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Palace Theatre
Whistle Down the Wind in June 2006
Designation Grade II*
Architect Thomas Edward Collcutt
Owned by Really Useful Theatres
Capacity 1,400(4 levels)
Type West End theatre
Opened January 1891
Rebuilt 1892 Walter Emden (conversion)
Previous names Royal English Opera House
Palace Theatre of Varieties
Production Priscilla Queen of the Desert
Coordinates: 51°30′47″N 0°07′46″W / 51.513167°N 0.129472°W / 51.513167; -0.129472

The Palace Theatre, is a West End theatre in the City of Westminster. It is an imposing red-brick building that dominates the west side of Cambridge Circus, and is located near the intersection of Shaftesbury Avenue and Charing Cross Road, close to Covent Garden. The Palace Theatre's current capacity is 1,400.




Early years

Commissioned by impresario Richard D'Oyly Carte in the late 1880s, it was designed by Thomas Edward Collcutt. Carte intended it to be the home of English grand opera, much as his Savoy Theatre had been built as a home for English light opera, beginning with the Gilbert and Sullivan series. The foundation stone, laid by his wife Helen in 1888, can still be seen on the façade of the theatre, almost at ground level to the right of the entrance. The theatre's design was considered to be novel. The upper levels are supported by heavy steel cantilevers built into the back walls, removing the need for supporting pillars that impede the view of the stage. The tiers, corridors, staircases, landings are all constructed of concrete to reduce the risk and damage that might be done by fire.[1]

Ivanhoe programme cover from the theatre's first night

The theatre opened as the "Royal English Opera House" in January 1891 with Arthur Sullivan's Ivanhoe. No expense was spared to make the production a success, including a double cast and "every imaginable effect of scenic splendour[2]. It ran for 160 performances, but when Ivanhoe finally closed in July, Carte had no new work to replace it, and the opera house had to close. One opera is not enough to sustain an opera house venture. It was, as critic Herman Klein observed, "the strangest comingling of success and failure ever chronicled in the history of British lyric enterprise!"[3] Sir Henry Wood, who had been répétiteur for the production, recalled in his autobiography that "[if] Carte had had a repertory of six operas instead of only one, I believe he would have established English opera in London for all time. Towards the end of the run of Ivanhoe I was already preparing the Flying Dutchman with Eugène Oudin in the name part. He would have been superb. However, plans were altered and the Dutchman was shelved."[4]

The theatre re-opened in November 1891, with André Messager's La Basoche (with David Bispham in his first London stage performance) at first alternating in repertory with Ivanhoe, and then La Basoche alone, closing in January 1892. Carte had no other works ready, and so he leased the theatre to Sarah Bernhardt for a season and sold the opera house within a year at a loss. It was then converted by Walter Emden into a grand music hall and renamed the Palace Theatre of Varieties, managed by Charles Morton, known as the 'Father of Music Halls', who made it into a successful enterprise.[5] Denied permission by the London County Council to construct the promenade, which was such a popular feature of adult entertainment at the Empire and Alhambra theatres, the Palace compensated by featuring apparently nude women in tableau vivants, though the concerned LCC hastened to reassure patrons that the girls who featured in these displays were actually wearing flesh toned body stockings and were not naked.[6]

In March 1897, the theatre began to screen films from the American Biograph Company as part of its programme of entertainment, these films pioneered the 70 mm format which helped give an exceptionally large and clear image filling the proscenium arch. The performances included early newsreels from around the world, many of them made by film pioneer William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, including film of the Anglo-Boer War (1900). The Palace continued to shows films as part of its variety and musical programmes[7].

