After some 63 years as British Monarch, Queen Victoria died on 22 January 1901 and was succeeded to the throne by her son, King Edward VII - thus the 'Victorian' period had ended, and the 'Edwardian' period had started. It was against this background that, barely one month later, on 21 February 1901, the new Apollo Theatre opened and therefore became the first new London theatre of the Edwardian age.
Henry Lowenfeld had bought land in Shaftesbury Avenue, adjacent to the Lyric Theatre which had opened in 1888, at the turn of the century and he engaged the architect Lewin Sharp to design a theatre on the site - a somewhat surprising choice as Sharp hadn't actually designed a theatre before. Fortunately, with its striking French Renaissance facade, the theatre was well received when it opened in 1901. The theatre's original interior was designed by Hubert van Hooydonk.
1901, and the start of the Edwardian period was a time when both fashions and expectations where changing, so it is interesting to note that, for example, while the cheap 'pit seats' located in the rear stalls below the overhang of the Dress Circle where normally hard bench seats, here at the new Apollo Theatre when it opened the pit seats where both upholstered and designed as 'tip-ups' which meant that playgoers in the pit seats could be seated as comfortably as the wealthy playgoers. In addition, taking its lead from the European fashion of the time, each level of seating was provided with its own foyer and 'promenade' area to enable the audience to more easily leave the auditorium between acts and socialise.
While these new comforts where no doubt appreciated by theatregoers, the opening still caused a bit of a controversy when it was announced that the first performance on Thursday 21 February 1901 at this new theatre would be in front of an especially invited audience, while the first actual public performance - for which the public could purchase tickets - would be the following day, Friday 22 February. This lead to a small hostile demonstration at the theatre and even The Times newspaper refused to review the 'private' performance, going instead to the public Friday evening performance explaining that "part of the duty of a newspaper in dealing with theatrical entertainments is to record their reception by the public, and this cannot, of course, be done when the ordinary paying public are not admitted." Since opening some interior alterations have been made most notably in 1932 with the renovation works being overseen by the architect Ernest Shaufelberg (who had earlier designed Fortune Theatre). The view of the stage from the balcony (3rd tier) is said to be the steepest in London - you have been warned!
The opening production at the Apollo Theatre was the American musical comedy The Belle of Bohemia by Ludwig Englander, Harry T. MacConnell and Harry B. Smith. Despite The Guardian bemoaning that "it is to be regretted that so elegant a building should have opened its doors to the public with an entertainment of such inferior calibre," The Belle of Bohemia still managed some 72 performances before closing, a respectable run for the era, and 17 more than the Broadway production had managed the previous year. A few years later the Apollo Theatre became associated with Harry Gabriel Pelissier's The Follies which made a number of successful appearances here in various versions between 1908 and 1912. Two of The Follies become 'long-running' hits - the 1908 version running for 571 performances and the 1910 version running for 521 performances.
On 17 April 1907 the actress Dame Cicely Courtneidge made her London West End debut at the age of 14 here playing the small role of 'Rosie Lucas' in Tom Jones, a comic opera adapted from Henry Fielding's novel by her father Robert Courtneidge and AW Thompson, with lyrics by Chas Taylor and music by Edward German. While, on a sadder note, it was at this theatre that Sir John Gielgud made his last West End stage appearance in Hugh Whitemore's play Best of Friends on Saturday 23 April 1988.
Hugh Hastings' hit wartime drama Seagulls Over Sorrento opened here on Wednesday 14 June 1950 and played for just over three years until 3 October 1953. Generally, though, The Apollo Theatre specialised mostly in light comedies, thrillers and farces - the longest running production at this theatre, only just beating Seagulls Over Sorrento was Marc Camoletti's farce Boeing Boeing which opened here on Tuesday 20 February 1962 before transferring to the Duchess Theatre a little over three years later on Monday 10 May 1965 where it completed a total of 2,035 performances in just under five years. History then repeated itself when Camoletti's farce Don't Dress For Dinner opened at the Apollo Theatre on Tuesday 26 March 1991 before transferring to the Duchess Theatre 19 months later on Monday 26 October 1992 where it completed a run of just under six years. In contrast AR Gurney's 1995 play Sylvia, about a dog, which had had a successful run of 167 performances in New York, opened here on 20 May 1996 and promptly closed two weeks later despite starring Zoe Wannamaker as the dog - proving once again that a hit in New York doesn't always translate into a hit in London. And the 1950 hit Seagulls Over Sorrento? It's New York production managed a run of just two weeks - proving the reverse is very true too!
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