Current Show: The am-dram comedy The Play That Goes Wrong.
The Duchess Theatre was built on a site in Catherine Street that had remained vacant for a number of years, partly due to the problems of building anything substantial on the site due to the buildings on all three sides claiming 'Ancient Lights' for their windows that opened out on to the vacant site. 'Ancient Lights' is a 'right to light' which means that the owner of a building with windows that have received natural daylight for 20 years or more is entitled to forbid any building or other obstruction that would block out the natural daylight though those windows. At the end of the 1920s the Architect Ewen Barr, with the backing of the theatre impresario Arthur Gibbons, was able to finally draw up plans for a theatre that would be allowed to build on the vacant site, and thus The Duchess Theatre finally opened on Monday 25 November 1929 when The Times explained: "The site on which the theatre stands has been vacant for over 20 years, although schemes for a theatre there have been often proposed. No one, however, cared to face the risk, with ominous signs fixed on three sides of the site worded 'Ancient Lights.' The difficulties, however, have been overcome by the present management. The theatre has been designed with two levels, and there is no theatre in London with both levels approached by fewer steps than the Duchess. The exterior of the of the theatre may be termed modern Gothic, a pleasing feature being the three projecting bays with enamelled panels under the windows and the delicate blue and silver canopy. Owing to the difficulty caused by the 'Ancient Lights', the circle had to be built narrower than the stalls."
The opening production was Hubert Griffith's war play Tunnel Trench. Set during the Great War on the eve and first day of the final British advance in September 1918, the play was set on the front line, in a Flying Corps mess and in an Army Corps Headquarters chateau. The play only managed a run of two weeks - no doubt not helped by the fact that RC Sherriff's war play Journey's End, which had opened in January that year, was still playing. Tunnel Trench was, though, adapted for television in 1963 and shown on ITV as part of the 'Play of the Week' series.
The following year, 1930, was taken up by a quick succession of various short runs of plays including revivals of Laurence Irving's English adaptation of Melchior Lengyel's Typhoon and Jack Celestin and Jack de Leon's The Man at Six as well as Cecil Madden and X Y Stone's Through the Veil and, most infamously, a very under-rehearsed version of The Intimate Revue which opened, without playing any public previews, on Tuesday 11 March 1930 - and closed the same night. Featuring songs and sketches by Henry Smalley, Rowland Thomas, Philip Seeley and music by Fred Elizalde the Daily Mirror said: "Revues, it has been wittily said, are not produced; they are postponed. But The Intimate Revue, at the Duchess Theatre, has created a record by being produced first and postponed afterwards. The first-night audience found the revue in such a ludicrous state of unpreparedness that they could not forbear to laugh at the poor artists struggling against their fate. Dozens of people walked out before the show was over. The theatre has been immediately closed and will remain so till The Intimate Revue has been adequately rehearsed." And re-open it did, some 18 days later on Saturday 29 March 1930 under the title The 2 Intimate Revue with additional material by D A Clarke-Smith, Harold Simpson, Arthur Rigby and William Pollock with The Times newspaper saying that "the amusing hitches which varied the monotony of the first performance did not conceal the thinness of the humour and the lameness of the invention. To withdraw the piece in deference to criticism only to give the same material decent production was to miss the point. In its new form The Intimate Revue is not spectacular, and it cannot be called witty or clever." This time though at least it managed to stay open... before closing two weeks later on 12 April 1930.
Christa Winsloe's play Children in Uniform, adapted from the original German Mädchen in Uniform by Barbara Burnham opened on 7 October 1932. Set in a German boarding school for girls, the lesbian aspect of the story was downplayed as an adolescent crush between one of the girls and her teacher. The all-female cast included Jessica Tandy and the production run for a well-received run of 265 performances.
JB Priestly's Laburmum Grove had it's London premiere here on 28 November 1933. Transferring to the Queen's Theatre, it enjoyed a run of just over 330 performances and Priestly joined the Duchess Theatres' management and a number of his plays went on to be staged here over the following years including Eden End with Ralph Richardson in 1934; Cornelius again with Ralph Richardson in 1935; Spring Tide (under the nom-de-plume Peter Goldsmith, written by George Billam) in 1936; Time and the Conways in 1937; The Linden Tree with Dame Sybil Thorndike in 1947; and a revival of Eden End in 1948. Other notable productions during this time included Emlyn Williams' Night Must Fall which opened on 31 May 1935 starring the author along with May Whitty. The production run for 435 performances and Dame May Whitty reprised her role in the 1937 movie adaptation. In October 1935 TS Elliot's Murder in the Cathedral transferred here following a long run at the Mercury Theatre in Ladbrooke Road, Notting Hill, West London.
In the summer of 1934 the wife of JB Priestly, Jane 'Mary' Wyndham-Lewis, oversaw the redecoration of the theatre which included the construction of an orchestra pit of sufficient size to accommodate 20 musicians. Of the new decoration The Times newspaper said: "A remarkably successful scheme of lighting and decoration has been carried out under the general supervision of the wife of the dramatist. Mrs Priestly has proceeded on the sound principle that the object of theatre decoration is not to attract attention to itself, but to induce in the audience a mood favourable to enjoyment of the play, and she is to be congratulated on the result. It is at the same time warm, sober, and comforting... For more active entertainment to the eye, Mr Maurice Lambert, the sculptor, has designed and executed in moulded and gilded plaster two low-relief panels in shallow segmental niches on the splays of the proscenium. With only 3in. of total relief, he has produced an interesting progression of light and shadow - the subjects being figures holding conventional masks, with applauding hands below. The effect is particularly good when the house lights are down and the panels are illuminated by spotlights from above exactly registering on their areas... In the corridors and staircases there are illuminated glass cases for the display of small works of art from various galleries, which will be changed from time to time." The theatre remains much the same today, except for minor maintenance and decoration.
Long running productions at this theatre have always generally been transfers from other (larger) theatres: Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit transferred here on Tuesday 6 October 1942 from the St James Theatre (having transferred from the Piccadilly Theatre where it had opened on 2 July 1941) with the production becoming the longest running 'legitimate' (ie non-musical) stage play at the time with 1,997 performances; Marc Camoletti's farce Boeing Boeing transferred here on Monday 10 May 1965 from the Apollo Theatre, completing a total of 2,035 performances in just under five years, before finally closing on Saturday 7 January 1967; Kenneth Tynan's controversial revue Oh! Calcutta! transferred here on 28 January 1974 from the Royalty Theatre (having originally opened at the Roundhouse on 27 July 1970) and completed a total run of 3,918 performances by the time it closed on Saturday 2 February 1980; Ray Cooney's Run For Your Wife, which had originally opened at the Shaftesbury Theatre in March 1983, transferred here in September 1990 where it played the last 14 months of it's near nine year West End run of 3,535 performances; another Marc Camoletti's farce, Don't Dress For Dinner, transferred here again from the Apollo Theatre on Monday 26 October 1992, completing a run of just under six years when it closed on Saturday 1 March 1997. The exception to this was Tom Eyen's revue The Dirtiest Show in Town which opened here at the Duchess Theatre on 11 May 1971 and continued for just under 800 performances before it closed here on Saturday 31 March 1973.