Originally called the Trafalgar Square Theatre, it was built for the acting couple Frank Wyatt and Violet Melnotte in what was at that time - in the 1890s - a slum area. When it opened the Guardian said: "The auditorium is calculated to seat not less than 1,350 persons, and is decorated in the French Renaissance style. There is a spacious entrance hall on the dress circle level, from which the stalls are reached by a wide staircase on each side. The fire question has been carefully considered, and every precaution that experience and ingenuity could suggest has been taken. The building is completely isolated, and there are exits wherever it is possible to put them. The dressing-rooms occupy a separate block, and communicate with the theatre by fireproof passages. All the latest improvements have been adopted in the way of ventilation; the sanitary arrangements are as perfect as practical science can make them; and the house is lighted throughout by electricity, with an alternate system of gas in case of emergencies."
The opening production on Saturday 10 September 1892 was the comic opera The Wedding Eve featuring music by Frederic Toulmouche and lyrics by MM Bisson and Bureau-Jaitiot, adapted into English from the French Le Moutier de Saint-Guignolet / La Veillee de Noces by W Yardley with English lyrics by Frank Latimer. A few years later in September 1895 the name was changed to the Duke of York's Theatre. The theatre was closed at the end of 1940 due to bomb damage from the War, but eventually re-opened in May 1943.
In 1950 the theatre was completely redecorated according to a scheme by Cecil Beaton which was well received with the Times saying that "In the main Mr Beaton has done a job of restoration and conservation rather than of positive redecoration, though he has taken liberties with the original fabric which might not have been justifiable with an interior dating from a more splendid and recognized age of art. He has restored the red plush, the gilding, and the debased rococo ornaments so that they glow and glitter exactly as they must have done to those who came to the theatre in hansom cabs, but here and there he has gilded, no doubt in a mild spirit of irony, the not very refined gold of the original. In the bar an expert in graining of the kind that still adorns a few out of the way public houses has been given a free hand and imitated richer woods than ever grew. In the royal retiring room the principal ornaments, besides sofas upholstered in cloth of gold, are two landscape paintings in glass mirrors obtained from some even more recondite licensed premises. The effect as a whole is funny and sophisticated, but it was well worth doing; for once the theatre has had the courage of its traditions and avoided any imitation of the super-cinema." The theatre was renovated in 1960 and again in 1980 when ownership changed. At this time the gallery (top balcony level) was closed and a sound studio was built in the space while supporting beams were inserted so that some, but not all, the supporting beams for the dress and upper circle, though unfortunately a number of seats still suffer from a restricted view of the stage.
The Duke of York's Theatre is most closely associated with JM Barrie's Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up which opened here on Tuesday 27 December 1904 starring Nina Boucicault as 'Peter Pan', Gerald du Maurier doubling as 'Mr Darling' and 'Captain Hook' and George Shelton as 'Smee'. The production was a huge success, closing on its 150th performance on Saturday 1 April 1905 with the promise that it would return for another Christmas season the following December. And return it did, each Christmas, up to December 1914, after which it was staged at the New Theatre (Noel Coward Theatre) from December 1915. George Shelton continued to play 'Smee' annually for 23 consecutive years until his retirement in 1927.
Other productions staged here include a successful run of Richard Harris's play Stepping Out which run for just under 3 years while Willy Russell's Shirley Valentine enjoyed a run of over 2 years here. Between October 1995 and March 1996 the Royal Court presented Ron Hutchinson's 'Rat in the Skull, Terry Johnson's Hysteria and David Storey's The Changing Room as part of a 'Royal Court Classics' season. This was then followed by a revival of the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Alan Ayckbourn musical, By Jeeves, a musical which had originally been seen in 1975 but which had now been virtually rewritten - it opened on 2 July 1996 and closed on 28 September 1996 when it transferred to the Lyric Theatre. After this the Theatre was taken over by The Royal Court Theatre for the next four years - and was renamed The Royal Court Theatre Downstairs - while their own home in Sloane Square underwent major reconstruction.