Noël Coward Theatre
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Address: 85-88 St Martin’s Ln, London WC2N 4AP
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Current Owner: Delfont Mackintosh Theatres
Box Office: +44 (0) 844 482 5140 (calls charged)
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Box Office: +44 (0) 844 482 5140 (calls charged)
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Nearest Tube: Leicester Square
Buses: Number 24, 29, 176
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The Noël Coward Theatre owes its existence to a quirk of fate. By the end of the 19th Century, actor and theatre proprietor Charles Wyndham had been based at the Criterion Theatre for several decades, when he acquired a plot of land with plans to build his own theatre. The plot on Charing Cross Road was significantly larger than he needed for the first theatre (the Wyndham’s Theatre). When attempts to sell the remainder of the land failed, he decided to build a second theatre instead.
First known as the New Theatre, and later the Albery Theatre, the Noël Coward Theatre was born. Facing St Martin’s Lane at the edge of Covent Garden, it opened on 12th March 1903, backing onto the Wyndham’s Theatre.
Completed four years after the Wyndham’s, The New Theatre was the second of three theatres built on St Martin’s Lane. First to open in 1892 was the Trafalgar Square Theatre (now the Duke of York’s Theatre), followed by the New Theatre (now the Noël Coward) in 1903. This was followed in 1904 by the London Coliseum.
The New Theatre was designed by renowned theatre architect W G R Sprague, with an exterior in the Classical style and Rococo interiors in cream and gold. Much of the interior upholstery was provided by Messrs Waring, with curtains and hangings in Rose de Barri brocade and antique velvet.
Unusually, the two theatres (Wyndham’s and Noël Coward) shared the same stage door, with a bridge above connecting the two buildings. The plot allowed for a frontage on St Martin’s late, with a boundary on one side of St Martin’s Court and the other New Row. This second theatre became known as the New Theatre, and the name stuck – at least for the next 70 years.
The theatre used a cantilever design, doing away with the need for internal columns. This afforded all patrons excellent, unimpeded views of the stage. Over the proscenium arch, you can still see the original gilt emblems of Peace and Music.
The theatre’s first performances were Louis N Parker and Murray Carson’s play Rosemary, starring Charles Wyndham and a special matinee of Wyndham’s best-known production, David Garrick.
Early performances included a transfer from the Lyric Theatre, The Light that Failed and several seasons featuring Mrs Patrick Campbell and Cyril Maude. Between 1905 and 1913, Fred Terry and Julia Neilson starred in regular revivals of the hugely successful The Scarlet Pimpernel. Between these seasons, other productions included the comic opera Amasis, and plays Count Hannibal, As You Like It and Romeo and Juliet.
In December 1915, Dion Boucicault became manager of the New Theatre. His first production was a revival of Peter Pan, which proved so popular that it returned every Christmas until 1919. Further successes of Boucicault’s tenure included plays by Somerset Maugham, J M Barrie and A A Milne.
In 1918/19, Broadway’s ‘First Lady of Theatre’ Katharine Cornell made her only London appearance, playing Jo in an adaptation of Little Women.
Katharine Cornell can be seen at 2m52s into the following home movie footage. The entire film is worth watching for its fascinating insight into Coward’s home life in the early 20th Century.
In 1920, Noël Coward’s I’ll Leave It To You became the first of his plays to reach the West End stage, running for 37 performances and featuring Noël Coward himself. This was followed by a mixture of Shakespeare plays and modern dramas, presented by and featuring Canadian actor and playwright Matheson Lang.
Sybil Thorndike performed here in 1924, starring in George Bernard Shaw’s St. Joan. Thorndike’s portrayal of Joan of Arc was described as ‘one of the great performances of our time’.
The following year, Robert Atkins took over management of the theatre. Subsequent productions included Israel Zangwill’s We Moderns and a long run of Margaret Kennedy’s The Constant Nymph, initially starring Noël Coward and then a young John Gielgud.
Two comedies closed the decade – A Damsel in Distress and Baa Baa Black Sheep, both written by P G Wodehouse and Ian Hay.
