Current Show: The Woman In Black
First preview: 7th June 1989 (premiered at Lyric Hammersmith on 17th January 1989)
Booking until: 2nd April 2022 (Resumes 25th May 2021)
Running time: 2hours including interval
Address: 29 Russell St, London WC2B 5HH
Air Conditioning: Yes
Current Owner: Ambassador Theatre Group
Box Office: +44 (0) 3330 096 690 (operated by ATG Tickets)
Discounts, Day seats, Rush tickets & Lotteries
Box Office: +44 (0) 3330 096 690 (operated by ATG Tickets)
Stage Door: +44 (0) 20 7010 7900
Access Bookings: Call +44 (0) 800 912 6971
Society of London Theatre also offers useful information for visitors with a disability or specific access need.
Nearest Tube: Covent Garden
Buses: Number 4, 6, 9, 11, 15, 23, 26, 76, 87, 172, 243, 341 and RV1
Check out Transport for London’s excellent TFL Journey Planner
The Fortune Theatre is a 432-seat West End Theatre on Russell Street, opposite the 18th century Ionic colonnade of the mighty Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. The theatre is situated beside Crown Court Church, part of the Church of Scotland and was erected by actor, writer and impresario Laurence Cowen, opening on Saturday 8th November 1924 as The Fortune Thriller Theatre under the management of Miss Ida Molesworth and her husband, Captain Temple Powell, with a play entitled Sinners, written by Cowen himself. Ida Molesworth’s life was no less thrilling – born in India, she travelled extensively to Australia, New Zealand and even the Himalayas. Her acting career included an ill-fated performance in Under Two Flags at the Coronet Theatre, during which she was thrown from a horse, much to the horror of the live audience.
The Fortune Theatre as it would become known, was the first new theatre to open in the West End since the outbreak of the First World War. The site had previously been the location of the Albion Tavern, a public house popular with actors and the literati throughout the Georgian and Victorian eras. The theatre’s name pays homage to an earlier playhouse in which Shakespeare acted, also the Fortune Theatre, on the east side of Golden Lane, without Cripplegate, in the area near the current Barbican Theatre.
The first Fortune, built by Philip Henslowe and William Alleyn, opened in May 1601 but was gutted by fire in 1621 and subsequently rebuilt in 1624. It was permanently destroyed in 1649 – again by fire, this time allegedly started by sectarian arsonists. It is believed that in the first fire and subsequent demolitions of this and other Elizabethan theatres, such as the original Globe Theatre, many of Shakespeare’s original manuscripts were destroyed along with costumes and other property.
The site which the current Fortune occupies is also close to the site of another long-gone theatre from the early 1600s, the Cockpit. Later renamed the Phoenix (and not to be confused with the current Phoenix Theatre in Charing Cross Road), The Cockpit was the first theatre built in Drury Lane and predates the first Theatre Royal Drury Lane by some 50 years.
The present Fortune Theatre was commissioned by Cowen and built by Bovis Ltd and designed by Ernest Schaufelberg, who also designed the nearby Aldwych Theatre An early programme from the period names the proprietors as Covent Garden Fortune Theatre Ltd with Licensee and Managing Director Tom Walls.
The theatre adjoins and interlocks with the Scottish National Church in Crown Court with the entrance to the church in Russell Street having the theatre built above and below it. Although preliminary ground works began in December 1922, the complexity of fitting a theatre around the existing church meant that building work was slow, taking nearly twice as long and costing three times as much as first anticipated.
Designed in Italian Renaissance style with cubist and art deco influences, The Fortune was the first theatre in the country to be built of ferro-concrete – concrete strengthened by a skeleton of iron or steel bars – a much lower fire-risk than materials used in most of the West End’s older buildings.
High above the entrance, the M H Crichton-sculpted figurine of the Roman goddess Fortuna (often incorrectly identified as Greek muse Terpsichore, goddess of dance and chorus), welcomed patrons to the theatre as they entered through bronze double doors to a foyer of grey and red marble, with a beaten copper ticket booth. Inside, the inscription ‘There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune’ – a quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, boldly declares the ambitions of this theatrical David to the neighbouring Theatre Royal’s Goliath.
It is claimed that the auditorium originally accommodated between 600 and 700 although it is difficult now to imagine how that would have been possible; there were three floors, stalls, circle and balcony and four private boxes, all constrained by the limited dimensions into which the design of the building had to fit. Despite its proportions, the theatre provided a larger than might have been expected in a relatively small theatre, light and airy dressing-rooms, a rehearsal room and a suite of managerial offices.
A Schwabe-Hazait lighting system operated not only stage lighting but also concealed lighting throughout the auditorium which could be fully adjusted to create any illusion, from daylight to atmospheric moonlight. Advanced heating, hydraulics and ventilation by engineers Sulzer Brothers in Winterthur provided the theatre with the most up-to-date facilities available.
Décor of blue/greys, creams, browns, reds and old gold, and the lavish use of marble, onyx, copper and wrought iron were used throughout. Mahogany chairs upholstered in leather, all with a full view of the stage, ensured the highest level of comfort in all levels of the auditorium and heavy golden velvet & silk curtains with splashes of emerald and ruby finished the interior with a feeling of intimate luxury. The theatre was praised not only for its aesthetic but also for its perfect acoustics and the clever use of thick pile carpet on rubber to silence the footsteps of the audience.
Another triumph of Schaufelberg’s design – and his understanding of the practicalities of theatre – was the storage of scenery and props below the stage, so that all the material could be lifted through a trap in the middle.
