Looking almost impossibly wedged in between the road and Charing Cross Station stands the Playhouse Theatre. Originally opened as the Royal Avenue Theatre on Saturday 11 March 1882 as a home to light comic opera, legend has it that the site of the theatre was initially bought 'speculatively' by Sefton Parry who believed that the owners of the adjacent Charing Cross Railway Station would need to buy the land to enlarge the Station, they didn't, and thus the theatre remained. The 'Royal' suffix was dropped fairly quickly so it became known simply at the Avenue Theatre.
This theatre was designed by the architects Fowler and Hill and the week before the official opening the Illustrated London News visited, sending back the following report: "This new theatre is situated at the bottom of Northumberland Avenue, its front extending 160ft. from Craven Street to Thames Embankment, and forming a bold curve, at two thirds that length from above, facing towards Westminster Bridge. The back of the theatre is close against Charing Cross Railway Station. The elevation, of corn grit stone, is in the French Renaissance style, with some ornamental carving, and a number of statues, including Shakespeare, between Comedy and Tragedy, over the principal entrance: the sculptor is Mr Flows, of Brixton. The principal entrance to the dress circle and stalls is on the curve of the front; to the right of this, as you face the building, are the pit and gallery entrances, on the Victoria Embankment; while to the left, in the direction of Craven Street, are windows, and a private entrance to the Prince of Wales's box, and the stage entrance is in Craven Street. The dressing-rooms are under the auditorium, in the basement, which has been carried down 40ft. The main floor of the house is fire-proof, as well as the staircases, corridors, and saloons; and the passages, staircases, and exits have been arranged strictly in accordance with the latest regulations and by-laws of the Metropolitan Board of Works. The architects of the theatre are Messrs. Fowler and Hill, of Sergeants' Inn. The internal decorations, of French character, are in carton-pierre, by Mr Boekbinder; their colour ivory and gold. Around the ceiling are medallion portraits of famous dramatic poets of all nations. The lighting is by a handsome glass chandelier in the middle of the house. The drapery, curtains and seats, are of red damask."
In December 1905 the Avenue Theatre was internally remodelled under the guidance of the architects Detmar Blow and Fernand Billerey in preparation for reopening in January 1906. Unfortunately tragedy struck in the afternoon of Tuesday 5 December 1905 when, at the adjacent Charing Cross Station the large iron-and-glass arched roof over the station and platforms was in the middle of extensive maintenance when, as the official accident report stated: "Shortly after 3.30pm, a loud noise was heard in the rook, and it was noticed that one of the tie rods of the main principle had broken, and was hanging downwards. No apprehension was caused in the minds of the observers of anything more serious than the possible fall of this broken rod. About twelve minutes afterwards, two complete bays of the roof, together with the large wind screen at the river end of the station, collapsed. That part of the western station wall above the platform level, which carried the bays in question, was thrust outward by the falling roof, overturned, and crashed bodily through the adjoining wall and roof of the Avenue Theatre. The theatre was in course of reconstruction at the time, and a large number of men were engaged on the work." In total six men lost their lives: Ernest Birch, Willie Adams Coates, William Blackwell, Alfred T F Jones, George Austen and Thomas Richards and the inquest recorded 'accidental death'.
Compensation received from the Railway enabled the theatre to be internally completely rebuilt rather than just remodelled. This included raising the main auditorium by just under 5ft to provide a better and more extensive basement area - effectively the only thing left from the 1882 building was the external walls. The theatre, now renamed the Playhouse Theatre, finally opened on Monday 28 January 1907 with a transfer from the Wyndham's Theatre of Clyde Fitch's comedy Toddles starring Cyril Maude in the title role. The production had already enjoyed a good run having originally opened at the Duke of York's Theatre on Monday 3 September 1906, but still managed to run for another five months at the Playhouse before closing on Saturday 22 June 1907.