In February 1933, control of the theatre was assumed by John Gielgud. Gielgud’s first major production was Richard of Bordeaux. This romantic take on the life of Richard II was written by Elizabeth MacKintosh under the pseudonym Gordon Daviot and was inspired by Gielgud’s classical performance of Richard II at the Old Vic Theatre. At first, Gielgud was reluctant to take on this modern reinterpretation of Richard’s story. However, after agreeing to direct two performances at the nearby Arts Theatre, the show proved a hit. It subsequently transferred to the New Theatre, running for 472 performances and turning Gielgud into a star.
Richard of Bordeaux was followed in June 1934 by another Elizabeth MacKintosh play, Queen of Scots. In November, Gielgud revived Hamlet, followed by works of Hugh Walpole and Andre Obey. Then, a star-studded Romeo and Juliet united Peggy Ashcroft, Edith Evans with Gielgud and Laurence Olivier, with Gielgud and Olivier sharing the roles of Romeo and Mercutio during the run.
Gielgud’s tenure concluded with Chekhov’s The Seagull. The play once again united Ashcroft, Evans and Gielgud and was described by critics as Russian-born director Theodore Komisarjevsky’s “outstanding achievement”.
After Gielgud’s departure, the remainder of the 1930s saw further Shakespeare productions, including Edith Evans in As You Like It and The Taming of the Shrew, and Laurence Olivier as Macbeth.
During World War II, the Old Vic suffered extensive bomb damage. At the same time, Sadler’s Wells Theatre became unavailable to the Sadler’s Wells Opera and Ballet companies due to its requisition as a shelter for those made homeless by the blitz. At this time, Bronson Albery (stepson of Charles Wyndham) had become managing director of the New Theatre. Bronson offered all three companies a temporary West End base.
Significant wartime productions included The Beggar’s Opera, King John, The Cherry Orchard and Hamlet. In the final years of World War II, the Old Vic company took up residence in the New Theatre, with a company including Ralph Richardson, Laurence Olivier and Sybil Thorndike. Performing in repertory, these great names brought Peer Gynt, Arms and the Man, Richard III and Uncle Vanya to the stage, thrilling audiences much in need of a distraction from the war.
Between the Old Vic company’s seasons, Regency drama The First Gentleman enjoyed a significant run, though a later movie version was savaged by critics.
During the final stages of World War II, the Old Vic company continued its residency, presenting Shakespeare’s Henry IV parts I & II and a double bill of Oedipus and The Critic. In 1946, these were followed by performances of King Lear and Cyrano de Bergerac.
By the late 1940s, the New Theatre was under new management. Performances included Twelfth Night with a cast including a young June Brown, The School for Scandal (designed by Cecil Beaton), Richard IIIfeaturing Peter Cushing, Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier, and Antigone, again uniting Leigh and Olivier.
The 1950s kicked off with a run of T S Eliot’s The Cocktail Party, based on Alcestis by Euripedes and starring Rex Harrison. Noteworthy performances early in the decade also included Vivian Ellis’s musical of J B Fagan’s And So To Bed, and The Young Elizabeth, which told the story of a young Queen Elizabeth I.
In 1952, Katharine Hepburn made her West End debut in Shaw’s The Millionairess. This was followed by Dear Charles starring French singer and actress Yvonne Arnaud. Modern audiences may know Arnaud’s name from a Guildford theatre named in her honour but may be unaware that she was also a virtuoso pianist.
In 1954, Dorothy Tutin starred in I Am a Camera, an adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s 1939 novel Goodbye to Berlin upon which the music Cabaret is based. The following year, comedy The Remarkable Mr Pennypacker ran for 421 performances, giving way in 1956 to performances of Colette’s Gigi and Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood.
The latter years of the 1950s included a production of the realist Australian play Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. This was followed by The Party, directed by and starring Charles Laughton in his final London stage appearance alongside Albert Finney making his West End debut. The decade ended with productions of Tennessee Williams’s The Rose Tattoo, Peter O’Toole in The Long and the Short and the Tall, and Theatre Royal Stratford East’s production of Make Me an Offer.
