Harold Pinter Theatre
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Address: Panton St, London SW1Y 4DN
Air Conditioning: Yes
Current Owner: Ambassador Theatre Group
Box Office: +44 (0) 3330 096 690
Discounts, Day seats, Rush tickets & Lotteries
Box Office: +44 (0) 3330 096 690
Stage Door: +44 (0) 20 7321 5300
Many of London’s theatres are accessed from below or above street level. If you need to avoid steps, it is advisable to contact the theatre directly by telephone or email as they will be able to advise you on which seats are most easily accessed. Many have specially adapted wheelchair spaces.
Theatres may be able to provide additional facilities for customers with a hearing or visual impairment and some shows may also offer specific, adapted performances. It’s best to check with the venue directly via one of the following methods:
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 Tubes: Leicester Square or Piccadilly Circus
Buses: Number 14, 19, 24, 29, 38 or 176
Check out Transport for London’s excellent TFL Journey Planner
Luxury: Haymarket Hotel, 1 Suffolk Pl, West End, London SW1Y 4HX
Mid: Thistle Piccadilly, Coventry Street, London, W1D 6BZ
Budget: Premier Inn London Leicester Square Hotel, 1 Leicester Place, Leicester Square, London WC2H 7BP
When it opened on 15th October 1881, the Harold Pinter Theatre was known as the Royal Comedy Theatre – the original plan had been to call it either the Lyric Theatre or Alexandra Theatre. Prior to its construction, the streets between Leicester Square and the Haymarket had suffered from a somewhat sleazy reputation. Built by Kirk and Randall of Woolwich, the theatre was designed by Thomas Verity, and built on a plot of land owned by J H Addison. Reporters praised the theatre’s design in terms of safety, having a minimum of corridors, fireproof staircases and access/egress into both Panton Street and Oxendon Street.
The theatre exterior is designed in the classical tradition. The original interiors were decorated in Renaissance style, with a white & gold colour scheme with maroon plush. The theatre was originally intended to operate with electric lighting, but first opened with gas lighting still in place. The theatre originally contained 14 boxes either side of the proscenium and a stalls pit (the rear section of today’s stalls) with bench seating. The theatre originally held around 1,100 and was constructed in just six months. Today, the capacity is nearer 800.
The Royal Comedy Theatre was original conceived as a home for comic opera, placing it in direct competition with the Savoy Theatre which had opened just five days earlier. The theatre opened as the Royal Comedy, although ‘Royal’ was dropped from its name within the first few years when it became apparent that no royal approval had been granted for the name. By 1884, the theatre was simply known as the Comedy Theatre.
The theatre was first leased to Alexander Henderson, who had contributed some design ideas to architect Thomas Verity. Henderson appointed Lionel Brough as Director and Auguste van Biene as Musical Director for his new project. Their first production was Edmond Audran’s ‘opéra comique’ La Mascotte, adapted for English audiences by Robert Reece and H B Farnie. Several more Farnie adaptations followed, including Suppé’s Baccaccio, Planqette’s Rip Van Winkle and Chassaigne’s Falka. A final operetta in 1885, Erminie, starred actor/manager Violet Melnotte. In the same year, the theatre’s lease passed to Melnotte herself.
Melnotte presented plays, as well as more comic operas, several of which she starred in, and plays including The Silver Shield and Sister Mary. In 1887, Melnotte sub-let the theatre to actor Herbert Beerbohm Tree, in what would become his first management venture, and then to Charles Hawtrey (not to be confused with Carry On film actor who assumed the same name) who produced a number of plays and farces.
By 1893, Joseph Comyns Carr had taken over as theatre manager, a position he held for several years, producing a number of plays, including The Professor’s Love Story by J M Barrie and Mr Martin, a play written by Comyns Carr himself.
A season of light comedies followed, after which, in 1898, William Greet took over the theatre, presenting a musical comedy, Milord Sir Smith. Productions of A Lady of Quality and Great Caesar followed, bringing the century to a close.
As the 20th Century began, the Comedy Theatre became the home for a mix of Shakespeare and several avant-garde plays, along with a successful run of Monsieur Beaucaire, enjoying 430 performances and a Christmas season of Alice Through the Looking Glass.
In 1905, John Barrymore made his London stage debut here in The Dictator. Other notable appearances in the first decade of the new century included Gerald du Maurier in Raffles and several performances by Marie Tempest.
The final production prior to the outbreak of war in 1914 was Peg o’ My Heart which ran for over 700 performances.
During the First World War, the theatre gained a reputation for presenting successful and long-running reviews by C B Cochran (Half-past Eight) and André Charlot (This and That, See-Saw!, Bubbly and Tails Up!).
In the roaring twenties, Marie Tempest appeared here once again, in Alice Sit By The Fire. Other productions included Charlie’s Aunt, Desperate Lovers and The Joker.
The 1930s saw a young Laurence Olivier appear here in November Afternoon opposite his first wife, Jill Esmond. They would go on to appear together again in Notices.
In 1939, the theatre presented Room For Two and in 1941, the appropriately named Rise Above It starring Wilfrid Hyde White and Hermione Gingold. The theatre remained open during much of World War 2, providing much needed entertainment for a weary population.
