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The Harold Pinter Theatre, Panton Street, SW1

Formerly - The Royal Comedy Theatre / The Comedy Theatre

The Harold Pinter Theatre during the run of 'Death and the Maiden' which opened the Theatre with its new name on October 24th 2011 - Photo M.L.

Above - The Harold Pinter Theatre during the run of 'Death and the Maiden' which opened the Theatre with its new name on October 24th 2011 - Photo M.L.

 

 

A programme for 'Sowing the Wind' at the Comedy Theatre in 1893. - Click to see entire programme.See a Seating Plan for this Theatre with non commercial and independent opinions on the best seats to book - From Seatplan.comSee London's West End TheatresSee Theatreland MapsThe Harold Pinter Theatre in Panton Street, London was built by J. H. Addison and originally opened as the Royal Comedy Theatre on Saturday the 15th of October 1881 with a performance of the Opera Comique 'The Mascotte.' The Theatre was designed by the well known Theatre Architect Thomas Verity as a home for Comic Opera. The auditorium was built on four levels, Stalls and Pit, Dress Circle, Upper Circle, and Gallery, with 14 boxes either side of the proscenium, and had a capacity on opening of 1,055. Nowadays with modern seating the Theatre holds a more modest 796 to 820. The Harold Pinter is one of just three pre 1890 West End Theatres whose auditoriums are still mostly in their original form, the other two being the Royal Opera House and the Criterion Theatre.

Right - A programme for 'Sowing the Wind' at the Comedy Theatre in 1893. - Click to see entire programme.

The amazingly well preserved early Grid and flying equipment at the Harold Pinter Theatre in September 2009 - Click for more of these images - Photo M.L.The stage of the Harold Pinter Theatre is 6.55m (21ft 6in) deep with a proscenium opening of 7.47m (24ft 6in) and a grid height of 11.89m. The Theatre still retains its original orchestra pit which is very rarely used, and in fact in July 2009 it was used for the first time for 25 years for the short lived production of 'Too Close to the Sun'.

Left - The amazingly well preserved Grid and early flying equipment at the Harold Pinter Theatre in September 2009 - Click for more of these images.

In 2009 the Theatre was still a Hemp House and the original wooden grid was still in place, and it still retained much of its early flying equipment which was constructed by stage carpenters probably about 50 years after the Theatre was built. These wooden windlasses, which were removed in 2011 when a new grid was put in, were a rare survivor in British Theatres and a fascinating insight into how scenery was flown in the past. To see more photographs of the grid and its equipment before its 2011 reconstruction click here.

(Please note that in some of the following newspaper articles the opening date and opening production at the Theatre are reported as different to the facts but it is known that the Theatre actually opened on Saturday the 15th of October 1881 with a performance of the 'The Mascotte'.)

On the 3rd of September 1881 the ERA published the following notice about the new Theatre saying: 'The Royal Comedy Theatre which is now being built by Mr J. H. Addison in Panton-street, Haymarket, rapidly approaches completion, and will be opened by Mr Henderson on October 1st. The works have been carried out by Mr Thomas Verity, the well-known architect, and it is confidently believed that the Theatre will rank as one of the best ventilated and most artistically designed in London.' The ERA, 3rd of September 1881.

 

The auditorium of the Harold Pinter Theatre in September 2009 - Photo M.L.

Above - The auditorium of the Harold Pinter Theatre in September 2009

 

Programme for the comedy 'Dick Sheridan' at the Comedy Theatre in March 1894. - Click to see entire programme.The Royal Comedy Theatre opened the same week as the Savoy Theatre on the Strand in London, and the Glasgow Herald remarked, in their 26th of September 1881 edition: 'Two new London theatres will be opened - the one on October 3 and the other October 10. At Mr Carte's New Savoy Theatre, whither "Patience" will be removed on Monday week, the electric light will for the first time be used on the stage.

A programme for 'The New Woman' at the Comedy Theatre in October 1894. - Click to see entire programme.Left - A programme for the comedy 'Dick Sheridan' at the Comedy Theatre in March 1894. - Click to see entire programme.

The scenery has therefore had to be specially painted, with an avoidance of blue and a neat attention to detail, necessitated by the substitution of the brilliant white electric light for the yellow glare of gas. Mr Henry Emden has painted this scenery for a light which will probably inaugurate a new era for scenic art. As the Savoy Theatre is on the brow of the hill an entrance to the street can be made for nearly all parts of the house.

