Prince of Wales Theatre, London

Current show: The multi-awarding winning hit musical Book of Mormon about two Mormon missionaries who are sent to Uganda to 'spread the word'.

The first theatre on this site, called the Prince's Theatre and designed by the architect C J Phipps, was opened in January 1884 but was demolished just 53 years later, shortly after the 397 performance of the revue Encore Les Dames on Saturday 16 January 1937. Building work on the new theatre, to be called the Prince of Wales Theatre, was soon under way and on Thursday 17 June 1937 the foundation stone of the current theatre was laid by Gracie Fields. She returned just four months later on Wednesday 27 October 1937 to, in a very brief 'pre-show' appearance, officially declare the theatre open. The first production was the 'non-stop' revue Les Folies de Paris et Londres which featured sketches by Ronald Jeans and Laurel Wylie along with music and lyrics by Leslie Julian Jones. The cast featured Sylvia Cecil, Peter Haddon and Bernard Clifton along with the American actors Collette Lyons and Eddie Foy Jr.

When it opened the Times newspaper highlighted how, "architecturally the new building is a considerable tour de force, for on an awkward shaped site the seating accommodation has been doubled, notwithstanding that the stalls has also been enlarged. There is a single circle above the stalls, thrust far forward towards the stage, and the auditorium is of remarkable breadth, 84ft. in place of the former 43ft. This has been achieved at the expense of the occupants of the outside stalls, for whom a clear view of comings and goings in the wings, and sometimes directly into the dazzling eye of a limelight, is small compensation for the stiffness of neck acquired by gazing at a narrowly oblique angle along the lines of the chorus. Apart from this, the theatre is comfortable to the eye and to the body, with an unexpected air of spaciousness, gentle colouring in shades of brown, and a soothing system of reflected light."

Unfortunately the opening in October 1937 was marred by a dispute between the theatre's manager, Alfred Esdaile, and the Musicians Union over terms offered to the orchestra. A union official said: "There may be no dispute between Mr Esdaile and his musicians about money, but there is a dispute between him and the Union. We have never asked him to employ only union men or to replace non-union musicians. What we have asked for is that the union terms for the orchestra shall be observed," adding that "the Prince of Wales Theatre is the only theatre I know of in the West End which is not observing union wages and conditions." Due to the dispute, the opening was picketed by union members handing out leaflets demanding "A West End wage for a West End theatre!" While inside the theatre, barely 20 minutes into the revue, a young man run onto the stage shouting "Ladies and gentleman! Why doesn't this theatre pay trade union rates?" The man was bundled out of the theatre and the show continued. The dispute continued but was finally settled in early February 1938 with the intervention of Mr J M Wall, of the London Trades Council who said in a statement: "I have intervened on behalf of both parties, and have arrived at a satisfactory settlement. The terms of the settlement are that all musicians employed at the theatre shall be member of the Musicians' Union; in the event of the management's desiring to engage a musician not a member of the union, the union will undertake not unreasonably to refuse to admit such a musician to the membership of the union, in accordance with the rules. It was also agreed that, in the event of any circumstances arising that would necessitate a variation of the agreement, the parties agree to negotiate, and if they fail to agree to refer any such differences to an indepentent arbitrator agreed by both parties."

This theatre was built primarily to house variety entertainments along with the the new 'non-stop' style of revue that was becoming fashionable at the time. In the non-stop revue setup the actual show itself would be a complete and elaborate one, with up to a hundred performers in the cast, and would run for around two-and-a-half hours. But, actually, the revue would play continuously 'non-stop' from 2.00pm through to 11.00pm! This theatre, right in the heart of London's West End, was well situated to attract the 'casual theatregoer' who, rather than being tied to a fixed start time, could just turn up when they wanted, but still be able to see the entire show. The costs of production for these type of revue were high for the time due to the number of artists employed; the fact that rehearsals often lasted between six or seven weeks instead of the normal four weeks needed for a ordinary comedy; and the fact that, as the entertainments were normally 'international' in character, costs for performers had to be paid from New York, Paris, Vienna, and Budapest. The running expenses, once the entertainment was launched, were about 1,500-a-week (90,000 in today's values), as compared with 700 or 800 (40,000 to 45,000) that many ordinary non-spectacular plays would require. Although prices were kept moderate with the majority of the best seats in the house sold for 8s. 6d. (25.00) and went down to as low as 2s. 6d. (8.00), the box-office receipts could, with a successful show, be high. If the house was filled one and a quarter times over a day (and with three shows a day this was very possible with a good show) the box-office gets 600-a-day (35,000) or 3,600-a-week (210,000) - hence the attraction of producing revues, especially at a theatre as well located next to the bright lights of Leicester Square.