In 1945, Joan Hickson appeared here in See How They Run. The decade ended with a production of the play On Monday Next with a cast including Leslie Phillips – famous for his upper class “Ding Dong” catchphrase and the voice of the sorting hat in Harry Potter.
In the 1950s, major reconstruction of the theatre took place, with the theatre re-opening in December 1955 (although today’s auditorium is still largely the 1881 original with three horseshoe balconies above the stalls).
In 1956, tiring of censorship, producer Anthony Field established the New Watergate Club here to circumvent the Lord Chamberlain’s office, which still prohibited certain performances from being staged. By operating as a private member’s club, over the following decade, the theatre was able to stage productions of Arthur Miller’s A View From The Bridge, Robert Anderson’s Tea and Sympathy, and Tennessee Williams’ Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. It was the arrival of these clubs which began to see censorship ease, allowing a two year run of Peter Shaffer’s Five Finger Exercise here, and ultimately, to end censorship completely in the following decade.
Before that, in the late 1950s, Maggie Smith made her West End debut here in musical revue Share my Lettuce alongside Kenneth Williams in what would begin a legendary showbusiness friendship.
As the nineteen-sixties began to swing, Vanessa Redgrave arrived for one of many appearances at this theatre, this time in the play Look on Tempests. Other notable actors appearing here in the swinging sixties included Annette Crosbie, Paul Eddington, Peter Bowles, Julia McKenzie and Pauline Collins.
1969 saw the arrival of what was then London’s longest running comedy, There’s a Girl in my Soup. The show transferred here from the Globe Theatre (now the Gielgued Theatre), running until 1972.
In June 1972, the theatre was granted Grade II listed status by English Heritage. The following year, Elaine Stritch appeared in Tennessee Williams’ play Small Craft Warnings. The theatre was continuing to enjoy another successful decade when, in 1975, tragedy struck a production of The Exorcism, starred Brian Blessed and Honor Blackman. Oscar-nominated Mary Ure, the actress playing the lead role of Rachael, was found dead just hours after opening night following an accidental overdose of alcohol and barbiturates. The devastated cast continued the run with an understudy taking the role.
Other productions in the 1970s included A Touch of Spring (Hayley Mills and Julian Fellowes) and Mate! (Britt Ekland).
In 1980, a new canopy was constructed over the theatre entrance by architects Sir John Burnet-Tait and Partners. In the decade which followed, productions included a two year run of Little Shop of Horrors starring Ellen Greene, A Touch of the Poet (Timothy Dalton) and Frankie and Johnny (Brian Cox and Julie Walters).
The 1990s saw a host of well-known British actors appearing in productions, from Alan Bennett’s Talking Head (starring Patricia Routledge alongside Bennett himself) and Trelawney of the Wells (Helena Bonham-Carter and Sarah Brightman), to The Hothouse (written by Pinter and featuring Harold Pinter himself in the cast), The School for Wives (Eric Sykes) and a young David Tennant appearing in a double-bill of The Real Inspector Hound/Black Comedy alongside Anna Chancellor and Desmond Barrit.
Productions in the 2000s included Donkey’s Years with Samantha Bond and David Haig, Boeing Boeing starring Mark Rylance and Frances de la Tour and Prick Up Your Ears with Matt Lucas. In July 2009, the theatre’s orchestra pit was used for the first time in a quarter of a century for a production of a world premiere of Too Close to the Sun, a musical about the life of Ernest Hemingway which holds legendary status in the West End for ending an eight week run six weeks early and garnering less than favourable reviews.
Prior to the theatre’s refurbishment in 2011, the Comedy Theatre (as it was still known then) was a ‘Hemp House’. This term refers to the hemp ropes which were used to fly scenery in and out. Much of the wooden fly system, such as the ‘windlasses’ (winches for moving heavy weights), was removed to install a new grid above the stage.
Following its technical reconstruction, the theatre changed name from the Comedy Theatre, becoming known as The Harold Pinter Theatre. The theatre reopened on 24th October 2011 with a production of Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden starring Thandiwe Newton.
During the 2010s, the theatre attracted many big names, with successful productions including Mojo (Brendan Coyle, Rupert Grint and Ben Whishaw) and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (Imelda Staunton). The decade ended with Ian McKellen On Stage: Shakespeare, Tolkien, Others and You, with Sir Ian McKellen reprising his greatest roles.
In 2020, performances of Uncle Vanya ended prematurely due to the closure of all West End theatres at the outbreak of the Covid pandemic. The theatre re-opened in May 2021 with Walden, starring Gemma Arterton.
The theatre has undergone alterations several times: In 1893 and 1903, minor changes were undertaken and in 1911, the vestibule and bars were rebuilt by architects Whiting & Peto. The theatre underwent a major redecoration in 1933. In 1955, alterations were overseen by architects Cecil Masey and Alistair MacDonald, with the auditorium being slightly adapted to change the lines of the front of the circle levels and some boxes.
Despite these minor changes, along with the Royal Opera House and the Criterion Theatre, this is one of just three West End Theatres from pre-1890 which have their original auditoriums still largely intact. Look up on your next visit and you will see a remarkable feature – the theatre’s original gas ‘sunburner’, a wonderfully elaborate circular centrepiece on the ceiling of the auditorium, one of the last anywhere in the West End.
The Harold Pinter Theatre is currently run by the Ambassadors Theatre Group.
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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.