Right - A programme for 'The New Woman' at the Comedy Theatre in October 1894. - Click to see entire programme.

The Royal Comedy Theatre in Panton Street is to a certain extent, subterranean, the dress circle being on a level with the street, and stalls and pit being below the street level. The theatre will hold about 1200 people. It will be lit by the divided electric light now being exhibited at a shop at Charing Cross, London, and it will be opened on October 10 with an adapted comedy called "Out of the hunt," 'Messrs J. G. Taylor, E. W. Anson, E.Sothern, and Glenny, Miss Lottie Venne, Giulietta Arditi, and others being engaged.' The Glasgow Herald, 26th of September 1881.

 

The auditorium and stage of the Harold Pinter Theatre in a photograph taken from the Gallery in September 2009. - Photo M.L.In fact, although the Savoy Theatre did open with electric lighting installed, the first in London to do so, the Royal Comedy Theatre itself was opened with only gas lighting and not electric lighting as had originally been planned.

Left - The auditorium and stage of the Harold Pinter Theatre in a photograph taken from the Gallery in September 2009.

Shortly before the Theatre opened the ERA printed a review of the new building in their 24th of September 1881 edition saying: 'This new Theatre, now being completed by Mr. H. Addison, in Panton-street, Haymarket, for Mr Henderson, from the designs and under the superintendence of Mr Thomas Verity, F.R.I.B.A., will be in many respects unique in its arrangements; more particularly, we may instance, the entire absence of corridors, so that, in the event of panic or fire, the whole house can be quickly emptied, either directly into the street or into absolutely fireproof staircases.

A programme for 'Lord and Lady Algy' at the Comedy Theatre in April 1898. - Click to see entire programme.The Theatre being situated at the junction of two streets, has the great advantage of having numerous exits, every part of the house having two or more separate means of egress; and, in fact, every precaution which the architect could devise, or the Metropolitan Board of Works could suggest, has been adopted in order to render this Theatre as perfect as possible for the safety and convenience of the public. The dress circle is entered directly from the street level, through a spacious vestibule, having on the left hand a very handsome saloon; the stalls are approached by fireproof staircases on either side; and the upper boxes, pit, and gallery are equally well provided with staircases and saloons, which, by the way, will be under the superintendence of the Management.

Right - A programme for 'Lord and Lady Algy' at the Comedy Theatre in April 1898 - Click to see entire programme.

It is intended to illuminate the whole auditory by the electric light - not the powerful glare of one or two lamps; but by a lately patented system, which admits of the subdivision of the electric current into many smaller rays, so that the light will be diffused equally all over the house. To avoid the possibility of the Theatre being plunged by any accident to the machinery into darkness, a certain number of gas jets will be also provided in the staircases and entrances. The house will have the following ample accommodation, viz., 160 stalls, 130 dress circle seats, 170 upper box seats, 400 pit, 270 gallery, with 14 private boxes... The front of the house is to be intrusted to the able hands of Mr. R. D'Albertson.' The ERA, 24th of September 1881.

 

A Sketch showing the Foyer of the Comedy Theatre in 1912 - From the Academy Architecture and Architectural review of 1912.

Above - A Sketch showing the Foyer of the Comedy Theatre in 1912 - From the Academy Architecture and Architectural review of 1912. Compare this with the present day photograph below.

The 1950s redecorated Foyer, Box Office, and Dress Circle Bar of the Harold Pinter Theatre in September 2009  - Photo M.L.

Above - The 1950s redecorated Foyer, Box Office, and Dress Circle Bar of the Harold Pinter Theatre in September 2009.

 

The Aberdeen Weekly of the 8th of October 1881 printed a piece about the new Royal Comedy Theatre saying that: 'A photographic saloon will be one of the novelties at the new Comedy Theatre, London, to be opened on the 17th instant, and ladies in evening dresses will, it is announced, be photographed by electric light during the entr'actes. This is luxury with a vengeance. The Aberdeen Weekly, 8th of October 1881.

Whether this actually came to pass however, I don't know, but seeing as electric light wasn't in fact used in the Theatre on it's opening, it seems unlikely.

 

The auditorium and stage of the Harold Pinter Theatre in a photograph taken from the Dock Door 'get in' above the stage in September 2009 - Photo M.L.

Above - The auditorium and stage of the Harold Pinter Theatre in a photograph taken from the Dock Door 'get in' above the stage in September 2009.