The building has a flying freehold (where part of a building overhangs or underlies another) with the adjacent Scottish National Church, the entrance to which is to the immediate left of the front of the theatre on Russell Street. A corridor belonging to the Church runs along one side of the theatre’s auditorium at ground level, with the stalls level under it, the Dress Circle level alongside it, and the Upper Circle above it.
The first real ‘hit’ here was On Approval, a comedy of manners by Frederick Lonsdale, which had a run of just over a year in 1927 and then in 1929, The Last Enemy set in the Antarctic starred a young Laurence Olivier, running for twelve weeks.
The 1930s heralded the arrival of The People’s Theatre, conceived by the playwright, Theatre manager, and drama critic Jack Thomas Grein and co-founded with the actress Nancy Price. It was inspired by Berlin’s Volkstheater. London’s own People’s Theatre began life at the Fortune in October 1930. The first production by the company being The Man From Blankleys, followed by several other well received productions. Despite favourable press and the hopes of the company, the concept of a People’s Theatre failed to ignite audiences and the company’s final performance at the Fortune was less than a year later in August 1931.
Alongside these regular performances, the Fortune also became known for the amazing spiritualist services held there on Sundays. Spiritualism had become increasingly popular after the First World War when so many young lives were lost, and made celebrities of trance mediums such as Mrs. Meurig Morris, Trance Medium, who appeared here in a weekly series of addresses on The Philosophy of Spiritualism.
Further notable productions of the decade included Ernita Lascelles’ Fire and Elmer Rice’s Not For Children.
During WWII, the theatre hosted performances by ENSA (The Entertainments National Service Association or as Tommy Trinder coined it, “Every Night Something Awful”). Performers were drawn from each of the armed forces to varying degrees of success.
The first production here after WWII was Fools Rush In in 1946 and then in 1947, impresario and producer Peter Daubeny brought a new play, Power Without Glory, to the Fortune Theatre. He had seen the cash-starved production in the cramped New Lindsey Theatre Club in Notting Hill and had been so struck by the breathless, guttural performance of a young actor, Dirk Bogarde, that he brought the company to the West End stage. It would prove to be a pivotal moment in the young actor’s career. Noël Coward attended a dress rehearsal and was so taken by Bogarde that he sent a personal endorsement to Daubeny for printing on posters all over London and a personal telegram to Dirk saying: ‘I hope your brilliant performance has the true success it so richly deserves.’
In the 1950s, the intimate revue Joyce Grenfell Requests the Pleasure enjoyed a residency here which included a song by composer and entertainer Donald Swann; Swann would enjoy a residency of his own just a few years later with writing partner Michael Flanders in another hugely popular review, At The Drop Of A Hat which ran for 733 performances. Recordings of material from both reviews are available on Spotify.
A major renovation of the theatre in 1960 brought it up-to-date with modern technical standard. The following year, yet another revue, Beyond The Fringe, made the Fortune its home. The Cambridge Footlight’s show, which had suffered from lukewarm reviews out of town, fared much better in London thanks in part to revisions by producers Donald Albery and William Donaldson, starred Alan Bennett, Jonathan Miller alongside Peter Cook and Dudley Moore and ran for 1,184 perfomances before transferring to the May Fair Theatre on Stratton St with a new cast comprising Peter Baldwin, Neville Buswell, Bill Hepper and Barry Stanton.
Another noteworthy production of the Swinging Sixties was The Promise, a “charmingly sentimental” play written by Russian dramatist Aleksei Arbutev, translated by Ariadne Nicolaeff and starring Judi Dench, Ian McKellen and Ian McShane.
The 1970s saw Penelope Keith and Rula Lenska take to the Fortune stage in Suddenly at Home which enjoyed a run of almost two years and then, in 1973 another long running play, Anthony Schaffer’s thriller Sleuth, transferred here from the St Martin’s Theatre (now The Other Palace) via the Garrick Theatre. The play, partly inspired by Schaffer’s friend, Stephen Sondheim’s love of game-playing, went on to huge success on Broadway.
In July 1976, another hugely successful transfer, Agatha Christie’s Murder At The Vicarage, arrived from the Savoy Theatre. The show would enjoy a run of 1,373 performances, making it the longest running production here – a record which would stand until the arrival of The Woman In Black.
Successes of the 1980s included a revival of the Vivian Ellis musical Mr Cinders, which ran from April 1983 until July 1984 and the musical comedy Nunsense which opened here in March 1987.
The decade would end with the 1989 transfer of a show which would become one of the longest running productions in West End history – the Stephen Mallatratt adaptation of Susan Hill’s chilling ghost story, The Woman In Black. The show, originally conceived for a Christmas season in Scarborough, opened at the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre on 17 January 1989 before transferring to the Strand Theatre (now the Novello Theatre) on 15th February 1989 and then again to the Playhouse Theatre from 18th April 1989 before finally moving here to the Fortune Theatre from 7th June 1989 where it has played ever since.
A celebration was held in 2001 to mark the 5,000th performance. From 9th to 13th September 2008, the show was performed in Japanese by Takaya Kamikaya and Haruhito Saito, to mark the 150th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
On Monday 28th September 1992, the play broke Murder At The Vicarage’s long-standing run record and The Woman In Black has now run here at the Fortune Theatre for over thirty chilling years.
The theatre was used to record Lily Savage’s Paying The Rent in 1993 and was granted Grade II listed status by English Heritage in May 1994. In 2000, the Fortune was acquired by ATG as part of the takeover of ACT Theatres and the venue had a major external renovation in 2011, removing advertising hoardings from the main window, restoring the original canopy design and carrying out maintenance to the textured concrete surfaces.
The Theatre is currently run by the Ambassador Theatre Group.
- Forbidden Broadway
- Re: Joyce
- Dangerous Obsession
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.