The New London Theatre, London
Current show: Nick Stafford's award-winning stage adaptation of Michael Morpurg's War Horse featuring life-sized puppets by the internationally renowned Handspring Puppet Company.
Architect: Paul Tvrtkovic (with Sean Kenny, Chew and Percival)
Previous theatres on this site include the 1851 Middlesex Music Hall, popularly known as the 'Old Mo' due to the 'Old Mogul' publichouse that was situated next door. The music hall was rebuilt in 1911 to designs by Frank Matcham, opening as the New Middlesex Empire on 30 October 1911. The theatre was then closed again and extensively refurbished, reopening as the Winter Garden Theatre on 20 May 1919. The theatre went dark in on 23 January 1960 after a short Christmas season of Alice in Wonderland starring Frankie Howerd. There where plans at the time to rebuild a new theatre incorporating shops and flats, but due to some restrictive convenants on the land these plans never materialised. The Winter Garden was finally demolished in 1965, but not before the architect Paul Tvrtkovic had spotted the theatre in Drury Lane in 1962.
Tvrtkovic, who'd been born and and trained in Croatia, had seen the corner building with its adjacent buildings and while passing time at a coffee bar, he scribbled a sketch of what he thought could be done with the plot incorporating a mixed development of a theatre, shops and private flats. At the time the theatre was owned by the Forte family but, fortunately, Paul had a 'friend-of-a-friend' who knew the Forte's and he was able to show his idea to Charles Forte who gave him the go ahead to try to get planning permission from the local council. Which, with the addition of car parking in the scheme, he did in 1963. Although the Winter Garden Theatre was finally demolished in 1965, building work on the new theatre did not start work until the late 1960's during which time the theatre was sold by Forte to Star (Great Britain) Holdings. Sean Kenny, Chew and Percival were brought on board the architectural team along with Paul Tvrtkovic and they designed an auditorium that had a third of the stalls, stage and orchestra pit on a 60 foot wide revolve and movable wall panels meaning that the venue - which was also expected to accommodate conferences - could be extremely adaptable.
The new theatre finally officially opened on 2 January 1973 by Lord Goodman, former chairman of the Arts Council. Initially it was thought that the original name would be kept, but by time it opened it was decided that such a modern theatre need a new name - hence it was called the New London Theatre.
When it opened it was advertised as being 'A new concept in theatregoing - the New London Centre is a brilliant new entertainment complex in the heart of London's West End, embodying some of the most revolutionary thinking in theatre planning this generation. Combining elegance and comfort with the most advanced technical features, the New London Centre is undoubtedly the most important theatre centre in Europe. This is an entertainment complex of the future. The New London Centre will provide a totally self-contained evening's entertainment, with direct drive-in access from street level into the theatre's own underground car park. From the car park, patrons will be carried by lift to the theatre foyer and from there to the reception and bar areas, with spacious and comfortable surroundings in which to enjoy a leisurely drink. Early in 1973, a luxurious restaurant will open within the complex, providing the best in cuisine and comfort.' The Times described it as being "at least as handsome an exercise in plate glass and boarded concrete as you will find this side of Sheffield and Nottingham. It is commercialism's answer to the regional civic stages; part well-equipped machine (and a rather suspiciously shallow stage), part grand hotel honeycombed with lounges and bars where rubber plants festoon the pebble dash. All this involves rather a lot of walking; but otherwise it is a comfortable place, with an auditorium that promotes attention on the side-angle oval stage."
The first production at this theatre actually took place before it was officially opened - in November 1972 Marlene Dietrich gave a concert which was recorded and subsequently shown on British television. The theatre then opened officially in January 1973 with the play The Unknown Soldier And His Wife which starred Peter Ustinov. In June later that same year the musical Grease opened here, notable for the fact that the then unknown actor Richard Gere played the part of Danny Zuko.
Unfortunately the venue struggled as a legit theatre and from 1977 to 1980 the theatre was used as a television studio and hosted a number of 'light entertainment' programmes including chat shows and various award ceremonies. During this time the 'in-the-round' auditorium was used also used to present a number of sporting events including snooker and table tennis. Live entertainment comprised mostly of various one-off concerts and short seasons of variety style shows which included in August 1997, for example, the then 'cutting edge' of science with the Laser Light Circus. This comprised of a small holography exhibition in the main foyer followed by a 25 minute laser light show in the auditorium accompanied by music. The show was promoted in the evenings by a green laser beam being directed from the roof of the theatre towards, with their agreement, the Houses of Parliament, a mile away.
Although Andrew Lloyd Webber, along with Tim Rice, had used The New London Theatre as the venue to release their new concept recording of Evita in November 1976, it was not until four years - while the theatre was being used as a television studio - that Webber realised the suitability of the theatre for his new musical Cats: "I had been 'kidnapped' to appear on This is Your Life and while the passing parade of long-lost cousins and aunts was going on I took a look around the theatre and realized that it was what we had been looking for. The moment the show was over I abandoned Eamonn Andrews - it must have looked terribly rude - and rushed to the telephone to ring Trevor Nunn, who had been working on Cats with me, to tell him we had our 'space'. We had had a dream of using the Lyceum Theatre, but that had proved too big a task. Not that getting into the New London was particularly easy. The owners were more interested in using it as a conference centre. But the facilities are marvellous. The whole of the centre of the theatre, including parts of the seating, is now on a revolve and John Napier has created a complete cat world for us." Thus on 11 May 1981 the musical Cats opened, with its record-breaking run only finishing on its 21st birthday, 11 May 2002, after an amazing record-breaking 8,949 performances at the New London Theatre. The last performance was broadcast live on a giant screen in Covent Garden.