 

The auditorium of the Harold Pinter Theatre in a photograph taken from the stage in September 2009. - Photo M.LThe Theatre opened on Saturday the 15th of October 1881 and the ERA printed a review of the building saying: 'On Thursday evening there was a private view of this, the latest addition to our London Theatres, which opens this evening with The Mascotte, and, notwithstanding that the weather proved miserably wet, a large company accepted the invitation of the Management to be present, an expression of surprise and delight escaping the lips of the majority, as immediately after passing the vestibule they found themselves on a level with the dress circle without ascending or descending a step.

Right - The auditorium of the Harold Pinter Theatre in a photograph taken from the stage in September 2009.

Programme for 'The Climbers' at the Comedy Theatre in the early 1900s.We have recently placed before our readers a detailed description of the structural character of the building and of the accommodation it will afford, and repetition is, of course, unnecessary.

Left - A Programme for 'The Climbers' at the Comedy Theatre in the early 1900s.

We may mention, though, that the announced scheme for lighting the interior by means of electricity has for the present been abandoned, and, that so far as the auditorium is concerned, the chief illuminating medium will be the powerful sun-burner furnished by Messrs Verity, of Regent-street.

 

The ceiling and original Sunburner of the Harold Pinter Theatre in September 2009 - Photo M.L.

Above - The ceiling and original Sunburner of the Harold Pinter Theatre in September 2009.

 

Programme for 'El Capitan' at the Comedy Theatre in the early 1900s.The cunning artificers in luxury and ease have exerted their skill and ingenuity on the construction of the private boxes and the seats of the dress circle. These seats are neither cribbed or cabined, abundant room being set apart for each person, while the upholstering has been done with no inconsiderable amount of taste and effect.

Right - A Programme for 'El Capitan' at the Comedy Theatre in the early 1900s.

The pit is especially open and airy, the slope of the floor being so arranged here, as in every other part of the Theatre, that even when the house is crowded to its utmost capacity, everyone will have a full view of the stage.

The architectural ornamentation of the interior reflects the highest credit, as does, indeed, the projection and entire carrying out of the plans, on Mr Verity, the distinguished architect of the building. It is 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. The Royal box, with its elegantly appointed retiring room attached, is, in its chaste and artistic decorations, quite a sight in itself. It has a special entrance in Oxenden-street. Handsome saloons are provided on each floor, cloak and retiring rooms are in their proper places, and no provision which can in any degree contribute to the comfort of the audience has escaped the vigilant attention of the architect and those from whom he received his commission. The refreshment department will be under the control of Messrs Belle and Bold, a brace of gentlemen known as restaurateurs in New York, and the feature of their management will be that the American system of refreshment will be adopted for the first time in an English Theatre.

 

The auditorium and stage of the Harold Pinter Theatre in a photograph taken from the Upper Circle in September 2009 - Photo M.L.

Above - The auditorium and stage of the Harold Pinter Theatre in a photograph taken from the Upper Circle in September 2009.

 

Programme for 'Secret and Confidential' at the Comedy Theatre in 1902.The act-drop is a work of art on which a very high order of skill has been brought to bear. The painting is done in imitation of tapestry, and that success has attended the efforts of the artist the public, when they see his work, will readily agree. The various dressing and other rooms stand apart in the building specially erected for the purpose in James-street, and in this building is also situated the green-room.

Programme for 'Memory's Garden' at the Comedy Theatre in 1902.Left - A Programme for 'Secret and Confidential' at the Comedy Theatre in 1902.

In the laying down of the stage, on the suggestion of Mr Alexander Henderson, the architect, Mr Verity, has adopted a novel principle, which it is expected will be a decided improvement on the old methods of construction.

Right - A Programme for 'Memory's Garden' at the Comedy Theatre in 1902.

The upholstering and seating have been done by the Messrs Shoolbred, who have also decorated the saloon on the right of the entrance vestibule. The general decorations have been carried out by Mr E. Bradwell, and the act-drop is by Messrs Howell and James.

Mr Lionel Brough will act as Stage-Manager, and, as already announced, Mr R. D'Albertson, a gentleman whose experience and unfailing courtesy well qualify him for such a position, will be the Acting-Manager.

 

The auditorium and stage of the Harold Pinter Theatre in a photograph taken from the Gallery in September 2009 - Photo M.L.

Above - The auditorium and stage of the Harold Pinter Theatre in a photograph taken from the Gallery in September 2009.

