Queen's Theatre, London

Current show: Les Miserables

The Queen's Theatre was designed by the architect WGR Sprague for Seymour Hicks and John E Vedrenne as a twin to the Gielgud Theatre (originally called Hicks Theatre) on the opposite corner of the same block on Shaftesbury Avenue which he had already designed some nine months previous. Prior to opening the theatre was described thus: "Having frontages on Shaftesbury Avenue, Wardour Street, and the street behind, it is well provided with entrances and exits. White and green are the prevailing colours in stairs and passages, and in the body of the house green and ream-colour, with lavish use of gilding in all parts. The stalls and dress circle are comfortably furnished with mahogany arm-chairs, cushioned in green, with a large pocket attached to the back of each seat which will probably be found more convenient for taking crush hats and other things than the ledges which are now in favour. The dress circle is unusually deep, and the whole house seems likely to prove comfortable, airy, and easy to move about in. The large bronze chandelier hanging from the ceiling and the standard lamps in the hall are of good design, and the saloon has an alcove looking over the street." The theatre was originally going to be called the Central Theatre but after so many people objected it was decided, a month before opening, to name it 'The Queen's Theatre' in honour of King Edward VII's wife Queen Alexandra.

At the time some people thought that London actually already had enough theatres, but J E Vedrenne explained: "My reason for embarking on this latest enterprise was on account of the fine situation of the Queen's Theatre. I think Aldwych and Kingsway just too far east. The Queen's is right in the centre of theatreland, and in as good a position as possible. I am strongly of the opinion that several of the theatres in London will have to go. There is no need for them. Some of the older houses will probably be done away with. The West End houses - quite apart from music-halls - are capable of seating about 50,000 persons. Thus, if they were all open at once you would need an immense playgoing public. The playgoing public is however, certainly increasing, and it is leaving the suburbs to come to the centre of the town. The decline of the suburban theatres is due to some extent to the great improvements in travelling, making access to the West End comfortable and quick. Thousands of people now come into West End houses whom it was impossible to get before. But if we do not want any more theatres we can certainly do with some more good plays. Good plays are difficult to get." Unfortunately Vedrenne's words turned out to be rather too prophetical for this new theatre - the opening production on Tuesday 8 October 1907 was a new comedy in four acts by Madeleine Lucette Ryley called The Sugar Bowl which garnered disappointing notices from the newspapers and promptly closed after just 35 performances.

Following the declaration of War by the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain on 3 September 1939 all theatres were initially closed by law. Later on they were allowed to open subject to certain restrictions such as only having early evening performances. It was during this time that George Devine's production of Daphne du Maurier's play Rebecca opened here at the Queen's Theatre on Friday 5 April 1940 with a cast that featured Celia Johnson, Margaret Rutherford and Owen Nares. The play enjoyed a successful run before closing on Saturday 7 September 1940. But then barely two weeks later disaster struck. On 24 September 1940, a couple of weeks into the London Blitz, two high explosive bombs hit the corner of Shaftesbury Avenue and Wardour Street, destroying the entire front of theatre along with part of the rear stalls. Unsafe for public performances, it was originally used for rehearsals and then for storage. It wasn't until the late 1950s when work finally started to renovate the theatre back to public use.

Regarding this renovation, the architectal historian Trystan Edwards, a Fellow of the RIBA, said: "The auditorium of this theatre, though partly exposed to the elements, was largely undamaged. When considering rebuilding it was clear that this existing work could not be scrapped and any new design must accept this as an underlying factor. Such being the case, the architects decided to exploit the Edwardian decoration of the original building and even to heighten the sense of make-believe; they banished the coffee-coloured paintwork, had moulds taken of the existing cupids and floral decoration and generally increased its scope and effectiveness. Everywhere the decoration was gilded with a white background, except on the ceiling, where vermillion and black areas were added greatly to the decorative effect. Suspended from this ceiling is a large chandelier built round a metal framework of elliptical shape, with moulded decoration of fruit and flowers and surmounted by a lacquered brass ball with brass ferrule wires festooned down. The boxes on either side of the proscenium opening have been cut back in order to improve the general view line."

The most controversial aspect of the renovation, as Edwards admitted, was the treatment of the front-of-house area facing onto Shaftesbury Avenue: "When considering the front of the theatre, naturally there were many discussions as to whether it should be done in a contemporary fashion or whether the Edwardian decor of the auditorium should be continued. The architects felt strongly that they should not adopt a conscious style, but should seek to use the materials and methods of their own day to the best possible advantage to secure the special atmosphere proper to such a building, bearing in mind that, above all, it should not be dull. So far as planning is concerned; the clients emphasised strongly that a large proportion of the takings of a theatre comes from the bars and that they should not only be attractive and well laid out, but should be clearly visible to patrons entering the theatre. On entry from the street, one notices that the front part of the foyer is purposely kept low, with subdued colouring, thick carpet, and strongly absorbent acoustic ceiling. The architects have used this zone of comparative silence and subdued light purposely to make a break with the bright lights and noise of Shaftesbury Avenue on one side and the sparkle of the chandelier decorating the staircase well on the other."