The Guardian highlighted that in this new theatre "there is no pit, and the sweep of unusually well-arranged stalls right back to three wide doors of glass and mahogany (not great sheets of glass, but pleasant little panes) is spacious, and gives a particularly comfortable look to the whole theatre. The stalls are not of the usual and rather dull pattern, but are deep little cane-seated armchairs, made in a very pretty pattern of mahogany and cane work, with loose cushions. The dress circle is not enclosed by the ordinary heavy parapet covered with bulgy mouldings and sprouting brackets for lights. Instead it has an open gilded railing with two tall 'Empire' lamp-posts on either side. It is a pity that the colour scheme is not altogether successful. It is supposed to be light brown with dark brown curtains and panels of old gold brocade. But the light brown turns out a rather uninteresting saffrony pink, which 'kills' the curtains and panels. It may be due partly to the queer tint of the electric lights; a tint of 'deep champagne' as one of to-day's visitors put it. The paintings on the wall and ceiling, by MM. Henri Brimond and Maurice Tastemain, have just the right lightness of touch and spirit, but those on the wall are so large as to be almost sprawling. The big figures supporting the upper box on each side of the house are distinctly sprawling. The general impression which the interior conveys is that there many ideas in it, but that they have not quite shaped into a unity. The exterior calls for no comment, for it is in the main very much what the Avenue Theatre was, which the Playhouse replaces, except that the old line of statues round the roof has been chastened into a line of vases."
Notable productions here include the West End premiere of Somerset Maugham's play Home and Beauty starring Gladys Cooper and Charles Hawtrey which opened on Saturday 30 August 1919 and enjoyed a seven moth run up to Saturday 20 March 1920. Alec Guinness made his stage debut aged 20 in an uncredited 'walk-on' part in Ward Dorane's courtroom drama Libel which opened here on Monday 2 April 1934. Ward Dorane was actually the pen name of the barrister Edward Wooll of Inner Temple. The play was a success, running for eight months before closing on Saturday 17 November 1934 having transferred to the Aldwych Theatre on Monday 10 August 1934. Other productions at this theatre mostly comprised of short runs of plays, comedies or revue, though Wallace Geoffrey and Basil Mitchell's comedy The Perfect Woman starring Sonny Hale, which opened here on Saturday 11 September 1948, enjoyed a six month run up to Saturday 24 March 1949. The theatre was then taken over by the BBC as a radio studio from 1951 to 1975. During this time radio programmes that were recorded here with live studio audiences included Hancock's Half Hour, The Goon Show, Steptoe and Son as well as panel games and pop music programme with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and others making radio broadcasts from the stage here.
During the five years after the BBC stopped using it, a number of owners and managements considered various possibilities of using the Playhouse, including converting it into a 'theatre restaurant', but nothing materialised, usually because it was reckoned it was either too small to be profitable or else too far off the beaten tracks of the 'West End'. But then in early l98l property developer Robin Gonshaw drove past the boarded-up building: "I saw the 'For Sale' board, got a key and fell totally in love with the place, even though it was in a state of terrible disrepair. I'm not a theatre man, though my sister and daughter are actresses and my wife and I have always loved going to plays. But as soon as I saw the Playhouse I knew that I wanted to get it back to being a live theatre again, and I began to think about how that might be achieved. The asking price was £700,000 cash, and I knew that we'd need about another million to get it into working order, so the first thing I thought about was the New York system of 'air rights', whereby you make use of the space above a building to help pay for it."
The result was a whole new floor was added for offices and apartments that could be sold - visually from the outside the complete 'third' floor band, added to match the original - and the benefit of this was that the theatre could be renovated so that, after a gap of some 40 years, legitimate theatre could return once again to the stage of the Playhouse. The opening production was Howard Goodhall's musical The Girl Friends starring Hazel O'Connor which previewed from Wednesday 7 October 1987 and opened on Friday 16 October 1987, but closed the following month on Saturday 21 November 1987. Since then the Playhouse has played host to a varied range of theatrical productions and entertainments, though none have run for any notable length of time. Perhaps the most notable production to have played here in recent years is the original production of The Woman in Black which played here for seven weeks before the production transferred to its current home, the Fortune Theatre where it continues to play.
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