In June 1960, an era-defining musical arrived – Lionel Bart’s Oliver!. The show starred Ron Moody as Fagin and Barry Humphries (Dame Edna) as Mr Sowerberry. Also in the cast was a young Tony Robinson (Baldrick in Blackadder). Remarkably, the show opened with an advance of just £145. Six years later, the show had clocked up 2,618 performances, breaking all previous records for West End musical theatre.
After Oliver! departed, another musical arrived – Jorrocks. Written by Beverly Cross and David Heneker (of Half a Sixpence fame), the show starred Joss Ackland and a young Paul Eddington is one of his only appearances in a musical. Jorrocks ran for a little under six months, swiftly followed by E M Forster’s Howards End, and comedy World War 2 starring Roy Dotrice.
As the Swinging Sixties ended, productions included Farquhar’s The Constant Couple, Spring and Port Wine (a transfer from the Apollo Theatre), and Paul Scofield in John Osborne’s The Hotel in Amsterdam. These were followed by a controversial production of Soldiers, a play which raised the possibility that Winston Churchill had been complicit in the murder of Polish Prime Minister Wladyslaw Sikorski.
The final show of the 1960s was Anne of Green Gables – a new musical starring Polly James – one half of British sitcom The Liver Birds.
When Anne of Green Gables closed in January 1970, it was followed by a number of plays, including Come As You Are with a cast including Denholm Elliott and Pauline Collins, The Winslow Boy with Kenneth More, Christopher Cazenove and Annette Crosbie, and Pirandello’s The Rules of the Game with Paul Scofield, Joan Plowright and a then-future Doctor Who, Tom Baker.
Several National Theatre company productions followed and then, in December 1971, Laurence Olivier starred in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night – understudied by none other than Denis Quilley.
In 1972, the RSC’s production of Dion Boucicault’s London Assurance transferred here for a year. The show starred Donald Sinden alongside Michael Williams and Judi Dench. The cast also included Judi’s brother, Jeffery Dench and a young Christopher Biggins.
During the run of London Assurance on 1st January 1973, the New Theatre was renamed the Albery Theatre to honour its former manager, Sir Bronson Albery. Albery had been managing director of three West End theatres – the Wyndham’s, the Criterion and the New Theatre, but it is the New Theatre (now the Noël Coward Theatre) with which he remains most closely associated.
In fact, this reason for the name-change only tells half the story. Months earlier, the New London Theatre (now the Gillian Lynne Theatre) had opened; the owners of the New Theatre were keen to avoid any perceived link or confusion between the two venues. Although it may be this which lay behind the new name, the Albery moniker was a fitting tribute to a family who made a unique contribution to the history of the theatre. Albery’s family, including son Donald and grandson Ian were all managers and producers here in the period between 1903 and 1987.
In 1973, the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat transferred from the Young Vic. At the time, the show was still evolving, having begun as a 15-minute school ‘pop cantata’. It was originally performed with another piece called Jacob’s Journey which was subsequently phased out. A 1972 recording still exists showing just how much the show has evolved.
Later the same year, Somerset Maugham’s The Constant Wife starred Ingrid Bergman, running for over six months.
1974 continued with a production of Shaw’s Pygmalion. Diana Rigg starred as Eliza Doolittle, with Bob Hoskins playing her father Alfred.
Other notable productions of the mid-1970s included The Gay Lord Quex with Judi Dench, Travesties with Tim Curry, and a double-bill of A Month In The Country/A Room With A View with Derek Jacobi and Jane Lapotaire.
In the late 1970s, Deborah Kerr starred in Shaw’s Candida, before the National Theatre’s production of Equus arrived, running for over a year. After Equus, in 1977 producer Cameron Mackintosh revived Lionel Bart’s Oliver!. The show starred Roy Hudd as Fagin, remaining faithful to the 1960s production, even down to the original sepia background which was still painted on the rear stage wall, and ran for the rest of the decade.
In 1981, Rodgers and Hart’s Pal Joey opened with a cast including Sian Phillips and Denis Lawson. Later that year, Mark Medoff’s Children of a Lesser God opened, winning Olivier Awards for actors Trevor Eve and Elizabeth Quinn, as well as the award for Best New Play. The show ran for two years, before Paul Eddington’s return in Lovers Dancing.