Some of the notable production ans shows to be presented here included Noel Gay's musical comedy Present Arms starring Max Wall, Evelyn Dall, George Gee and Billy Bennett which opened on Monday 13 May 1940 and played 'twice nightly' until it closed on Saturday 31 August 1940. That Christmas this theatre was one of three in London to premiere the Charlie Chaplin film The Great Dictator which opened here on Monday 16 December 1940 for a two months season after which live revue returned again. Mae West made her West End debut here on Saturday 24 January 1948 in Diamond Lil, with a 'cast of fifty', for a season up to Saturday 8 May 1948 as part of a European tour.

Mary Chase's comedy Harvey opened on Wednesday 5 January 1949 starring Sid Field as 'Elwood P Dowd'. Unfortunately during the run, after he had returned from performing at the theatre, Sid Field died of a heart attack aged 45 early on Friday morning 3 February 1950. The show went on with his understudy that evening, but as one audience member said: 'there wasn't just one invisible character on stage, there were two.' Leslie Henson took over the role and the production continued here up to Saturday 11 March 1950 when it then transferred to Piccadilly Theatre from Tuesday 14 March 1950 before finally closing after 610 performances on 1 July 1950. Richard Mason's The World of Suzie Wong starring Tsai Chin as 'Suzie Wong' and Gary Raymond as 'Robert Lomax' opened on Tuesday 17 November 1959 and enjoyed a good 21 month run before closing on Saturday 5 August 1961. (Interestingly the movie version, starring Nancy Kwan and William Holden, premiered at London's Plaza Cinema during the stage run on Wednesday 14 December 1960).

The 1963 Royal Variety Show took place here on Monday 4 November in the presence of the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret. The line-up included The Beatles and it was during their three song set that, whne introducing their final song 'Twist and Shout', John Lennon famously told the audience: "For this last song I'd like to ask your help. Will the people in the cheaper seats clap their hands, and rest of you, if you'll just rattle your jewellery." Barbra Streisand starred in the musical Funny Girl which opened on Wednesday 13 April 1966 and run for a limited three month season up to Saturday 16 July 1966 while the following year on Wednesday 11 October 1967 the musical Sweet Charity opened here starring Juliet Prowse in the title role. Gretchen Wyler took over the role from Monday 29 April 1968 before the production finally closed after a 13 month run on Saturday 30 November 1968. Mary Chase's comedy Harvey was revived here on Wednesday 9 April 1975, now starring James Stewart, the production run for six months up to Saturday 27 September 1975. Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Aspects of Love opened here 17 April 1989 and run for 1,325 performances and becoming at the time the Prince of Wales Theatre longest running production before closing on Saturday 20 June 1992. Michael Ball and Ann Crumb starred in the original cast as 'Alex' and 'Rose', while Sarah Brightman took over the role of 'Rose' towards the end of the run.

Danny la Rue, who had starred in a number of revues here at the Prince of Wales Theatre, returned in 1984 in the title role of the Jerry Herman musical Hello Dolly! along with Lionel Jeffries and Lorna Dallas. It opened on Tuesday 3 January 1984 but with Danny La Rue playing the role 'straight' rather than for comedy with his famous ad-libs, the audience was confused. Nicholas de Jongh writing in the Guardian said that: "Danny La Rue had a shot at being a woman last night and missed. But a passing show, named as the famous 20-year-old American musical, Hello Dolly!, was critically injured in the incident." Before the show closed after a four month season on Saturday 21 April 1984, the 100th performance on Tuesday 20 March 1984 was marked by Danny La Rue being taken by surprise during the closing curtain call when TV presenter and host Eamonn Andrews appeared on stage holding the famous big red book and proclaiming 'This is Your Life!" The actual TV show was recorded that evening at the Peacock Theatre and finished programme was broadcast as an hour long special on ITV on Wednesday 18 April 1984.

Barry Manilow's stage musical Copacabana, based on his hit song of the same name enjoyed a 14 month run here during 1994 and 1995, in a production that starred Gary Wilmot, with Darren Day taking over during the run. Prior to the transfer in June 2004 of the hit musical Mammia Mia! from nearby Prince Edward Theatre, the Prince of Wales Theatre was extensively refurbished by the architectural practice RHWL. The extensive works included the adding of an extra row of seats to the rear of the circle giving a slight increase in the seating capacity to 1,160. The refurbished theatre hosted Mammia Mia! from 3 June with the theatre being officially re-opened by Prince Charles at a Royal Charity Gala of the musical in aid of The Princes Trust on 10 June 2004. The musical continued to play here for just over eight years - making it this theatre's longest running show - before it closed on Saturday 1 September 2012 and transferred to the Novello Theatre from 6 September 2012.

List of shows currently playing in London's West End

Architect: Robert Cromie
Opened: 27 October 1937
Listed: Grade II
Seats: 1,160 on 2 levels
Prince of Wales Theatre show archive
Street map
Seating plan

Current Show:

The Book of Mormon

Reopens from 15 November 2021