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Illegitimate Drama and Rickety Twins: The Theatres of the Strand


Between the end of the nineteenth century and the first world war a major redevelopment took place in the Strand district of London, covering an area a quarter of a mile wide from Holborn in the north down to the Strand. The slums that had filled the area between Drury Lane and Lincoln’s Inn Fields were demolished, several streets were destroyed and the two new thoroughfares of Kingsway and Aldwych were built in their place. In the process, a slice of Victorian theatre history was wiped out: between 1902 and 1905 four theatres were demolished to make way for the new development and a fifth, the Royal Strand, was replaced by the Aldwych underground station.

The Olympic, Opera Comique, Globe, Gaiety and Strand theatres had all grown up in the shadow of Drury Lane, professionally as well as geographically. The Licensing Act, dating back to 1737, had allowed only the Drury Lane and Covent Garden theatres (and in the summer months, the Haymarket) to perform ‘legitimate’ drama, and even though the law was changed in 1843, the ‘Patent’ theatres kept their ascendancy over other London theatres for most of the century. For the Olympic and the Strand, both established before the Act was changed, the law meant that at the start of their lives they were not allowed to present themselves to their public as playhouses; and although all five theatres went on to produce straight plays, it was as the homes of musical entertainment, dance or spectacle that they were best known.

The Holborn-Strand area before redevelopment, 1877
The Holborn-Strand area before redevelopment, 1877

The oldest of the five theatres, the Olympic, was opened in 1806 as the Olympic Pavilion, a circus. The site, at the corner of Wych Street and Drury Lane, was purchased by Philip Astley, already known for Astley’s Amphitheatre, the home of the grand spectacular on Westminster Bridge Road in Lambeth. Astley is said to have ordered the construction of the building from the timbers of the French warship Ville de Paris, and intended it as ‘a house of public exhibition of horsemanship and droll’.

‘L’Ecole de Mars’: riding exhibition at the Olympic Pavilion
‘L’Ecole de Mars’: riding exhibition at the Olympic Pavilion

The venture seems to have been unsuccessful, and the lease was sold in 1813 to Robert Elliston who converted it to a theatre. Although the premises were small and the area run-down, the Olympic achieved some success and began to attract a fashionable audience.


The Olympic in 1816

The Olympic in 1816

From 1832-1839 it was taken over by the actress, singer and dancer Eliza Vestris, who thus became the first woman to manage a London theatre. Together with her husband, the actor Charles Mathews, Madame Vestris brought in several theatrical innovations, such as the use of historically correct costumes and more elaborate scenery, including a box set with ceiling, which she is said to have introduced for the first time in Britain. The Olympic mainly produced classical burlesques and extravaganzas (send-ups or comic adaptations with music and dance) in which Madame Vestris frequently starred, showcasing her singing voice as well as her skill in male, or ‘breeches’ roles. Other famous names associated with the theatre at this time included the playwright J.R.Planché, who scripted most of Vestris’s shows and later made his name as a writer of pantomimes, and Frederick Robson, a gifted comedian and personal favourite of Queen Victoria.

Performance at the Olympic

Performance at the Olympic

Vestris and Mathews left the theatre in 1839 to take over Covent Garden. The Olympic was rebuilt after a fire in1849, and remodelled in 1883 by the famous theatre architect C J Phipps; around this time it was described by Edward Walford, in his book Old and New London (1897)as having shown ‘principally melodramas of the superior kind.’ In 1890 it was pulled down and rebuilt again by the partnership of W. G. R. Sprague and Bertie Crewe, but the theatre did not regain its earlier success. It was renamed the Olympic Music Hall in 1893 and various attempts were made to restart it, but it closed in 1899 and was demolished five years later.

The Strand, or Royal Strand Theatre, on the south side of the Strand, had a shakier start than the Olympic. It began life as a exhibition hall for panoramas, but was bought in 1831 by Benjamin Lionel Rayner, a celebrated Yorkshire comedian. Rayner’s architect, Charles Broad, turned the building into a theatre, though with no gallery, and it was opened in January the following year as Rayner’s New Subscription Theatre in the Strand. The name reflected the fact that the theatre had no licence: tickets, at 4s, 3s and 2s, had to be sold off the premises. At this period, literary figures including Dickens and Edward Bulwer-Lytton were waging a campaign to abolish the patents which gave special status to Drury Lane and Covent Garden, against fierce opposition from the Patent Theatres themselves. The newly-opened theatre threw itself into the debate, presenting in its first programme a skit entitled Professionals Puzzled; or, Struggles at Starting which poked fun at the situation. Before long, Rayners itself had fallen foul of the Patent Laws: in October 1833 it tried to stage serious drama and the Patent Theatres applied successfully to have it closed down.

