Originally named the Royal Comedy Theatre when it opened in 1881, it was shortened a couple of years later to the Comedy Theatre. In September 2011 it was announced that the Comedy Theatre would be named The Harold Pinter Theatre in honour of the playwright. The first production at the newly renamed Harold Pinter Theatre was a revival of Ariel Dorfman's Death and the Maiden which began public previews from 13 October 2011.
Unfortunately a traditonal problem with London's theatres has been that they tended to burn down (with the fires caused accidently, not intentionally, it should be noted - just in case you where wondering!) Due to this, in the early 1880s, the Metropolition Board of Works in London introduced new by-laws with regard to precautions against fire in theatres, and The Royal Comedy Theatre in London, as this theatre was originally named, was one of the very first to be built under these new laws when it opened on 15 October 1881.
Precautions against fire where especially needed at this time because, although The Royal Comedy Theatre was originally going to be lit by means of electricity - still a very new thing back in the 1880s - the theatre ended up being lighted by a large gas 'sun burner' located in the centre of the roof.
When the theatre opened it was especially noted that "the new by-laws of the Metropolitan Board of Works with regard to precautions against fire have been carefully observed."
The Royal Comedy Theatre was designed by the architect Thomas Verity with seating on four levels accommodating some 1,180 people, which included 300 in the Gallery at the top of the theatre and 400 in the Pit located at the rear of the Stalls seating on the lowest level. Today, although all four levels are still in use, the replacement of benches in the Pit and Gallery with tip-up seats means that the theatre's capacity has now been reduced to just under 800 seats.
The Royal Comedy Theatre was designed as a home to 'comic opera' - hence the theatre's name - and the opening performance of La Mascotte was fittingly for a theatre named 'Royal', was attended by the Prince and Princess of Wales. Unfortuntely, and perhaps indicating how haphazard things sometimes where in the 1880s, it seems that the first theatre owner did not actually have Royal permission, or 'warrant', to prefix the theatre's name with 'Royal', and thus prefix was dropped, and in 1884 the theatre became known simply as The Comedy Theatre, a name which it retains down to this day.
When the theatre opened it was described at the time as being "roomy and confortable, and the decoration, without pretensions to artistic beauty, is elegant and appropriate."
Since opening The Comedy Theatre has being redecorated, refurbished and even partially reconstructed on a number of occassions, most notably in the 1950s when the theatre was expanded at the rear with new dressing rooms and stage door. Despite this reconstruction the theatre's frontage (except for the iron canopy) and the actual auditorium layout (except for the actual seating arrangements) remain, more or less, as they where in the 1880s.
The presentation of Comic Opera at The Comedy Theatre lasted for only a few years before 'legit' drama took over as the theatre's mainstay, interspersed with light comedy musicals.
A notable success from the theatre's early years was Monsieur Beaucaire which enjoyed a successful run of 430 performances in 1902 since when the theatre has presented numerous productions, including plays and revues - some, in their day, proving to be very successful.
Interestingly the actress Marie Tempest made her West End debut here in 1895 in Boccaccio as did a young John Barrymore in 1905 in The Dictator.
Nowadays The Comedy Theatre is best known to those with an interest in British theatre as being 'the theatre that overturned stage censorship.' That might be a bit of an exaggaration, but events at The Comedy Theatre during the 1950s certainly helped to bring stage censorship to an end.
Up until 1968 the Lord Chamberlain had the right to ban (or edit) any play to be presented on the public stage if the language or subject matter was deemed to be unsuitable. This lead to the formation of a number of 'Theatre Clubs', private membership clubs, who could present plays without being censored. One of the most famous 'Theatre Clubs' was The New Watergate Club which was formed in October 1956 and was based at The Comedy Theatre. Members paid five shillings - a nominal sum for club membership after which - allowing for a lapse of 48 hours - they could buy tickets to see previously 'banned' plays.
Thus, under such 'club conditions', The Comedy Theatre in London presented, over the following three years, productions of plays such as Arthur Miller's A View From The Bridge, Robert Anderson's Tea and Sympathy and Tennessee Williams' Cat On A Hot Tin Roof.
Due to both the ease of the public being able to see these previously 'banned' plays in London's West End, along with changing public attitudes, stage censorship was relaxed and the need for private membership theatre clubs such as The New Watergate Club had passed (although it should be noted that stage censorship was not completely ended until 1968). The relaxation of the censorship rules meant that The Comedy Theatre could then present, under normal commercial conditions, Peter Shaffer's controversial play Five Finger Exercise - a play which went on to enjoy a run of two years.
It was during the late 1950s that the celebrated actress Maggie Smith made her West End stage debut in Share my Lettuce. More recent productions include Peter Nichols' A Day in the Death of Joe Egg in 1967 which, incidently returned here in 2002 in a revival production. The award winning comedy Steaming in 1980 and the award winning musical Little Shop of Horrors in 1983.
Architect: Thomas Verity
Opened: 15 October 1881
Listed: Grade II
Seats: 796 on 4 levels
Harold Pinter Theatre Show Archive
From 18 Nov to 18 Dec 2021
From 4 to 22 January 2022
From 3 February to 12 March 2022
From 15 April to 18 June 2022
From 29 June to 10 September 2022