In the mid 1980s, productions included Dennis Potter’s Sufficient Carbohydrate, Edgar Wallace’s On the Spot, George Colman and David Garrick’s The Clandestine Marriage, and Sandy Wilson’s musical The Boy Friend starring Jane Wellman as Polly Browne.
1985 saw The Seven Year Itch and Pump Boys and Dinettes give way to what might be viewed as a new era for theatre, with productions of Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy and Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart bringing American gay subculture to the West End stage.
Musical Theatre legend Barbara Cook made her London concert debut in 1986, here and at the Donmar Warehouse. The following year, William Finn’s March of the Falsettos played a limited run, before another short run of Canaries Sometimes Sing. Several shorter runs followed including Three Sisters, The Big Knife, The Life of Napoleon and The Foreigner.
In 1988, a revival of Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers opened. The show would become one of the longest running musicals in West End history, transferring in November 1991 from here to the Phoenix Theatre for the remainder of its total 24-year run.
The first play to open here in the 1990s was The Cabinet Minister, featuring Maureen Lipman and Derek Nimmo. This was followed by Sandi Toksvig in The Pocket Dream and a series of limited runs including Shades starring Pauline Collins and Patricia Hodge, Hay Fever, Juno and the Paycock, Separate Tables and an all-Male production of As You Like It with Adrian Lester as Rosalind.
In 1994, Eddie Izzard played a seven-week season of his stand-up show, Eddie Izzard: Unrepeatable. This was followed by Helen Mirren and John Hurt in an acclaimed 1994 revival of Ivan Tergenev’s A Month in the Country.
The Albery Theatre made international news headlines when, in early 1995, Stephen Fry walked out of a production of Cell Mates, fleeing to Belgium and throwing the play into chaos. At the time, the play’s writer and director Simon Gray described Fry’s actions as ‘cowardly’. However, it is now understood that Fry’s depression and bipolar disorder were behind the incident.
Later in 1995, Clarke Peters’ tribute to jazz musician Louis Jordan, Five Guys Named Moe saw the cast lead the audience in a conga around the theatre. The show, produced by the Theatre Royal Stratford East, had previously run for several years at the Lyric Theatre.
1996 saw actor Adrian Lester return in Stephen Sondheim’s Company. The production, first staged at the Donmar Warehouse, was produced by Sam Mendes. The cast also included Clive Rowe, Sophie Thompson and Sheila Gish.
Later productions in the 1990s included Derek Jacobi and Peggy Mount in Uncle Vanya, Penelope Wilton in The Cherry Orchard, Gary Wilmot and Ann Crumb in Marvin Hamlish’s musical The Goodbye Girl, Christopher Cazenove and Kate O’Mara in An Ideal Husband, Diana Rigg in Almeida Theatre productions of Britannicus and Phedre and a week of concerts by singer Marc Almond.
In 1999, another Almeida production, Vassa, starred David Tennant and Anne Marie Duff. This was followed by Michael Gambon in Cressida, Cate Blanchett in Plenty, and a summer season of Gerard Alessandrini’s Forbidden Broadway. The millennium closed with a vintage four-hander, Quartet, starring Stephanie Cole, Angela Thorne, Alex McCowen and Donald Sinden.
The first production of the 2000s was Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing. This was followed by a series of short runs including The Guardsman, The Mystery of Charles Dickens and Far Away.
In 2001, Dawn French starred as Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This was followed by Lindsay Duncan in Mouth to Mouth and Private Lives, in which she was joined by Alan Rickman as warring divorcees.
2002 saw Simon Callow’s The Mystery of Charles Dickens run here, before a transfer of the remarkable Shockheaded Peter. Impressionist Rory Bremner played a series of his show Beware of Imitations! in the autumn, before Sean Bean and Samantha Bond starred together in Macbeth.
Patrick Stewart appeared in Ibsen’s The Master Builder in 2003, followed in 2004 by Endgame starring Michael Gambon and Lee Evans, Diana Rigg and Victoria Hamilton in Suddenly Last Summer, and an all-Asian production of Twelfth Night.
