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Mark Shenton’s top venues: New London Theatre

New London Theatre. Photo: Craig Sugden New London Theatre. Photo: Craig Sugden
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I love London’s stock of Edwardian and Victorian theatres from the latter part of the 19th century and early 20th century a whole lot more than any of the modern theatres that have sprung up all over the country since. We’ve been saddled by awful modern buildings, from Curve in Leicester (the worst of the modern offenders) to High Wycombe’s Swan and the Milton Keynes Theatre. But generally we’ve come to embrace them as places which, if far from ideal, can nevertheless provide audiences and creatives with modern facilities and decent sight lines, even if not enough atmosphere.

But occasionally, just occasionally, a building grows to find its place. It’s certainly the case that the National Theatre – once it got roughed around the edges a bit, and became fully inhabited – has become one of the most loved theatres in London. Partly that’s a testament to the standard of the work that happens within its walls, and the glowing feeling of reassurance you get as you enter, but it’s also because a theatre such as the Olivier provides an epic arena in a configuration that no other London theatre matches.

And that’s also true of the New London Theatre, which occupies a hallowed,  theatrically sacred place on Drury Lane. I’m not saying that because Cats became, in its time, the longest running musical in British history there. Rather, there has been a place of entertainment on the site since Elizabethan times. Nell Gwynn, mistress of Charles II, was associated with the tavern here, which, by the end of the 17th century, was called the Great Mogul. It subsequently became the site for the Mogul Saloon, built in 1847 and variously renamed until it became known as the Middlesex Music Hall in 1851. That building was replaced by the New Middlesex Theatre of Varieties in 1911, then completely redecorated and renamed as the Winter Garden in 1919.

Intriguingly, the Winter Garden was also the name of the theatre that the original production of Cats first transferred to on Broadway, and from where Andrew Lloyd Webber’s School of Rock is in turn transferring back to the New London in the autumn.

But continuing the theme of historical connections, the Winter Garden’s first production under its new name in 1921 was a musical by Jerome Kern called Sally, followed by two more musicals by Kern: The Cabaret Girl in 1922 and The Beauty Prize in 1923, Incidentally, the New London is currently home to Kern and Hammerstein’s Show Boat, in a production that transferred from Sheffield’s Crucible and is running to August 27.

A programme cover from 1971
A programme cover from 1971

The Winter Garden shut its doors in 1959 when the theatre was sold to a property developer and eventually demolished, making way for the current construction that, as well as the theatre, includes an underground car park, a cabaret venue, a basement nightclub/bar, several shops and a residential tower. The New London Theatre, which opened in 1972, was designed by architect Paul Tvrtkovic in association with theatre set designer Sean Kenny, and included a massive revolve that takes in the stage, orchestra pit and part of the front stalls. That led to the (in)famous warning being issued to ticket holders for Cats that latecomers would not be admitted while the auditorium was in motion.

Among its early shows was the first London production of the musical Grease, starring then-unknown American actor Richard Gere as Danny Zucko, in a cast that also featured a young Elaine Paige. But its early run of theatre productions failed to last for long, and it became a television studio, where shows such as This Is Your Life were recorded in the late 1970s.

That’s until producer Cameron Mackintosh and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber came along, and most especially set designer John Napier, who chanced upon the theatre as a home for their new musical Cats. Napier set about transforming it into a wrap-around, immersive playground for its title characters. This was long before the age of Punchdrunk and its successors, and Cats truly broke new ground in creating an environmental space where the audience didn’t look at a set but were part of it, surrounded on all sides.

New London Theatre exterior
New London Theatre exterior

The show ran from 1981 to 2002, closing on its 21st birthday. It had turned around what had seemed to be a white elephant of a theatre – geographically a bit of a stretch from other theatres – into a viable address. Yet through the early 2000s it became a bit of a struggle to find shows that ran very long, apart from a London run for Bill Kenwright’s revamped Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. A couple of its more notorious failures included Imagine This and Trevor Nunn’s lengthy stage musical version of Gone With the Wind (I went to the first preview and it didn’t finish till 12.15am, nearly four and a half hours after it had begun). Imagine This, a musical set among a theatre company operating in a Jewish ghetto during Nazi occupation, culminated in a show-within-a-show in which a banner was unfurled over the stage that said: “Don’t get on the train!” I remember turning to my companion and delivering my instant review: “Don’t get on the escalator!”, referring to the one at the theatre’s entrance.

But the arrival of War Horse from the National’s Olivier Theatre in 2009 saw the theatre come into its own again. Again, the show found a perfect home, where it remained for eight years until closing earlier this year. That created an opportunity for Show Boat to come from Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre – it, too, was transferring from a thrust stage. As the show’s director Daniel Evans told me in an interview for The Stage: “It’s one of the few theatres in London that can accommodate a thrust staging; obviously we could have adapted it for a proscenium arch, but there’s nothing like it than when the boat comes out into the auditorium.”

Now Lloyd Webber is set to occupy the theatre once again – after Cats and Joseph – with his latest musical, which begins performances there from October 24, prior to an official opening on November 14.

New London Theatre

166 Drury Lane, London WC2B 5PW
Box office 0844 412 4654
Stage door 020 72342 9802
Website reallyusefultheatres.co.uk

Theatre manager Cuqui Rivera
Duty manager Steven Smith
Box office manager Lindsey Jenkinson
Chief electrician Richard Coard
Master carpenter Bruce Tugby

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