20th and 21st centuries

Maude Allan as Salomé with the head of John the Baptist

In 1904, Morton was succeeded by manager Alfred Butt, who introduced many innovations to the theatre, including dancers, such as Maud Allan (including her famous Salomé)[8] and Anna Pavlova, and elegant pianist-singer Margaret Cooper.[9] On 26 February 1909, the general public first saw Kinemacolor in a programme of 21 short films shown at the Theatre.[10]

The name of the theatre was finally changed to The Palace Theatre in 1911. Herman Finck‎ was musical director at the theatre from 1900 until 1920,[11] with whose orchestra he made many recordings. The theatre was famous not only for its orchestra, but also for the beautiful Palace Girls, for whom Finck composed many dances. In 1911, the Palace Girls performed a song and dance number, which was originally called Tonight but became very popular as a romantic instrumental piece In The Shadows. In 1912, the theatre hosted a Royal Command Performance.[12] The Marx Brothers appeared at the theatre in 1922, performing selections from their Broadway shows.[13]

On 11 March 1925, the musical comedy No, No, Nanette opened at the Palace Theatre starring Binnie Hale and George Grossmith, Jr. The run of 665 performances made it the third longest running West End musical of the 1920s. Princess Charming ran for 362 performances beginning in 1926. The Palace Theatre was also the venue for Rogers and Hart's The Girl Friend (1927) and Fred Astaire's final stage musical Gay Divorce (1933). Later musical theatre works that played at the theatre included Anything Goes, Flower Drum Song, Cabaret, and many others. In the 1960s, The Sound of Music ran for 2,385 performances, opening on 18 May 1961.[14]

Les Misérables was shown at the Palace Theatre until April 2004

The last decades of the twentieth century saw two further exceptional runs at The Palace: Jesus Christ Superstar (3,358 performances from 1972 to 1980) and Les Misérables. The latter ran at the theatre for nineteen years, having transferred from the Barbican Centre on 4 December 1985. The show is still running at the Queen's Theatre, nearby on Shaftesbury Avenue, having transferred there in April 2004. On 8 October 2006, it became the longest running musical in the world, overtaking the former record set by Cats.

In August 1983, Andrew Lloyd-Webber announced that he had purchased the freehold of the theatre for £1.3 million and subsequently set out on a series of works to restore the theatre. During work on the auditorium, a layer of plum-coloured paint was removed, revealing the famous marble and onyx panels to be untouched. Following the transfer of Les Miserables in 2004, the facade of the theatre and front of the house were refurbished and restored, the marble walls uncovered, and new chandeliers installed. This was followed by a short 6-week season of illusionist Derren Brown following his successful UK tour.

Lloyd Webber's The Woman in White received its world première on in 2004 and ran for 19 months. The show outlived the Broadway production. Bill Kenwright's production of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jim Steinman's musical Whistle Down The Wind played in 2006. Monty Python's Spamalot opened on 30 September 2006 and ran until January 2009. It was replaced by Priscilla Queen of the Desert in March 2009.

The theatre was Grade II* listed by English Heritage in June 1960[15].

Recent notable productions


  1. ^ feature on the theatre.
  2. ^ "Hesketh Pearson, Gilbert and Sullivan
  3. ^ Hermann Klein's 1903 description of Ivanhoe
  4. ^ My Life of Music, Victor Gollancz Ltd, London (1938)
  5. ^ Pages about Morton's management in feature on the theatre (Arthur Lloyd) accessed 27 March 2008
  6. ^ Weightman, Gavin (1992). Bright Lights, Big City, pp. 94-95
  7. ^ Victorian Cinema venues accessed 21 Jun 2007
  8. ^ First page about Butt's management in feature on the theatre
  9. ^ Second page about Butt's management in feature on the theatre
  10. ^ Fisher, David. 1909 Film history timetable, Chronomedia, accessed 20 April 2009
  11. ^ Palace Theatre Feature
  12. ^ Page about the Royal Command Performance
  13. ^ Louvish, Simon. Monkey business, pp. 222–23, Macmillan, 2000, ISBN 0312252927
  14. ^ Thumbnails of programmes from musicals that played at the theatre
  15. ^ English Heritage listing details accessed 28 Apr 2007
  • Guide to British Theatres 1750-1950, John Earl and Michael Sell pp. 130 (Theatres Trust, 2000) ISBN 0-7136-5688-3

Nearby tube stations

External links


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