Royal Comedy Theatre
The theatre in 2007
|Public transit||Piccadilly Circus|
|Owner||Ambassador Theatre Group|
|Type||West End theatre|
|Opened||15 October 1881|
The Harold Pinter Theatre, formerly the Comedy Theatre until 2011, is a West End theatre, and opened on Panton Street in the City of Westminster, on 15 October 1881, as the Royal Comedy Theatre. It was designed by Thomas Verity and built in just six months in painted (stucco) stone and brick. By 1884 it was known as just the Comedy Theatre. In the mid-1950s the theatre underwent major reconstruction and re-opened in December 1955; the auditorium remains essentially that of 1881, with three tiers of horseshoe-shaped balconies.
The streets between Leicester Square and the Haymarket had been of insalubrious reputation until shortly before the construction of the Comedy Theatre, but by 1881 the "doubtful resorts of the roisterers" had been removed. J. H. Addison held a plot of ground in Panton Street at the corner of Oxenden Street, for which he commissioned the architect Thomas Verity to design a theatre. The builders were Kirk and Randall of Woolwich; The original seating capacity was 1,186, comprising 140 stalls, 120 dress circle, 126 upper boxes, amphitheatre 100, pit 400 and gallery 300. the construction was completed in six months.
The theatre was, and remains, a three-tier house, its exterior in the classical tradition in painted (stucco) stone and brick. The theatrical newspaper The Era described the interior as "Renaissance style, richly moulded and finished in white and gold. The draperies of the boxes are of maroon plush, elegantly draped and embroidered in gold". It was originally planned to light the theatre by the new electric lighting, but for unspecified reasons this was temporarily abandoned, and the usual gas lighting was installed.[n 1]
The first lessee of the theatre, Alexander Henderson, who had worked with Verity on the design of the building, intended it to be the home of comic opera; at one time he had intended to call it the Lyric.[n 2] The theatre historians Mander and Mitchenson write that the name he finally chose – the Royal Comedy – lacked any official approval for the use of "Royal", which was dropped within three years.[n 3] He assembled a strong team, including Lionel Brough as stage director and Auguste van Biene as musical director.
The theatre opened on 15 October 1881 with Edmond Audran's opéra comique La mascotte in an English adaptation by Robert Reece and H. B. Farnie. La mascotte was followed by three more adaptations by Farnie: Suppé's Boccaccio, Planquette's Rip Van Winkle (with Fred Leslie as Rip) in 1882, and Chassaigne's Falka (with Violet Cameron in the title role in 1884. The last of the series of operettas was Erminie in 1885, which starred, among others, Violet Melnotte, who became the lessee of the theatre in that year. She presented plays including The Silver Shield by Sydney Grundy; and Sister Mary by Wilson Barrett and Clement Scott (1886), and a season of comic operas in which she appeared herself.
Melnotte sub-let the theatre in 1887 to Herbert Beerbohm Tree – his first venture into management – who presented and co-starred with Marion Terry in The Red Lamp by Outram Tristram. The following year the sub-lessee was Charles Hawtrey, who ran the theatre until 1892 and produced Jane (1890) and many farces described by Mander and Mitchenson as "now-forgotten".
In 1893 J. Comyns Carr took over the management of the theatre. He remained in charge for three years, producing among other plays Sowing the Wind by Sydney Grundy (1893); The Professor's Love Story by J. M. Barrie, (1894); The New Woman by Grundy (1894); and The Benefit of the Doubt by A. W. Pinero (1895). The resident stars of the house in this period were Cyril Maude and his wife Winifred Emery. Hawtrey resumed the management in a play of his own, Mr Martin, in which he co-starred with Lottie Venne. which he followed with a successful season of light comedies. William Greet took over the theatre in 1898 and presented Arthur Roberts and Ada Reeve in a musical comedy Milord Sir Smith with music by Edward Jakobowski. The major productions of 1899 were A Lady of Quality by Francis Hodgson Burnett, and Great Caesar by George Grossmith Jr. and Paul Rubens, with Willie Edouin, Grossmith and Reeve.
In the early years of the 20th century the Comedy was often used for special seasons and matinée performances of avant garde plays. Frank Benson and his company, which included Lilian Braithwaite and Oscar Asche, played a Shakespeare season in 1901. In 1902 Lewis Waller presented an adaption of Monsieur Beaucaire which ran for 430 performances.
In 1904 Fred Terry and Julia Neilson played in Sunday for a run of 129 performances. The following year Charles Frohman presented John Barrymore in his first London appearance in The Dictator. In 1906 John Hare presented a short season, appearing in The Alabaster Staircase, and a revival of A Pair of Spectacles. Other productions in the first decade of the century included Raffles with Gerald du Maurier in the title role (1906), which ran for 351 performances; 1907, a series of six dramas by Somerset Maugham and others starring Marie Tempest (1907–1909); and Marie Löhr in Pinero's Preserving Mr Panmure (1911). The final production to open before the First World War was Peg o' My Heart, with Laurette Taylor, which ran for 710 performances.
In 1915 the Comedy followed the fashion for revue, presenting Albert de Courville's Shell Out! (1915), C. B. Cochran's Half-past Eight (1916), and four successive revues by André Charlot: This and That and See-Saw! (1916), and Bubbly and Tails Up (1918. They all ran well, most particularly the last two, which ran for 429 and 467 performances respectively. 
The theatre was notable for the role it played in overturning stage censorship by establishing the New Watergate Club in 1956, under producer Anthony Field. The Theatres Act 1843 was still in force and required scripts to be submitted for approval by the Lord Chamberlain's Office. Formation of the club allowed plays that had been banned due to language or subject matter to be performed under "club" conditions.
Plays produced in this way included the UK premières of Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge, Robert Anderson's Tea and Sympathy and Tennessee Williams' Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. The law was not revoked until 1968, but in the late 1950s there was a loosening of conditions in theatre censorship, the club was dissolved and Peter Shaffer's Five Finger Exercise premièred to a public audience.
Howard Panter, Joint Chief Executive and Creative Director of ATG, told the BBC: "The work of Pinter has become an integral part of the history of the Comedy Theatre. The renaming of one of our most successful West End theatres is a fitting tribute to a man who made such a mark on British theatre and who, over his 50-year career, became recognised as one of the most influential modern British dramatists."
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