As of 13 October, London’s Comedy Theatre will be no more. In honour of the late, Nobel Prize-winning playwright, the Comedy will now be called the Harold Pinter Theatre.
Seven of Pinter’s plays have been staged at the venue in the last 20 years, including The Homecoming, No Man’s Land, The Caretaker with Michael Gambon, The Lover/The Collection (starring Gina McKee), and most recently, Betrayal, with Kristin Scott Thomas. Pinter also directed four plays at the theatre.
While many of London’s landmarks let us down with their brave new appellations (we’re looking at you, EDF Energy London Eye, HMV Apollo) we’re quite pleased with the care theatreland takes with its nomenclature. When it comes to naming theatres, we’re just not sure the T-Mobile Adelphi would “smell as sweet.”
The newly tagged Harold Pinter Theatre has inspired us to take a look at the other men and women lending their names to London’s great playhouses.
Theatre impresario Donald Albery and prima ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn formed a new company called Donmar Productions in 1953, combining their first names to christen the troupe. Eight years later, the pair bought the disused warehouse of an old brewery in Covent Garden. The space served as a rehearsal room for Margot Fonteyn’s London Festival Ballet until, in the late 1970s, the RSC turned it into a theatre. We can thank Sir Donald for bringing the adventurous 1960s spirit to London’s theatres, staging shows like Waiting for Godot and Beyond the Fringe. Today, the Donmar thrives on big names and small audiences: you have to be quick to get one of the 251 seats on offer each night, as shows regularly sell out.
The Garrick Theatre is one of the few in the West End to have had one name throughout its existence. It opened in 1889, financed by the playwright W S Gilbert, and named after the 18th-century actor David Garrick. Garrick had an incredible impact on English theatre, modernising not only acting techniques, but audience behaviour, set design, costumes and special effects. He was best-known for his Shakespearean roles; indeed we’ve probably got Garrick to thank / blame for Shakespeare’s “national treasure” status today. Garrick’s naturalistic and at-the-time radical acting style caused another actor to comment: “If this young fellow be right, then we have all been wrong.”
Originally called the Hicks Theatre after the actor, manager and playwright Seymour Hicks, the Gielgud was designed by W G R Sprague as a pair with the adjacent Queen’s Theatre. It opened in 1906. A new American manager renamed it the Globe just three years later. But in 1994, anticipating the opening of Shakespeare’s Globe on the South Bank, the theatre was renamed again, this time in honour of John Gielgud. A hugely influential stage actor, film star, director and producer, if there’s a famous role (Romeo, Hamlet, Ivanov, Sherlock, Shylock, Prospero) Gielgud will have “made it his own”, in X Factor speak. And here’s some pub quiz gold: Gielgud is one of the few people in the world to have won an Oscar, an Emmy, a Grammy and a Tony.
Noel Coward Theatre
Built by Charles Wyndham (more on him later) and opened in 1903, the Noel Coward Theatre on St Martin’s Lane was designed by W G R Sprague (him again) with a Classical-style exterior and a Rococo interior. It was initially called the New Theatre, then the Albery, and finally, in 2006, it was refurbished and renamed the Noel Coward Theatre. Back in 1920, Coward appeared in the first West End production of one of his plays, I’ll Leave It To You at the theatre. Londoner Coward is another of the towers of English theatre, achieving success over an incredible 60-year career as a playwright, composer, director, theatre actor, film star, singer, novelist and diarist. Look out for an ageing, arteriosclerosis-ridden Coward in cult film The Italian Job.
Welsh born composer, singer and actor David Ivor Davies is better known as Ivor Novello. In 2005, the W G R Sprague (and again!) designed theatre on the corner of Aldwych, previously known as the Waldorf, the Strand and later the Whitney Theatre, was named in honour of Novello. He’d lived in a flat above the theatre from 1913 to his death in 1951. Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians says, “until the advent of Andrew Lloyd Webber, [Novello was] the 20th century’s most consistently successful composer of British musicals.” Other fun facts about Novello include an affair with the poet Siegfried Sassoon and his short spell in prison for misuse of petrol coupons, a serious offence during the war.
The shiny glass and sharp angles of Sadler’s Wells Theatre might make it look like a modern addition to London’s Theatreland, but it’s actually the sixth theatre to be built on the site. The first iteration of Sadler’s Wells was a “Musik House” opened by Richard Sadler in 1683; it was only the second public theatre to open in London after the Restoration. When a well was discovered in the garden, the enterprising Mr Sadler quickly trumpeted the water’s incredible healing powers, effective against “dropsy, jaundice, scurvy, green sickness and other distempers to which females are liable.” By the end of the summer of 1685, 500 of London’s most fashionable people were sampling Mr Sadler’s, ahem, water. You can read more on the topsy-turvy history of Sadler’s Wells here.
Tristan Bates Theatre
The Tristan Bates Theatre at the Actors’ Centre in Covent Garden was set up by actor Alan Bates and his family, in honour of his son, Tristan. Tristan was one of Alan Bates’ twin sons, born in November 1970. Tristan died of an asthma attack in Tokyo, aged just 19. Today, Tristan’s twin brother, Benedick, is a vice director of the Tristan Bates theatre.
Despite being trained at the College of Surgeons, the pull of the stage was too strong for Sir Charles Wyndham. In 1862, aged about 25, he made his first professional theatrical appearance. After a spell in the Union army during the American Civil War, Wyndham returned home and his acting career took off. He played in the popular melodramas and comedies of the time, becoming famous for his acting in a play called David Garrick (it’s a small world, the West End). In 1899, he opened his new theatre, called Wyndham’s, designed by the industrious W G R Sprague. Wyndham’s Theatre was Grade II* listed in 1960.
The Harold Pinter Theatre opens with Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden on 13 October. The play is dedicated to Pinter, who was Dorfman’s mentor for most of his writing life. Visit www.haroldpintertheatre.co.uk for more info.