Aldwych Theatre, London
The Novello Theatre was first to open in May 1905 while The Aldwych Theatre opened a number of months later on Saturday 23 December 1905. But the opening very nearly didn't happen! It was reported at the time that while "the Aldwych Theatre has taken only ten months to build, perhaps a month or so longer would have been desirable for getting quite ready to start active operations. As it was, Mr Seymour Hicks and Miss Ellailine Terris, to their great disappointment, had to abandon at the last moment the semi-public dress rehearsal to which on Friday afternoon they had invited a large number of school children. Indeed, for those who saw the chaos which was then prevailing, the only surprise must be that Saturday evening's inauguration could take place at all." But open it did - with a revised revival of the Christmas show Bluebell, a 'musical dream play', written by Seymour Hicks and Walter Slaughter and starring Ellailine Terriss as 'Bluebell' along with Seymour Hicks. The opening performance on Saturday 23 December 1905 was deemed a 'charity show' with proceeds being donated to the 'Queen's Unemployed Fund'.
The theatre was described by The Times at the time of opening as being "both handsome and cosy-looking in its simple, dignified Georgian way, with a colour scheme of Rose du Barri, with armchair stalls as comfortable as those at the Gaiety Theatre, with a particularly good dress circle, and with every modern convience both before and behind the footlights." The theatre originally had four levels of seats, but now only three levels are used.
Over the years the Aldwych Theatre has had a number of important theatrical associations. Firstly with the 'Aldwych Farces' - this was a term that came to be used to describe a series of highly popular farces, or 'situation comedy', written by Ben Travers and performed at the Aldwych Theatre over an eight year period from 1925 with A Cuckoo in the Nest through to 1933 with A Bit of a Test. A number of the Aldwych Farces where also made into popular films.
Secondly, on 15 December 1960 the Aldwych Theatre become the London home of The Royal Shakespeare Company with the opening John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi starring Peggy Ashcroft which then played in repertory with Shakespeare's Twelfth Night which featured Dorothy Tutin and Geraldine McEwan in the cast. While the RSC's stay at the Aldwych Theatre was initially only meant to last some three years they did not actually leave until their final production at the Aldwych Theatre, CP Taylor's play Good, closed in 1982 and they moved to their newly built London home at the Barbican Theatre in the City of London.
It was while the RSC where in residence at the Aldwych Theatre on Friday 7 August 1970 that there was a violent thunderstorm over central London. At the height of the storm some 1.7 inches of rain fell in just 30 minutes, but while two West End shows - at the Victoria Palace and Duchess Theatres - cut short their shows, the RSC managed to continue their performance at the Aldwych Theatre of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night - to the trepidation of some in the audience, and one actor in particular. The respected actor Donald Sinden (now Sir Donald Sinden) was playing the part of 'Malvolio' and was 'imprisoned' beneath the stage. Sinden takes up the story: "There I was with only my head poking up through a grille, the bars of my prison, and around my feet the water was rising. There was nothing I could do except play the part out, and I was there for about 15 minutes with the water getting higher and higher. In the end it was about six or eight inches deep and still rising. I was rather worried. It was running down the walls and I was thinking to myself: I wonder where the electrical plugs are! The audience was a bit fidgety too, the water was lapping around their feet in the front stalls, and some of them got up and went to the back. One actor had to say: 'How runs the stream' ... and got the biggest laugh of the season!" Thankfully nothing too serious happened and cast and audience all survived.
When the RSC where not playing in London at The Aldwych Theatre, the impressario Peter Daubeny used the theatre to stage his annual World Theatre Seasons from 1964 to 1975 which where sponsored by the RSC and supported with an annual grant from the Arts Council and generally run for around seven weeks each year. These seasons did much to introduce West End audiences to theatre from around the world. He was made a Zulu Chieftain in 1972 when he presented the South African Natal Theatre Workshop's production of Umabatha (an adaptation of Macbeth) at the Aldwych Theatre - described as being the first time a Zulu theatre company had performed outside of South Africa. He was recognised for his work in bringing such a wide range of world theatre to the attention of London theatregoers in 1973 when he was knighted and thus became Sir Peter Daubeny.
More recent notable productions at the Aldwych Theatre include the 1990 revival of Noel Coward's Private Lives starring Joan Collins; The Almeida Theatre's production of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? starring Diana Rigg and David Suchet which transferred to the Aldwych Theatre in 1996; and David Hare's Amy's View starring Dame Judi Dench which transferred here in 1998 from the National Theatre.
Less notable, more infamous, was the musical Fields of Ambrosia written by Joel Higgins and Martin Silvestri which opened on 31 January 1996. This musical story of a travelling executioner in America who falls in love with his next victim on Death's Row opened to a critical mauling which moved the producer, Nicholas van Hoogstraten, to offer the West End's first money-back guarantee if you left at the interval. How many left? The first evening it was offered van Hoogstraten claimed it was just four people saying: "What's four out of 120? It's like one and a half per cent" - he didn't though mention that the Aldwych Theatre holds nearly 1,200! "I'm gobsmacked that the theme is not being understood in a country with a history of accepting different theatres," he said. "It's intentionally dark." Fields of Ambrosia closed just two weeks after opening. In constrast the current show at the Aldwych Theatre, Dirty Dancing the Musical, is now in its fifth year!