|The Theatre Royal, Haymarket in 2008. The production is Edward Bond's The Sea.|
|Designation||Grade I listed|
|Owned by||Crown Estate|
|Capacity||888 on 4 levels|
|Type||West End theatre|
|Opened||4 July 1821|
|Rebuilt||1879 proscenium and removal of pit
1904 auditorium - C. Stanley Peach
1994 Major refurbishment
|Previous names||1720 Little Theatre (nearby)
1767 Theatre Royal
The Theatre Royal Haymarket or Haymarket Theatre or the Little Theatre is a West End theatre in The Haymarket in the City of Westminster which dates back to 1720, making it the third-oldest London playhouse still in use. Samuel Foote acquired the lease in 1747, and in 1766 he gained a royal patent to play legitimate drama (meaning spoken drama, as opposed to opera, concerts or plays with music) in the summer months. The original building was a little further north in the same street. It has been at its current location since 1821, when it was redesigned by John Nash. It is a Grade I listed building, with a seating capacity of 888. The freehold of the theatre is owned by the Crown Estate.
The Haymarket has been the site of a couple of significant innovations in theatre. In 1873, it was the venue for the first scheduled matinée performance, establishing a custom soon followed in theatres everywhere. Six years later, its auditorium was reconstructed, and the stage was enclosed in the first use of the picture frame proscenium.
Its managers have included Benjamin Nottingham Webster, John Baldwin Buckstone, Squire Bancroft, Cyril Maude, Herbert Beerbohm Tree, and John Sleeper Clarke, brother-in-law of John Wilkes Booth, who quit America after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Famous actors who débuted at the theatre included Robert William Elliston (1774-1831) and John Liston (1776-1846).
The First Haymarket Theatre or Little Theatre was built in 1720 by John Potter, carpenter, on the site of The King's Head Inn in the Haymarket and a shop in Suffolk Street kept by Isaac Bliburgh, a gunsmith, and known by the sign of the Cannon and Musket. It was the third public theatre opened in the West End. The theatre cost £1000 to build, with a further £500 expended on decorations, scenery and costumes. It opened on December 29, 1720, with a French play La Fille a la Morte, ou le Badeaut de Paris performed by a company later known as 'The French Comedians of His Grace the Duke of Montague'. Potter's speculation was known as The New French Theatre.
The theatre's first major success was a 1729 production of a play by Samuel Johnson of Cheshire Hurlothrumbo, or The Supernatural, which ran for 30 nights – not as long as John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (62 performances), but still a long run for the time. In 1730 it was taken over by an English company, and its name changed to the 'Little Theatre in the Haymarket'. Among the actors who appeared there before 1737 when the theatre was closed under the Licensing Act 1737 were Aaron Hill, Theophilus Cibber, and Henry Fielding. In the eight to ten years before the Act was passed, the Haymarket was an alternative to John Rich's Theatre Royal, Covent Garden and the opera-dominated Drury Lane Theatre. Fielding himself was responsible for the instigation of the Act, having produced a play called The Historical Register that parodied prime minister Robert Walpole, as the caricature, Quidam.
In particular, it was an alternative to the pantomime and special-effects dominated stages, and it presented opposition (Tory party) satire. Henry Fielding staged his plays at the Haymarket, and so did Henry Carey. Hurlothrumbo was just one of his plays in that series of anti-Walpolean satires, followed by Tom Thumb. Another, in 1734, was his mock-opera, The Dragon of Wantley, with music by John Frederick Lampe. This work punctured the vacuous operatic conventions and pointed a satirical barb at Walpole and his taxation policies. The piece was a huge success, with a record-setting run of 69 performances in its first season. The work debuted at the Haymarket Theatre, where its coded attack on Walpole would have been clear, but its long run occurred after it moved to Covent Garden, which had a much greater capacity for staging. The burlesque itself is very brief on the page, as it relied extensively on absurd theatrics, dances, and other non-textual entertainments. The Musical Entertainer from 1739 contains engravings showing how the staging was performed
Carey continued with Pasquin and others. Additionally, refugees from Drury Lane's and Covent Garden's internal struggles would show up at the Haymarket, and thus Charlotte Charke would act there in a parody of her father, Colley Cibber, one of the owners and managers of Drury Lane. The Theatrical Licensing Act, however, put an end to the anti-ministry satires, and it all but entirely shut down the theatre. From 1741 to 1747, Charles Macklin, Cibber, Samuel Foote, and others sometimes produced plays there either by use of a temporary licence or by subterfuge; one advertisement runs, "At Cibber's Academy in the Haymarket, will be a Concert, after which, will be exhibited (gratis) a Rehearsal, in the form of a Play, called Romeo and Juliet."
