Delfont Mackintosh Theatres
Novello Theatre opened on 22 May 1905. It was designed by W.G.R. Sprague who had developed an early love of the stage from his Mother, the actress Dolores Drummond. This was a boom time for theatre architecture and Sprague designed no less than 33 new theatres during his 40 year career.
The Novello, which was known as the Waldorf Theatre when it opened, was part of the major redevelopment then taking place in this area of London. Sprague was also the architect for the Novello's 'twin', the Aldwych Theatre, at the other end of the block. He gave the Novello a classic facade made of Portland stone, leading to a Louis XIV style interior, richly decorated with marble and gilt. Cream and rose du Barry were the predominant colours with fleur de péche marble pilasters in the dress and upper circles. It was the last three-tier theatre to be built in London and the second to be constructed without a raked stage. Sprague always paid great attention to detail as can still be seen today in the decorative panels and friezes around the theatre and in such features as the intricately patterned brass fingerplates.
The first lessees of the Waldorf Theatre were the Shubert brothers who already owned or managed some 20 theatres in America and were making their first foray into the European theatrical world. The theatre opened with an 8-week season of opera and drama starring the actress Eleanora Duse and the well-known opera singers Emma Calve and Edouard de Reszke. It was a grand opening, but neither this season nor subsequent ones were a success. Indeed, it was not until November 1913 that the theatre, now renamed the Strand, had its first long run. This was of an Anglo-Chinese play called Mr Wu starring the matinee idol Matheson Lang as Wu Li Chang. It was to become his most famous role on both stage and screen and he later titled his memoirs, Mr Wu Looks Back.
The First World War saw the theatre under the management of the husband and wife team of Julia Neilson and Fred Terry (youngest brother of the famous actress Ellen Terry). Initially there were a number of short runs including, in 1915, The Argyle Case, a detective story using an early bugging device, an example of which was set up in the theatre foyer for theatre patrons to try for themselves.
On 13 October 1915 the entrance to the theatre pit was ed during a heavy Zeppelin raid when 19 fell on the Strand. The performance that night was of The Scarlet Pimpernel, with Fred Terry as Sir Percy Blakeney, the Pimpernel. In spite of the destruction going on all around he managed to calm the audience and in true theatrical tradition 'the show went on'.
Soon afterwards Matheson Lang took over the management of the theatre and returned as Wu Li Chang and as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. In 1917 another actor and actress, Arthur Bourchier and Kyrle Bellew, acquired the lease to the Strand. They literally lived over the shop in one of the flats above the theatre, another flat being occupied by the composer, actor and darling of the times, Ivor Novello.
Bourchier and Bellew first appeared on the Strand stage together in Scandal by Cosmo Hamilton, described as a new 'Bedroom' play with a strong 'Bedroom' scene. Under their ownership the theatre enjoyed a number of successes, At the Villa Rose, a 'sleuth' play, ran for 227 performances, A Safety Match by Ian Hay ran for 229 performances and, in 1923, they put on Anna Christie, the first Eugene O'Neill play to be seen in the West End that caused a sensation. The Daily Telegraph critic wrote:
'Every now and then in a theatrical season, sandwiched in between the first nights of plays that are, generally speaking, either ordinarily good or extraordinarily bad, there comes a production which strikes you as being of outstanding importance and interest, such an event occurred last night at the Strand Theatre...'
The following year the musical farce Stop Flirting starring Fred and Adele Astaire transferred from the Shaftesbury Theatre where Fred and Adele had made their UK debut. Throughout the 1920s the Strand became home to a wealth of acting talent, Hermione Baddeley, Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, Sybil Thorndike and Peggy Ashcroft amongst others all trod the boards.
In 1930 the comedian Leslie Henson and his business partner Firth Shephard co-leased the theatre and presented the first in a series of farces, It's A Boy! was swiftly followed by It's A !, Nice Goings On! and in 1936 Aren't Men Beasts! starred a young John Mills who was learning a few tricks of the trade from Strand stalwart, Robertson Hare.
The war years brought triumph and disaster. Disaster when the theatre was ed during the Blitz in 1940. However, under the auspices of Donald Wolfit the show went on once again, lunchtime performances of Shakespeare were given with the artists picking their way to the stage over the rubble. Triumph when Arsenic and Old Lace, a new comedy by Joseph Kesselring, broke all records for the longest run with 1337 performances from December 1942 to March 1946. On 3 June 1943 the Royal Family attended the play. It was the first time the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret had been allowed to go to an evening performance in the West End.
'Small is Beautiful' was how the composer Vivian Ellis described his musical comedy And So To Bed about the life of Samuel Pepys. Ellis composed it as a period piece with sarabandes, gigues and madrigals. The musical director was Mantovani and when it transferred to the Strand in 1951 the cast included Leslie Henson, Betty Paul, Keith Michell and Denis Quilley.
In February 1955 Sailor Beware!, a comedy by Philip King and Falkland Cary made a star of Peggy Mount as Emma Hornett, 'the mother-in-law to outrival all mothers-in-law'. It was an immediate success and the film rights were bought four days after the first night.
The novelist William Golding wrote his first play for the theatre in 1958, it was a comedy set in Roman times called The Brass Butterfly and starred Alastair Sim, Jack Hedley and George Cole. Comedy and farce were what the theatre was principally known for, but just as with Anna Christie there were some significant exceptions. One such was Ionesco's Rhinoceros in 1960. This famous production staged and designed by Orson Welles, transferred from the Royal Court and starred Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, Michael Gough and Peter Sallis.
Stephen Sondheim's third Broadway show, and the first for which he wrote both music and lyrics, A Funny thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, received its UK premiere at the Strand to great acclaim on 3 October 1963. Frankie Howerd was the saucy slave Pseudolus and the cast also included Robertson Hare, in his eighth production at the theatre, and Jon Pertwee, later known as Dr Who.
In October 1970 three plays opened in succession the titles of which might have been planned: Lie Down I Think I Love You was followed by When We Are Married and then No Please - We're British. The latter became a tourist attraction and the theatre's most successful show to date. It finally closed in 1982 after a record 6,671 performances. Stars who had appeared in it included Michael Crawford, David Jason and Andrew Sachs.
Later that year, The Real Thing, Tom Stoppard's touching play about affaires de coeur, premiered at the theatre where it enjoyed a two year run with Felicity Kendal and Roger Rees in the leading roles. Barry Humphries, alias the gladdie throwing Edna Everage, set new box office records in 1987 with over 200 sold out performances of Back with a Vengeance!
Buddy, Alan Janes' musical about the life of Buddy Holly, had audiences dancing in the aisles for 7 years until 2002. Recent productions include Mrs Warren's Profession, directed by Peter Hall with his daughter Rebecca as a sparky Vivie Warren and The Rat Pack that proved the enduring popularity of those three famous crooners Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr and Dean Martin.
On 28 May 2005 The Rat Pack transferred to the Savoy Theatre to enable Delfont Mackintosh Theatres Limited, which had owned the freehold of the theatre since 1991, and managed it from 25 March 2003, to undertake a £3.25 million refurbishment programme to restore the theatre to its former glory.
Since then, the theatre has played host to highly successful RSC seasons, which included Patrick Stewart and Harriet Walter in Antony and Cleopatra and David Tennant in Hamlet, along with acclaimed dramas including Shadowlands and An Inspector Calls.
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