There are decorative wall hangings by John Drummond, the black sculptured column casings were designed by Eric Peskett and the ribboned metal chandelier by John McCarthy while the bronze push-plates on the front doors which incorporate masks are designed by Z. Bieniawski. The renovation was overseen by the architects Bryan Westwood and Noel Brandon-Jones for Westwood Sons and Partners while Sir Hugh Casson collaborated with the architects as consultant for the interiors for the stalls and dress circle bars and foyer. The theatre re-opened on Wednesday 8 July 1959 with The Ages of Man starring Sir John Gielgud in a solo programme based on George Ryland's Shakespeare anthology which enjoyed a well recieved four week season up to Saturday 1 August 1959.

Some of the notable productions here at the Queen's Theatre have been the Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley musical Stop the World - I Want To Get Off!, starring Anthony Newley, which opened here on Thursday 20 July 1961 and enjoyed a 485 performance run before closing om Saturday 17 November 1962 (it played seven performances-a-week with no mid-week matinee). 1966 saw Noel Coward make his final stage appearance in a trilogy of his plays that played in repertory under the title Suite in Three Keys. A Song at Twilight opened on Thursday 14 April 1966 and then played alternately with the double-bill Shadows of the Evening and Come into the Garden Maud which opend on Monday 25 April 1966. Described as 'variations on the theme of middle-age' the three plays, which were all directed by Vivian Matalon, starred Noel Coward along with Irene Worth, Lilli Palmer and Sean Barlett and enjoyed a three month run, closing on Saturday 30 July 1966.

Six years husband and wife Robert Stephens and Maggie Smith starred alongside each other as the divorced couple 'Elyot' and 'Amanda' in a revival of Noel Coward's Private Lives directed by Sir John Gielgud. The production opened on Thursday 21 September 1972 when Maggie Smith said: "Noel Coward is not easy to play, though some people seem to think it is. I find myself forgetting the next line sometimes. You look at the other actor and think - 'What on earth comes now?' - and that can be terrifying. It isn't like Shakespeare, where sometimes you can forget about the play and compose shopping lists or something in your head while everything goes on around you." It was during the run that Noel Coward died on Monday 26 March 1973 and that evening all the lights outside the Queen's Theatre were turned off as a mark of respect. Maggie Smith, who was going to say a few words at the end of that evening's performances, changed her mind, saying afterwards: "I thought about it, but decided no words could adequately describe how we all loved him." John Standing took over as 'Elyot' in April 1973 and the production continued here up to 30 June 1973 when it transferred next door to the Gielgud Theatre from Monday 2 July 1973. Jill Bennett took over as 'Amanda' at the end of July 1973 and the production finally closed on Saturday 26 January 1974.

In 1999 theatre producer Sir Cameron Mackintosh's company Delfont Mackintosh Theatres bought the freehold of the Queen's Theatre and the Gielgud Theatre and in 2003 he announced plans to completely refurbish and re-model both theatres and include a new 500 seat studio theatre to be called The Sondheim Theatre, in honour of the American musical theatre writer Stephen Sondheim. The plan was to provide a shared foyer fronting onto Shaftesbury Avenue and to be located between both existing theatres. The Stalls and Dress Circle of the Queen's Theatre would be extended while the Upper Circle would be removed to make way for the new Sondheim Theatre at the top of the building. Designed by Renton, Howard, Wood and Levin Architects (RHWL), the frontage of the Queens Theatre would have been demolished and replaced by a facade matched from the original to mirror the Gielgud Theatre, with the new Sondheim Theatre located on the roof of the Queen's Theatre behind the restored and re-created Edwardian facade. Unfortunately, despite a blaze of publicity, including a display at the Victoria and Albert Theatre Museum, the scheme was quietly dropped a few years later. The long running musical Les Miserables transferred to the Queen's Theatre on 3 April 2004 from its previous home, the Palace Theatre, a couple of hundred metres up Shaftesbury Avenue, and the musical continues to play here today.

List of shows currently playing in London's West End

Architect: W G R Sprague
Opened: 8 October 1907
Listed: Grade II
Seats: 979 on 3 levels
Queen's Theatre show archive
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Current Show:


Les Miserables

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