An RSC season ran in 2004-5 with productions of Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, Macbeth and Hecuba.
2005 ended with several short runs; Abbey Theatre’s production of the Dion Boucicault’s Victorian melodrama The Shaughrun and then the legendary Ducktastic. Sean Foley and Hamish McColl’s farce, Ducktastic, parodied the Las Vegas spectacles of Seigfried and Roy but replaced tigers with ducks. The show was directed by Kenneth Branagh. Running for just a month, the show required a cast including dozens of live ducks, two men, and a cannon.
The year ended with a short festive season of Patrick Stewart’s one-man version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
Another winged production followed – Blackbird. Starring Roger Allam and Jodhi May, this was a play with a far darker heart, focussing on an adult/child sexual relationship. Despite its difficult subject matter, the play was a critical success.
During 2005, the Albery Theatre had been acquired by Delfont Mackintosh Ltd. Major refurbishment work was carried out the following year. In 2006, the building reopened as the Noël Coward Theatre. This coincided with the renaming of another Delfont Mackintosh venue, the Strand Theatre, which became the Novello Theatre. As well as honouring giants of British Theatre, this also allowed the purchase of new web addresses, thus preventing other companies from masquerading as the official websites for the two venues.
The newly renamed Noël Coward Theatre reopened on 1st June 2006 with the musical Avenue Q. This “adult Sesame Street” was a monster hit, running for almost three years here before transferring in 2009 to the Gielgud Theatre.
Avenue Q’s move left the Noël Coward Theatre free for Calendar Girls, Tim Firth’s stage play about a group of Yorkshire women who became world-famous for stripping bare to raise money for a charity calendar.
The 2010s began with a sell-out transfer of Lucy Prebble’s Enron. This was followed by Jonathan Groff and Simon Russell Beale in Deathtrap, the musical Million Dollar Quartet, and a week of plays by Russia’s Sovremennik Theatre.
A 2012 production of Noël Coward’s Hay Fever featured Lindsay Duncan and a then-unknown Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Seasons by the RSC and Michael Grandage Company followed, including Privates on Parade, Peter and Alice starring Judi Dench and Ben Wishaw, The Cripple of Inishmaan starring Daniel Radcliffe, A Midsummer Night’s Dream starring Sheridan Smith and David Walliams, and Henry V starring Jude Law and Jessie Buckley.
Later 2014 productions included play The Full Monty and Good People with Imelda Staunton.
2015 saw Shakespeare in Love brought to the stage. This was followed by Death of a Salesman, magic show Impossible, and Photograph 51 starring Nicole Kidman as Rosalind Franklin, the woman who cracked DNA.
In 2016, short-lived musical Mrs Henderson Presents was replaced by another short run of Impossible and then a transfer of Chichester Festival Theatre’s Half a Sixpence starring Charlie Stemp as Arthur Kipps.
Between 2017 and 2019, productions included Labour of Love, a transfer from the Old Vic of Girl from the North Country, Chichester Festival Theatre’s Quiz, Michael Grandage Company’s The Lieutenant of Inishmoreand Young Vic’s outstanding production of Matthew Lopez’s deeply moving AIDS era drama The Inheritance.
In November 2019, after a short run of The Night of The Iguana, prior to the arrival of Dear Evan Hansen from Broadway, the theatre’s Grand Circle bar (which had been used as an office for many years) was given a stylish makeover and reopened as Thelma’s Bar in honour of theatre producer Thelma Holt. At the same time, the Dress Circle bar was also restored to its original, full 1903 glory.
Dear Evan Hansen had been running for just a few months before the Covid-19 pandemic forced the closure in Spring 2020 of all West End theatres.
The Noël Coward Theatre reopened briefly in December 2020 with The Comeback. The show ran for just 8 days before another wave of Covid forced theatres to close once more. The show reopened the theatre once again in July 2021, running for several weeks. This was followed by a run of supernatural thriller 2:22 A Ghost Story.
In October 2021, Dear Evan Hansen was finally able to reopen. The show is due to run until 22 October 2022.
The Noël Coward Theatre is Grade II listed.
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