Post-War West End Theatre
After the end of World War II in 1945, the West End was dominated by the commercial sector. Farces and who-dunnits became very popular. The most famous being The Mousetrap, an adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel that opened in 1952 and is still going today: the longest-running show in the West End.
T S Eliot's plays, which had premiered in the little theatres before the war, moved into the West End and the plays of Terence Rattigan remained popular.
However, the glamorous productions of the 1950s produced by Binkie Beaumont and H M Tennent soon became economically unviable. Actors moved into TV to make more money and West End productions shrank in size to two- or three-handers.
Fewer risks are now taken by West End producers and commercial managements with the consequence that productions of new plays have been pushed out to the fringe theatres and subsidized sector.
The rep theatres remain important advocates for new work, where producers test audience reaction before putting up the money for a West End transfer.
Big budget shows are now nearly always musicals with huge casts and extravagant and technologically complex staging.
However the West End is still seen as prestigious and Hollywood stars such as Meryl Streep, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kevin Spacey and Nicole Kidman continue to star in West End shows.
Costume worn by Vivien Leigh as Paola in Duel of Angels
Costume worn by Vivien Leigh as Paola in Duel of Angels by Jean Giraudoux (1882-1944), Apollo Theatre, London, England, wool and mohair with lace trim and silk bands, designed by Christian Dior (1905-1957), made by M Berman Limited, London, England, 1958, Museum no. S.1443-1984
Barbara Windsor and Danny La Rue in Come Spy with Me
The musical comedy was the latest in a long tradition of comedy at the Whitehall Theatre stretching back, as the inside back cover of the programme proudly proclaimed, 21 years. Come Spy With Me followed in essence the ingredients which had made Brian Rix's stream of 'Whitehall farces' successful. The plot centred around la Rue's character Danny Rhodes (a pun on his own name) who, as a spy for MI6, is forced to assume various female disguises, including impersonations of some of the female members of the cast including one Barbara Windsor, fresh from success in another spy spoof Carry On Spying. La Rue's career in cabaret as a female impersonator began in naval concert parties and plays, but by 1966 he was a huge star of the club circuit, owning his own nightclub called simply 'Danny La Rue's'. Writer Bryan Blackburn and director Ned Sherrin built Come Spy With Me as a vehicle for La Rue's talents and critics applauded this 'unique performer's enthusiasm and delight'.
Jane Eyre, Shared Experience Theatre Company
This dramatised version of Charlotte Brontë's novel was adapted by Polly Teale and devised by the experimental Shared Experience Theatre Company with Penny Layden as Jane and Sean Murray as Mr Rochester. Initially produced at the Young Vic in 1997, it was so successful that it transferred to the West End in 1999. Neil Warmington's set was stark and representational, featuring a charred, fragmented staircase. This was used to suggest both the entrance to the attic where the first Mrs Rochester (who was said to be mad) was secretly kept by her husband and the room where the young Jane was imprisoned as a child. This production suggested that the woman in the attic was the alter ego of Jane, and that the rampant uncontrolled woman at the top of the stairs was the repressed side of the reserved Victorian woman Jane Eyre.
Relatively Speaking, 1967
Relatively Speaking was the first major hit in a string of more than 60 plays that have put Alan Ayckbourn in the front rank of British playwrights. It was written in 1967, in response to Stephen Joseph's request for a play 'which would make people laugh when their seaside holidays were spoiled by the rain and they came into the theatre to get dry before trudging back to their landladies', and began Ayckbourn's long association with Scarborough and what is now the Stephen Joseph Theatre.
The premiere at the Duke of York's Theatre in London was in March 1967, with a cast including (from left to right) Richard Briers, Celia Johnson and Michael Hordern. Ayckbourn's gifts include acute observational powers, an ear for natural dialogue, and a meticulous attention to the construction of his plots. The combination has produced some of the finest comedies and intricate farces of the British stage including 'Bedroom Farce' and 'A Chorus of Disapproval'. But many of Ayckbourn's plays, like 'Way Upstream' or 'Woman in Mind', have a darker undertow, with black comic twists and profound emotional depths.
Ben Thomas as Othello
In 1997, Britain's leading black theatre company, Talawa, staged Shakespeare's Othello at The Drill Hall, a small fringe venue in London. Othello tells the story of a black general in the Venetian army, successful, articulate and popular, who elopes with the daughter of a white aristocrat. However well respected Othello has become, her father would not countenance her marrying a moor. One of the general's own company then proceeds to poison Othello's mind against his wife until he becomes convinced that she has been unfaithful to him.
Talawa's production with Ben Thomas as Othello, Sam Adams as Emilia and Dominic Letts as Iago, used modern dress and the publicity for the performance drew a comparison between attitudes to moors in 17th century Europe and attitudes to mixed race couples in the 20th century. A reference to the trial of OJ Simpson was cited as evidence that some in society still disapprove of a couple where the man is black and the woman white.
Private Lives, 1999
In Private Lives, Noël Coward presents the 1920s world of 'silk dressing gown' sophistication. Divorced for six years, Amanda and Elyot find themselves booked into adjoining honeymoon suites with their new spouses, Victor and Sibyl. Their passion is reignited and they escape their new partnerships by eloping to Paris. Underneath the farcical improbability of the premise and the acid bite of the sparkling dialogue seethes the very real passion and pain of two people who find it hard to be together but impossible to be apart.
Coward wrote Elyot and Amanda for himself and Gertrude Lawrence, and here they are played by Anton Lesser and Juliet Stevenson in the National Theatre's 1999 production. According to The Telegraph, casting two 'serious' actors in one of the 'most satisfyingly constructed and brilliantly executed high comedies in the English language' was a success.
Poster advertising Chicago, 1999
The images on this poster are (from top left, clockwise): Lisa Stevens as Annie (London), Charlotte d'Amboise as Roxy Hart (Broadway and tour), Thom Graham as Martin Harrison (London), Caitlin Carter as Mona (Broadway), Mamie Duncan Gibbs as Annie (Broadway) and Michelle Hodgson as Hunyak.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, 2002
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang represents a successful trend in West End musicals. Producers mount a stage version of a popular film musical, guaranteeing box office interest from all the fans of the original film.
The 1968 film was based on the book Chitty Chitty Bang Bang written by Ian Fleming, who is famous for writing the books that introduced Agent 007 James Bond to the world.
Crackpot inventor Caractacus Potts buys a dilapidated car called Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and he and his two children and Truly Scrumptious, the beautiful daughter of Lord Scrumptious get caught up in an amazing adventure, during which Chitty Chitty Bang Bang turns out to be able to fly and sail.
The stage version directed by Adrian Noble of the RSC, which opened in March 2002, features a miraculous piece of theatrical machinery to simulate the car flying. Here are original cast members Michael Ball as Caractacus, Emma Williams as Truly, and Lauren Morgan and Harry Smith as Jemima and Jeremy Potts.