, particularly on stage left and the height of the grid, both limiting the use of large scenery in productions.
The theatre opened with a play called Tunnel Trench by Hubert Griffith. The play only managed a run of two weeks – not helped by the fact that RC Sherriff’s hugely popular war classic Journey’s End was still playing at the Prince of Wales Theatre.
The following year, 1930, saw a quick succession of plays including Typhoon, The Man at Six and Through the Veil enjoy short runs before the arrival on Tuesday 11th March of what would become the West End’s shortest-lived show ever – The Intimate Revue. There show opened, and closed, on the same night. Featuring various songs and sketches, the Daily Mirror said “The first-night audience found the revue in such a ludicrous state of unpreparedness that they could not forbear to laugh at the poor artists struggling against their fate. Dozens of people walked out before the show was over.” Although the show did re-open 18 days later on Saturday 29 March 1930 under the title The Second Intimate Revue, The Times newspaper offered further damning criticism, reporting that “The amusing hitches which varied the monotony of the first performance did not conceal the thinness of the humour and the lameness of the invention.” The re-vamped show limped on for another two hellish weeks before closing, this time for good, on 12 April 1930.
In 1932, Christa Winsloe’s play Children in Uniform, adapted from the original German Mädchen in Uniform, featured an all-female cast including a young Jessica Tandy, who some 58 years later would become the oldest actress to win a Best Actress Oscar for the film Driving Miss Daisy.
In November 1933 J B Priestly began a long association with the Duchess with the London premier of his play Laburnum Grove. This led to Priestly joining the Duchess Theatres’ management and a number of his plays were staged here over the following years including Eden End and Cornelius, both with Ralph Richardson, Time and the Conways, and The Linden Tree with Dame Sybil Thorndike.
During this time, alterations were made to the theatre’s interior under the supervision of Mary Wyndham Lewis (Priestley’s wife). Improvements included the construction of an orchestra pit large enough to accommodate 20 musicians. Subtle changes to lighting were made to provide a “warm, sober, and comforting” atmosphere for the audience, and two gilded plaster two low-relief panels were added to the proscenium, sculpted by Maurice Lambert, the subjects being figures holding conventional masks, with applauding hands below. These features remain much the same today, except for minor maintenance and decoration.
Other notable productions during the 1930s included Emlyn Williams’ Night Must Fall which ran for 435 performances and TS Elliot’s Murder in the Cathedral which transferred to the Duchess following a long run at the Mercury Theatre in Notting Hill.
The Duchess Theatre has often accommodated transfers from other, often larger, theatres. Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit transferred here from the St James Theatre (now The Other Palace) on Tuesday 6th October 1942 (having transferred from the Piccadilly Theatre where it had opened on 2nd July 1941). The production became the longest running non-musical stage play at the time with 1,997 performances.
On Monday 10th May 1965, at the height of the swinging sixties, Marc Camoletti’s farce Boeing Boeing transferred here from the Apollo Theatre completing a total of 2,035 performances in just under five years, before finally closing on Saturday 7th January 1967.
An exception to the theatre’s many transfers was Tom Eyen’s revue The Dirtiest Show in Town which opened here at the Duchess Theatre on 11th May 1971 and continued for just under 800 performances before finally closing on Saturday 31st March 1973.
1970s courted further controversy, with Kenneth Tynan’s revue Oh! Calcutta! transferring here on 28thJanuary 1974 from Soho’s Royalty Theatre (having originally opened at Camden’s Roundhouse on 27th July 1970), completing a total run of 3,918 performances by the time it closed on Saturday 2nd February 1980. The show featured both male and female nudity, with sketches written by such famous names as John Lennon, Sam Shepard and Edna O’Brien. The Roundhouse production was almost shut down by the Metropolitan Police which sent two police officers from their Obscene Publications Squad to a preview of the show. One of the officers needed to watch the show three times before recommending a prosecution for obscenity under the Theatres Act 1968. However, two retired headmistresses sent along as part of a panel of experts by the Director of Public Prosecution eventually declared that Oh Calcutta! was not obscene and that performances could continue.
The 1990s were a less salacious affair, although not without innuendo when, in September 1990 Ray Cooney’s farce Run For Your Wife transferred from a long run at the Shaftesbury Theatre to complete the final 14 months of a run of 3,535 performances. In 1992, another Marc Camoletti farce, Don’t Dress For Dinner transferred from the Apollo Theatre remaining until 1997 to complete a West End run totalling six years.
The twentieth century drew to a close with another long-running transfer in situ. Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, which hypothesised the reasons for a meeting of Nuclear scientists Werner Heisenberg, Niels Bohr and Bohr’s wife Margrethe, had opened to great acclaim at the National Theatre before moving across the river.
As a new millennium dawned, Copenhagen continued, before finally being replaced in April 2001 by another National Theatre transfer, Blue/Orange. The show starred Bill Nighy, Andrew Lincoln and Chiwetel Ejiofor who reprised their roles in an in-the-round production for which the auditorium was completely reconfigured.
Other notable productions in the first decade of the 21st Century included Pinter’s Betrayal starring Janie Dee and Hugo Speer and The Birthday Party starring Eileen Atkins and Henry Goodman, before the arrival of another show which would go down in theatrical legend – Behind The Iron Mask.
