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Architects: Charles J. Phipps (current building), John Vanbrugh (first theatre), Michael Novosielski (second theatre), Charles Lee and Sons (third theatre), William Pain (third theatre associate architect)
Current (Fourth) Theatre Opened: 28th April 1897 (124 years ago)
First Theatre Opened: 9th April 1705
Second Theatre Opened: 26th March 1791
Third Theatre Opened: 1868
Former Names: Queen’s Theatre, King’s Theatre, Italian Opera House, His Majesty’s Theatre
Telephone: 020 7087 7762
Her Majesty’s Theatre, as it currently stands, opened in 1897. It is the fourth theatre to have been built on the site, the Queen’s Theatre having opened there in 1705. Actor-Manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree, who commissioned the 1897 theatre, originally used the top level of the building as his private apartment, including the high-ceilinged French-style dome as a banqueting hall. The theatre is thought to be the only theatre in the United Kingdom whose name changes with the sex of the British monarch.
History of the first three theatres to have been built on the site:
Current Building (1897)
In the early 1890s architect C.J. Phipps was commissioned to design the new theatre, and in 1896 financing was agreed with Herbert Beerbohm Tree, manager of the Theatre Royal, Haymarket just across the street. The design of Her Majesty’s Theatre would end up being the last of C.J. Phipps’ work to be completed within his lifetime.
The exterior design of the theatre on Haymarket was a symmetrical pair with the Carlton Hotel next-door, which filled-in the rest of the block, occupied a large part of the site of the previous theatre, and was also designed by Phipps. The hotel was badly damaged in the Second World War and was ultimately replaced by New Zealand House in the late 1950s, home of the New Zealand High Commission.
The theatre’s auditorium consists of three primary levels (Stalls/Pit, Dress Circle, and Upper Circle/Gallery). Three boxes on each side of the stage are flanked by gigantic Corinthian columns of marble; the box “stacks” each side framing the proscenium arch with a coffered sounding board above (note: all of this survives intact but is painted black for the theatre’s current resident The Phantom of the Opera). Interior decoration of the theatre was by W.H. Romaine Walker and was executed in the style of Louis XIV. The theatre’s original seating capacity was 1,320.
The theatre opened on 28th April 1897 with the play The Seats of the Mighty by Gilbert Parker. The play was not greatly received, however the theatre received high praise.
Herbert Beerbohm Tree and his actress wife would star in many of the presentations at Her Majesty’s, however latterly the public grew weary of Tree’s performances, finding his acting methods stuck in the past. Tree and his wife had an apartment in the top level of the building which included a banqueting hall in the high-ceilinged French-style dome where he was known to entertain guests.
In 1901 the theatre’s named changed to His Majesty’s Theatre following the accession of Edward VII to the throne. In 1904 Tree founded the Academy of Dramatic Art (now RADA) at the theatre. Even after the group moved to a different location, Tree still employed large numbers of RADA graduates at his theatre.
The theatre’s large stage naturally lent itself to musical theatre, and starting in 1916 Chu Chin Chow ran for an unprecedented 2,235 performances. Oh, Kay!, which had opened the Mayan Theatre in Los Angeles in August 1927, premiered at Her Majesty’s a month later and ran for over 200 performances. The theatre would go on to host many other successful runs including Noel Coward’s Bitter Sweet in 1929.
In February 1952, with Elizabeth II’s accession to the throne, the theatre’s name changed to the current Her Majesty’s Theatre. Notable musicals before and after this time include The Merry Widow in 1943, Brigadoon in 1949, Paint Your Wagon in 1953, West Side Story in 1958, Gilbert & Sullivan delights The Pirates of Penzance and H.M.S. Pinafore in repertory in 1962, and Fiddler on the Roof in 1967 which ran for over 2,000 performances through to 1971. The 70s and 80s welcomed Pippin, Jeeves, The Good Companions, and Bugsy Malone among others.
The popular live entertainment show Live from Her Majesty’s was broadcast live from the theatre on Saturday nights from early 1983 to late 1985. The 15th April 1984 broadcast featured comedian Tommy Cooper who collapsed live on stage and subsequently died after suffering a major heart attack.
On 9th October 1986 Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera premiered at the theatre. It is the second longest-running musical in London’s West End after Les Misérables.
Designer Maria Björnson is credited with using the theatre’s Victorian understage machinery to stage a key scene where the Phantom travels across a lake of smoke in a boat. The boat is controlled by modern means however the placement of the other scenic elements, and the manner in which they appear, is indeed based upon the 120+ year-old stage machinery still in place below the stage.
Performances of Phantom ceased on 15th March 2020 in line with the Society of London Theatre’s announcement that all London West End theatres would be closed effective 16th March 2020 as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. In late July 2020 Cameron Mackintosh announced that the London production of Phantom would close “permanently”, although he added that he was determined to bring the show back to London’s West End in the future.
After an extended closure Phantom reopened at the theatre on 27th July 2021, in a “new version of the original Phantom production”. Producer Cameron Mackintosh stated that “Although many of our brilliant original creative colleagues including Hal Prince, Maria Björnson, and Gillian Lynne are sadly no longer with us, their work lives on inspiring our new creative team to stage the Phantom afresh, as if it was a brand new production”.
The new production is lit entirely with LED lighting, aside from spots on the conductor which come courtesy of a couple of old Rank Strand Patt. 23N spotlights. The rotating cloud effects disc on the front of the first circle is also original to the 1986 production, although now projected using an LED light source. Unusual Rigging upgraded the theatre’s grid to cope with the heavier scenery used in the new production, and extensive improvements were made to the fabric of the building which was found to be in fairly urgent need of repair.
As of early 2020 the theatre does not offer regular tours. You can check for any upcoming special events, or book tickets for the current show, on the LW Theatres website .
The London Festival of Architecture ran tours of the theatre in June 2019 and they may offer these tours again in the future; keep an eye on their website for updates.
Photographs copyright © 2002-2021 Mike Hume/historictheatrephotos.com unless otherwise noted.
Text copyright © 2017-2021 Mike Hume/historictheatrephotos.com.
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