‘Legitimate’ and ‘Illegitimate’ theatre: Henry Irving as Shylock, and Masque with  acrobats and dancers ‘Legitimate’ and ‘Illegitimate’ theatre: Henry Irving as Shylock, and Masque with  acrobats and dancers
‘Legitimate’ and ‘Illegitimate’ theatre: Henry Irving as Shylock, and Masque with acrobats and dancers

The new manager, the theatre’s star actress Harriet Waylett, re-opened the theatre in 1834, using every possible method to sidestep the Patent Laws including offering free admission with the purchase of an ounce of lozenges for 4s. A varied programme offered by Mrs Waylett included monologues, burlesques and musical entertainments, and the appearance of a genuine ‘Red Indian chief’, but in 1835, the Patent Theatres once again had it closed. Finally, in 1836, the theatre succeeded in gaining a performance licence. It was enlarged, given a gallery holding an extra 800 people and reopened under the management of James Hammond and Douglas Jerrold. Hammond, who remained as manager until 1839, introduced dramatized versions of Dickens’s novels, notably The Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby, alongside burlesque and extravaganza.

Although permanently short of money, the theatre became popular, and attracted stars of the time such as Mary Ann and Robert Keeley. An 1841 review in Punch of a comic fantasy piece starring Mrs Keeley calls the Strand ‘this elegant little theatre’ and comments:

The appointments and arrangements of the stage reflect the highest credit on the management, and the industry which can labour to surmount the difficulties which we know to exist in the production of anything like scenic effect in the Strand Theatre, deserve the encouragement which we were gratified to see bestowed upon this little Temple of Momus.

Mary Ann Keeley
Mary Ann Keeley

The theatre only became the home of ‘legitimate’ drama five years after the abolition of the Patents in 1843, and still continued to be popular for its burlesques, especially under the management of W. H. Swanborough, from 1858 to 1872.

In 1882 the theatre was condemned, demolished and rebuilt by the celebrated architect C.J. Phipps, but its fortunes fell after reopening. Notable productions in its later years included The Vicar of Wakefield, Vice Versa and the musical comedy, A Chinese Honeymoon, which ran for 1,075 performances between 1901 and 1904: a record at the time.

The theatre was still open, though again doing poor business, at the time of the Strand development. Once Aldwych and Kingsway had been constructed it was decided that the newly rebuilt area was urgently in need of its own underground link, and the theatre was purchased by the rail company and closed on 13th May 1905 to make way for the Aldwych Station. The purchase seems not to have been entirely expected. M.A.C. Horne, writing about the Aldwych rail link, notes that the closure cut short the performances of Miss Wingrove, ‘which had only started on 5th May’. The station building, which covered the exact site of the theatre, was opened as part of the new Piccadilly Line network in 1907, but it was never heavily used, and closed in 1994. Today the building is kept open as a museum, and also used as a TV and film set.

Projected drawing of the Strand/Aldwych area made in 1903, before the  development was completed
Projected drawing of the Strand/Aldwych area made in 1903, before the development was completed. The site of the old Strand Theatre, and future site of the tube station, is next to King’s College at the corner of Surrey Street (see inset map)

Just down the road from the Olympic, the Globe and the Opera Comique were built back to back and within two years of each other. Sharing an angle between three narrow streets, on a site that had originally been excavated for a hotel, the two theatres were built partly underground, and were both so poorly constructed that they were known as ‘The Rickety Twins’. The neighbourhood was still run-down, and it seems likely that both theatres were put up hurriedly in the hope of compensation when the site was redeveloped.

The Globe, commissioned by its proprietor, Mr Sefton Parry on the corner of Wych and Newcastle Street, opened in 1868, but was redesigned only two years later by the architect Walter Emden.The theatre’s main entrance was in Newcastle Street, leading to the boxes, which were at street level, and down a staircase to the stalls. Steeper flights of steps led down to the pit and up to the gallery from Wych Street around the corner.

Programme for a double-bill plus music at the Globe Programme for a double-bill plus  music at the Globe
Programme for a double-bill plus music at the Globe

In spite of its cramped site and cheap construction, the Globe seems to have been appreciated by its customers, and its productions, usually comedy and musical shows, were well received. Walford, in Old and New London, described its seats as ‘fairly commodious’, and noted with approval that the stage was fully visible from every part of the house. Walford also commented on the theatre’s domed roof, ‘with a sunlight in the centre’, and the use of relief decoration in the auditorium. Several successful plays transferred here from other theatres: in particular Charles Hawtrey's The Private Secretary from The Prince of Wales's in 1884, and Brandon Thomas's Charley's Aunt from The Royalty in 1892.

In a print of the 1990s, ‘A visit to the opera’, showing the royal coach on its way to Covent Garden, the dome of the Globe can be seen in the background with its name picked out in electric lights: not a grand enough venue to be favoured with a royal visit, but still an established landmark.

A Visit to the Opera
A Visit to the Opera

The Opera Comique, which adjoined the Globe, was still smaller and less favourably situated.