The show is probably best summarised in some of its reviews. For the Telegraph, Charles Spencer wrote: “Unfortunately, Behind the Iron Mask doesn’t even fall into the cherished “so bad it’s good” category. It’s so bad that it is merely unendurable. There’s no insane flourish to its mediocrity, no sublimity to its awfulness. It is just relentlessly, agonisingly third-rate…so little happens and the clunky dialogue is delivered with such expressionless somnolence that you wonder whether the performers will manage to stay awake until the end of the show or simply crash out on the large bed that dominates the scrappy stage design…Sheila Ferguson, best known as the former lead singer of the Prince of Wales’s favourite pop group, the Three Degrees, is lumbered with lines such as, “I’ve never felt like this before/I’m a lady not a whore.” She plays the gipsy like a roguish suburban matron who has been overdoing the Babycham at a fancy dress party, gamely wiggling her bottom, displaying her cleavage and letting out little yelps during her big flamenco number… I suspect Robert Fardell is deeply grateful that he can spend the whole evening hiding behind his iron mask, and the fact that he has what looks like a battered saucepan screwed to his head certainly brings a disconcerting kinkiness to the bland love songs.”
Other critics were equally awed, with The Guardian’s Lyn Gardner adding “John Robinson’s music would not bother you were it being piped into a lift, but his lyrics would. One exchange between the Gypsy and the international man of mystery goes: “Why do you wear the iron mask?/ Don’t ask!/ What is your name?/I’m insane!”
Behind The Iron Mask lives on in legend for those few who determinedly sat through the whole show – on the night we attended, the poorly-built prison door accidentally swung open, effectively rendering the entire plot redundant. Even that was eclipsed when, during one performance of the show’s ill-fated month-long run, the iron mask fell off, rolled down the stage and hurtled towards an audience divided equally into those guffawing loudly into their Gin & Tonics and those enjoying 40 winks.
The remainder of the decade saw more successful runs of shows such as Glorious! starring Maureen Lipman in the role of Florence Foster Jenkins, an American socialite and amateur soprano who was known, and ridiculed, for her flamboyant costumes and notably poor singing ability. The role was later made famous on film by Meryl Streep, but a recording of Florence herself does still exist – so judge for yourselves how bad she really was!
In 2007, Buddy The Musical which had previously played at both the Victoria Palace and Strand Theatre (now the Novello) ran here for two years, and then, in the early 2010s, a series of shows included Krapp’s Last Tapestarring Michael Gambon, Fences starring Lenny Henry and a transfer of the Don Black/Andrew Lloyd Webber revival Tell Me On A Sunday starring Marti Webb in a role which she had first played over 35 years earlier.
In 2014, Kathleen Turner starred in Bakersfield for a run of several months and then, in September of the same year, Mischief Theatre’s hugely successful The Play That Goes Wrong transferred here for a run which, when theatres are able to reopen, will make the show the longest-running production in the theatre’s history.
The Duchess Theatre still has its original iron curtain, grid, flies, and hardwood stage. The Theatre’s lift has been put back into service too and though it is now operated by modern machinery, it still has its original 1929 cabin.
The Duchess Theatre is currently run by Nimax Theatres and is Grade II listed.
- Bakersfield Mist
- Cool Rider
- Tell Me On A Sunday
- Beckett Trilogy: Not I, Footfalls, Rockabye
- Will Tuckett’s The Wind in the Willows
- The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui
- Untold Stories: Hymn and Cocktail Sticks
- Sooty In Space
- The Boy With Tape On His Face
- Our Boys
- The Hurly Burly Show
- Written on the Heart
- The Pitmen Painters
- Ruby Wax: Losing It
- Sign of the Times
- Love Story
- Krapp’s Last Tape
- The Secret of Sherlock Holmes
- The Fantasticks
- We’re Going On A Bear Hunt
- Taking Sides
- The Last 5 Years
- Plague Over England
- The Gruffalo
- Buddy The Musical
- The Hound of the Baskervilles
- Underneath the Lintel
- Stones in his Pockets
- See How They Run
- Breakfast With Mugabe
- Behind The Iron Mask
- The Birthday Party
- Man and Boy
- Little Women
- Pieter-Dirk Uys – Elections and Erections
- Jimoein: Third Drawer Down
- Coyote on a Fence
- Gershwin Alone
- Through the Leaves
- Zipp! – 100 musicals in 100 minutes (or less)
- Flatspin – Damsels in Distress Trilogy
- Gameplan – Damsels in Distress Trilogy
- Roleplay – Damsels in Distress Trilogy
- Via Dolorosa
- The Glee Club
- Life After George
- Alone it Stands (Munster 12 – All Blacks 0)
Disclaimer: We take care to provide accurate information. Records prior to internet age can be difficult to verify so we only list productions back as far as the year 2000, however we hold some records prior to this date offline. If you would like more information, or are aware of any errors, please contact us here. “One night only” productions and private theatre hires are not listed.
Arthur Lloyd’s Theatre Website offers an encyclopaedic insight into the history of the West End’s theatres.
Theatricalia is a database of past & future theatre productions.
Thisistheatre also offers interesting insights into the history of London’s theatres.
The Theatres Trust offers information and support for our nation’s theatres.
London Theatres by Michael Coveney & Peter Dazeley, is available from Waterstones and Amazon and provides stunning photography and commentary on London’s iconic theatres.