Even though I still have some pictures and stories to share from trips I took to Scotland and Australia last year, today I felt more like talking about some history of London’s West End, and specifically of its famous theatres. I took an interesting audio tour by Ian McKellen on an app called VoiceMap. I wanted to share some history about the most interesting buildings I came across during this walk.
If you’ve been to London, you’ve probably walked past the Hippodrome Casino. It being quite a tacky-looking casino, I never took much notice of this building. Little did I now that The Hippodrome was first opened in 1900 and was, as the name would suggest, and actual hippodrome: a stadium for horse racing! Apparently some very spectacular shows were staged here: including full-on naval battles using a great water tank, acrobatic spectacles and circus acts including elephants and polar bears!
The Mousetrap, a play by Agatha Christie, is the longest-running play in the West End, having opened in 1952 and running continuously ever since! There is a memorial to Agatha Christie near Leicester Square, and if you look carefully you can see a little mousetrap engraved just above Christie’s head! I haven’t been to see The Mousetrap yet, but I’m not sure now whether I should as Ian McKellen subtly suggested in his tour that it’s… pretty shit? (and when Gandalf gives you theatre advice, you listen.)
Many times have I walked past the Palace Theatre longingly, as this is the theatre where Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is currently being performed (and it’s been impossible to get tickets 😦 )! However, you may also recognize this building as the home of Les Misérables, which played here for 19 years from 1985 onwards!
Seven Dials is a junction of 7 roads in the middle of the West End. The origin of what looks like an odd bit of city planning is fascinating: Thomas Neale designed this area to maximize profit. He abused the fact that rent in those days was charged by the length of the front of buildings, not by square footage of the area! The column at the centre of the junction only has 6 sundials due to the fact that the junction was only meant to join 6 roads, which was changed to 7 last-minute. This area was known as a slum by the 19th century and frequently formed an inspiration for Charles Dickens’ novels. The original sundial was removed in the 18th century, but a replacement was erected in 1989 and was revealed by none other than Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands! Apparently she was visiting at the time to commemorate the reign of William III and Queen Mary II. Queen Beatrix is a direct descendant of William III’s first cousin John William Friso, who became stadhouder after William died.
The Royal Ballet School and Royal Opera House are right next to each other and connected by a little bridge called the Bridge of Aspiration, referring to the ballet students’ dreams to one day be a performer at the opera house. The Royal Opera House currently standing is the third theatre in this spot, after fires in 1808 and 1856 destroyed the previous ones.
Across from the Royal Opera house, stands the infamous Bow Street Magistrates’ Court, which is an important institution in British crime history. The bars in front of the windows remind passers-by of its 266-year long history as a court. Many high-profile cases appeared here; Oscar Wilde was tried here for ‘gross indecency’ (being a homosexual) and sentenced to two years in prison. 😦
The site on which Theatre Royal, Drury Lane stands is the oldest theatre site still in use; the earliest theatre that stood here was built in 1663. From the restoration of the monarchy in the 17th century onwards, theatres endorsed by the sovereign were named ‘Theatre Royal’. King Charles II loved the theatre and even had a famous actress for a mistress: Nell Gwyn. You come across her name a lot when walking through the West End: a few pubs are named after her, for example.
Famous Irish playwright Richard Sheridan owned the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane for a long time and renovated it in 1794. 15 years later, the theatre burned down (theatres burning down was definitely a theme in this audio tour). Sheridan supposedly watched the fire from the pub across the street, saying: “A man may surely be allowed to take a glass of wine by his own fireside.”
Henry Irving is another name from London theatre you come across a lot when exploring the West End. What is so special about him is that he really changed people’s perception of the theatre. Before him, being an actor was not a respectable profession at all. Irving was the first actor to be knighted, in 1895, indicating a real shift in how actors were viewed.
Henry Irving managed the Lyceum Theatre, where The Lion King is now playing. Bram Stoker, another famous name, was Irving’s acting manager and wrote Dracula while employed at the theatre. It is said Irving formed the inspiration for its main character…
In my next post I hope to share some pictures of last year’s holiday to Scotland I took with Merel (long overdue). I am going to Scotland again this summer, with my father, to Inverness and surroundings. Should be interesting!