Built in 1870 between Wych Street and Holywell Street, it actually had its main entrance on the Strand, which ran parallel to Holywell Street. Edward Walford commented on the theatre’s access:

observant passengers who know the narrowness of the area between the Strand and Holywell Street will find it difficult to imagine how, even in London, where now-a-days theatres are edged in among houses anyhow, an " Opera Comique" can have been formed there. This frontage, however, is, in truth, nothing but the entrance to a passage which leads across Holywell Street to a theatre that has been built between that and Wych Street.

Wych Street  in 1870
Wych Street in 1870

In fact, the Opera Comique was approached through three long, narrow tunnels leading from the surrounding streets, which earned it the nickname of ‘Theatre Royal, Tunnels’. Its only entrance from Wych Street was via a long staircase leading down to the stage level, and still further down to the pit. As with the Globe, the underground construction and steep stairs made the theatre a fire hazard, though fortunately for their audiences, neither one ever caught fire. The Opera Comique, however, was accused of being so draughty that its audiences frequently caught cold – though Walford also described it as ‘nicely decorated, and commodiously arranged’. The Opera Comique opened unpromisingly: its French name proved unpopular with audiences, and an early season by the Comedie-Francaise, driven to London by the Franco-Prussian war, did not greatly improve its standing. After 1877, though, the theatre became associated with the comic operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan after producing The Sorcerer. It went on to stage premieres of some of Gilbert and Sullivan’s best-known works, including HMS Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and Patience.

Programme for Patience at the Opera Comique
Programme for Patience at the Opera Comique

The theatre’s heyday ended when Gilbert and Sullivan’s manager, Richard D'Oyly Carte, transferred their productions to his new theatre, the Savoy. The Opera Comique produced its last show in 1899, at which time the plans for the redevelopment of the Strand area were already far advanced.
Along with the Globe, it was demolished in 1902.

The Gaiety Theatre, probably the most regretted of the five at the time of its closure, was built along the Strand to the west of the others, between Wellington Street and Catherine Street. Opened in 1864 as the Strand Musick Hall, it was redesigned by C.J. Phipps in 1868, when it was renamed the Gaiety. It was first managed by John Hollingshead, with a programme which included a burlesque by W.S. Gilbert; three years later it also produced the first ever Gilbert and Sullivan collaboration: Thespis, or The Gods Grown Old.

The theatre featured several notable actors of the 19th century, including the burlesque artist Nellie Farren, Edward Terry, John Lawrence Toole and Madge Robertson. The young Henry Irving also appeared there in one of his first starring roles, in a comedy by H. J. Byron. In addition to comedies by Byron, a popular playwright whose plays were shown at many other London theatres, the Gaiety also produced two plays by the celebrated Dion Boucicault.

In 1892 George Edwardes transferred to the Gaiety as manager from the Prince of Wales, bringing with him the musical comedy In Town. Edwards followed the show with a series of light-hearted musicals featuring chorus girls and always using the word ‘Girl’ in the title. The ‘Gaiety Girl’ productions were a huge success and established the theatre’s name. By the turn of the century, the Gaiety was under sentence of closure to make way for the Strand development. Its last production, The Toreador with Gertie Millar, started in 1901, and ran for 675 performances to crowded houses before the theatre closed in1903. A review in the Daily Chronicle said:

"There is more pleasure in a Gaiety piece – more melody for Londoners and the dwellers in our great cities… than in all the wretched problem and society-scandal plays that were ever hatched."

The theatre was demolished the same year, and the western end of Aldwych now covers its site.

Plan for the second Gaiety, Runtz  and Ford, 1903
Plan for the second Gaiety, Runtz and Ford, 1903

The London County Council provided compensation for the theatre, which Edwardes used to build a new Gaiety Theatre as close as possible to the site of the first, at the junction of the Strand and Aldwych. The second Gaiety, designed by the architects Ernest Runtz and George Ford, was opened on 26th October 1903 to a packed house which included the King and Queen, and went on to achieve huge successes with productions including The Merry Widow (1907) and the premiere of Shaw’s Pygmalion in 1914. It finally closed in 1957.

The second Gaiety Theatre in the 1950s
The second Gaiety Theatre in the 1950s

The redevelopment of the Strand area did not stop with the construction of Aldwych and Kingsway. Even before most of the old Strand theatres had been demolished, new ones were already planned, and in 1903 W.G.R. Sprague produced detailed plans for a ‘New Theatre’, to be situated on what was still known simply as ‘The Crescent’.

Plans for the ‘New Theatre’ on Aldwych Plans for the ‘New Theatre’ on Aldwych
Plans for the ‘New Theatre’ on Aldwych

This theatre, built at the junction of Aldwych and Catherine Street in May 1905, was first named the Waldorf, after the Waldorf Hotel which was erected next to it, and is still standing today as the Strand Theatre. In December the same year it was joined by the Aldwych Theatre, also designed by Sprague, on the corner of Aldwich and Drury Lane – just opposite the site of the old Olympic.

The Strand Theatre in  the 1970s
The Strand Theatre in the 1970s

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