Phoenix Theatre, Charing Cross Road
Sitting just across from Foyles’s bookshop, the Phoenix was designed by Bertie Crewe, Cecil Massey and Sir Giles Gilbert Scott – the man behind Battersea Power Station, Liverpool Cathedral, and the UK’s red telephone boxes – with an austere neoclassical façade and prettier Italianate interior. Opened in 1930 it staged many works by Noel Coward, the first production of Terence Rattigan’s The Browning Version and for many years was home to Willy Russell’s musical Blood Brothers. It’s now home to the exuberant, lo-fi and life-affirming Canadian musical Come from Away, which recounts what happened when 6,500 frightened air passengers – and two bonobo chimps - were diverted to a tiny Canadian town on the island of Newfoundland after 9/11. Book, ceilidh-style music and lyrics are by married couple Irene Sankoff and David Hein, direction by US stalwart Christopher Ashley. Booking to February 2022.
St Martin’s Theatre, West Street
Designed by the great theatre architect WGR Sprague as part of a pair on West Street with the nearby Ambassadors, the handsome but small-scale 550-seat St Martin’s was completed in 1913 but its opening was delayed until 1916 by the First World War. Basil Rathbone – Hollywood’s Sherlock Holmes – played there in 1923 in Karel Capek’s play R.U.R, in which the word ‘robot’ was first used. In 30 years of writing about London Theatre, I’d never been inside St Martin’s, as since 1970 it’s hosted Agatha Christie’s thriller The Mousetrap, which is officially the world’s longest play having originally opened in 1952. The theatre’s post-Covid reopening finally gave me an excuse; the interior is beautiful and the play less creaky than you’d imagine. At each performance the audience is asked not to reveal that the murderer is actually… but that would be telling. Booking indefinitely.
Wyndham’s Theatre, Charing Cross Road
Right by Leicester Square Tube, Wyndham’s takes its name from actor-manager Charles Wyndham who commissioned it from WGR Sprague, the architect of six West End theatres including the St Martin’s. It’s grand, stone façade is a landmark on Charing Cross Road. Opened in 1899, Wyndham’s saw many works staged by Gerald Du Maurier (father of Daphne), a long run of JM Barrie’s Dear Brutus and – in the 1970s – the premiere of Godspell. Seven weeks before lockdown, Tom Stoppard’s late-career magnum opus Leopoldstadt opened to huge acclaim. In this sprawling witty study of family life and social change in pre- and post-war Vienna, the 84-year-old playwright deals explicitly with his own Jewish heritage, including the loss of many family members in the Holocaust. Booking to October 30.
Vaudeville Theatre, the Strand
One of two theatres on the Strand (along with the art deco Adelphi), the Vaudeville was designed in 1870 by CJ Phipps (one of the triumvirates of great London theatre architects, alongside WGR Sprague and Frank Matcham) and rebuilt twice. The current iteration of the building dates from 1926, and for many decades it was run by the Gatti family of restaurateurs. Henry Irving appeared here in the theatre’s early days as did the long running musical Salad Days. It’s now home to Nick Dear’s play, an exploration of multiple potential futures in the lives of two characters, Marianne and Roland, told by multiple casts. The second brace of couples – Russell Tovey and Omari Douglas; Anna Maxwell Martin and Chris O’Dowd – have now taken over the reins of an intriguing piece of work that shows how minor events can have major repercussions. It’s a Donmar Warehouse production, directed by Michael Longhurst, in exile while the Donmar is refurbished. There’s only one entrance from the Vaudeville foyer into the stalls: in intervals, I often found it was easier to leave by the emergency side exit for a pint in a local pub rather than fight my way to upstairs bar. Opened 18 June, booking to 12 September 2021.
Her Majesty’s Theatre, Haymarket
Sitting opposite the venerable Theatre Royal Haymarket, the opulent Her Majesty’s is another CJ Phipps theatre, built for actor manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree (whose ghost supposedly haunts a box) and opened in 1897. The historic theatre’s name changes according to the gender of the reigning British monarch, and Tree established the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art here. Although it’s hosted work by Noel Coward, George Bernard Shaw and Shakespeare, it’s best known as a home for musicals: Chu Chin Chow in the early 20th century and now Andrew Lloyd Webber’s gothic romance and the West End’s second-longest running production. Phantom opened here in 1986 and has since grossed an estimated $6bn worldwide. Revamped and revised under lockdown, the Phantom is now baaaaack. Currently booking to February 2022.
Prince Edward Theatre, Old Compton Street
Occupying a corner site on Soho’s Old Compton St, the handsome, brick-built Prince Edward was designed by Edward A Stone: opened in 1930, it saw Josephine Baker perform her famous Banana dance in its early years but was later converted into a dance and cabaret venue, a services club in the Second World War, and a home for Cinerama movies including Ben Hur. It reverted to live theatre production full time in 1978, reopening with Evita. More recently, producer Cameron Mackintosh and Disney combined forces for Mary Poppins, the musical about a magical nanny based on PL Travers’ books and 1960s film, with a book by Julian ‘Downton Abbey’ Fellowes and new songs augmenting the original score. Zizi Strallen dishes out the spoonfuls of sugar, while Charlie Stemp exercises his cockney accent as chimney sweep Bert. Booking to February 2022.
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