In 1754 John Potter, who had been rated (i.e. paid property tax) for the theatre since its opening, was succeeded by John Whitehead. In 1758 Theophilus Cibber obtained from William Howard, then the Lord Chamberlain, a general licence under which Foote tried to establish the Haymarket as a regular theatre. With the aid of the Duke of York he procured a royal licence to exhibit plays during four months in each year from May to September during his lifetime. He also bought the lease of the theatre from Potter's executors and, having added to the site by purchasing adjoining property, he enlarged and improved the building which he opened on May 14, 1767, as the Theatre Royal, the third patent theatre in London. Several successful seasons followed, with Foote producing numerous plays at the theatre, but Foote finally got himself into difficulties by his custom of caricaturing well-known persons on the stage and this, combined with increasing ill-health, resulted in his selling both the theatre and patent to George Colman, Sr. on 16 January 1777.
During the season of 1793-94 when Drury Lane Theatre was being rebuilt, the Haymarket was opened under the Drury Lane Patent. The season was notable for a 'Dreadful Accident' which occurred on 3 February 1794, 'when Twenty Persons unfortunately lost their lives, and a great Number were dreadfully bruised owing to a great Crowd pressing to see his Majesty, who was that Evening present at the Performance.' Amongst the dead was John Charles Brooke, Somerset Herald. Colman died in 1794, and the theatre descended to his son. George Colman Jr., though successful both as playwright and manager, dissipated his gains by his extravagance. For a time he lived in a room at the back of the theatre and he was finally forced to sell shares in the latter to his brother-in-law, David Morris. Monetary difficulties increased and for a while Colman managed the theatre from the King's Bench Prison, where he was confined for debt.
All the buildings on the east of the Haymarket from the theatre southward were rebuilt circa 1820 in connection with John Nash's schemes for the improvement of the neighbourhood. Nash persuaded the proprietors of the theatre to rebuild on a site a little south of the old one so that the portico should close the vista from Charles Street. The main front feature of Nash's elevation in the Haymarket was (and is) a pedimented portico of six Corinthian columns which extends in depth to the edge of the pavement and includes the whole frontage. It is sometimes stated that Nash rebuilt the theatre entirely, but there is evidence that he incorporated a house in Little Suffolk Street with the theatre, removed two shops which were in front, in the Haymarket, built a portico, increased the number of avenues and added a second gallery to the existing auditorium.
A lease dated 10 June 1821, was granted to David Edward Morris. The theatre was opened on 4 July 1821, with The Rivals. Benjamin Nottingham Webster became the theatre's manager from 1837 to 1853. He and his successor, John Baldwin Buckstone, established the theatre as a great comedy house, and the theatre hosted most of the great actors of the period.
In 1862, the theatre was host to a 400-night run of Our American Cousin, with Edward Sothern as Lord Dundreary. The play's success brought the word "dreary" into common use. Robertson's David Garrick was a hit in 1864, also with Sothern in the title role. Sothern also starred in H. J. Byron's An English Gentleman at the theatre in 1871. W. S. Gilbert premiered seven of his plays at the Haymarket. The first was his early burlesque, Robinson Crusoe; or, The Injun Bride and the Injured Wife (1867, written with Byron, Tom Hood, H. S. Leigh and Arthur Sketchley). Gilbert followed this with a number of his blank verse "fairy comedies", the first of which was The Palace of Truth (1870), produced by Buckstone. These starred William Hunter Kendal and his wife Madge Robertson Kendal and also included Pygmalion and Galatea (1871), and The Wicked World (1873). Gilbert also produced here his dramas, Charity (1874), Dan'l Druce, Blacksmith (1876), and his most famous play outside of his Savoy Operas, Engaged, an 1877 farce. Buckstone's ghost has reportedly often been seen at the theatre, particularly during comedies and "when he appreciates things" playing there. In 2009, The Daily Telegraph reported that the actor Patrick Stewart saw the ghost standing in the wings during a performance of Waiting for Godot at the Haymarket.
In 1873 matinées were introduced starting at 2.00pm. In May 1875, Sullivan's The Zoo transferred to the Haymarket. In 1879 the house was taken over by the Bancrofts, who re-opened the theatre with a revival of Edward Bulwer-Lytton's Money, followed by Victorien Sardou's Odette (for which they engaged Madame Helena Modjeska) and Fedora, and Arthur Wing Pinero's Lords and Commons, with other revivals of previous successes. The auditorium was reconstructed, and the stage enclosed in a complete picture frame proscenium. The abolition of the pit by the introduction of stalls seating divided by plain iron arms caused a small riot.
Herbert Beerbohm Tree transferred from the Comedy Theatre with The Red Lamp in 1887. He took over upon the retirement of the Bancrofts and installed electric light in the theatre. Under Tree's management, Oscar Wilde premiered his first comedy A Woman of No Importance in April 1893. In January 1895 Wilde's An Ideal Husband was first performed. Tree's next notable hit was George du Maurier's Trilby, later in 1895. This ran for over 260 performances and made such profits that Tree was able to build Her Majesty's Theatre and establish RADA.
In 1896 Cyril Maude and Frederick Harrison became lessees, opening with Under the Red Robe, an adaptation of Stanley Wyman's novel. In 1897 The Little Minister by J. M. Barrie ran for 320 performances.