 

It should be added that, on Thursday evening, the capital orchestra, under the direction of Mr Van Bienne, was in attendance, and played a good selection of music; that the curtain was raised revealing a beautiful rural scene in La Mascotte, and that all present joined in the wish for the success of Mr Henderson's latest undertaking.' The ERA, 15th of October 1881. (Please note that the end of this article describes a private viewing of the Theatre and short preview of the opening production on Thursday the 13th of October but the Theatre opened officially on Saturday the 15th of October 1881.

The Harold Pinter Theatre is only one of three pre 1890 Theatres with its auditorium still relatively unchanged since opening. The others are the Royal Opera House and the Criterion Theatre. It was intended that this Theatre should be lit by the newest invention, electric light, but it ended up being lit with the more common gas lighting, even though the Savoy Theatre which opened only 5 days earlier was lit with electricity, the first in London to be so.

Programme for 'Room For Two' at the Comedy Theatre in 1939. Wartime Programme for 'Rise Above It' at the Comedy Theatre in 1941.The Theatre dropped the 'Royal' from its name in 1884 and it was probably wise to do so as it had no reason to call itself Royal and no warrant to say that it could.

Left - A Programme for 'Room For Two' at the Comedy Theatre in 1939.

Right - A Wartime Programme for 'Rise Above It' at the Comedy Theatre in 1941.

Over the years the Theatre has been subject to some alterations. In 1893 and 1903 minor changes were made, and in 1911 the vestibule and bars were reconstructed by the architects Whiting & Peto. In 1933 major redecoration of the Theatre took place.

In 1955 alterations were carried out by the architects Cecil Masey and A. Macdonald when the Theatre's auditorium was altered slightly by changing the line of the circle fronts and removing the slips from the balcony. Also the stage boxes, which were previously on three tiers, were altered at this time so that they formed a single tall box with a replacement arched frontage at the top. The Dressing room block and stage door were housed in a modern office building at the rear of the stage in Oxendon Street, and Orange Street at the same time.

The ceiling and original Sunburner of the Harold Pinter Theatre in September 2009 - Photo M.L.

Above - The ceiling and original Sunburner of the Harold Pinter Theatre in September 2009.

Remarkably the original sunburner is still in position in the wonderfully elaborate circular centrepiece of the auditorium ceiling and although it is no longer functional it is a very rare survivor in the West End.

 

A Photograph of the Comedy Theatre taken on the 14th of October 2006 during the run of 'Donkey's Years', the day before the Theatre's 125th anniversary - Photo M.L.

Above - A Photograph of the Comedy Theatre taken on the 14th of October 2006 during the run of 'Donkey's Years', the day before the Theatre's 125th anniversary.

The amazingly well preserved early Grid and flying equipment at the Comedy Theatre in September 2009 - Click for more of these images - Photo M.L.In 1980 a new entrance canopy was constructed at the front of the building by the architects Sir John Burnet-Tait and Partners.

In 2009 the Theatre was still a Hemp House and the original wooden grid still retained much of its early flying equipment which was constructed by stage carpenters probably about 50 years after the Theatre was built. These wooden windlasses (Shown Right), and removed in 2011, were a rare survivor in British Theatres and a fascinating insight into how scenery was flown in the past.

In September 2011 the Theatre was closed so that a new metal grid could be constructed over the original wooden one which was considered to be nearing the end of its life, and the early wooden windlasses were removed at this time. To see photographs of the grid and its equipment still in place in September 2009 click here.

In October 2011 the Theatre's name was changed from the Comedy Theatre, a name it had had since it's opening in 1881, to the Harold Pinter Theatre with the opening production of 'Death and the Maiden' by Ariel Dorfman on the 24th of October 2011.

 

The Harold Pinter Theatre in a photograph taken from the roof of the Prince of Wales Theatre in September 2009, on the roof of the Theatre can be seen the extract ducting of the auditorium's original Sunburner. - Photo M.L.

Above - The Harold Pinter Theatre in a photograph taken from the roof of the Prince of Wales Theatre in September 2009, on the roof of the Theatre can be seen the extract ducting of the auditorium's original Sunburner.

The Dressing Room block and stage door of the Harold Pinter Theatre in a photograph taken in September 2009 - Photo M.L.

Above - The Dressing Room block and stage door of the Harold Pinter Theatre in a photograph taken in September 2009. The Prince of Wales Theatre can also be seen far right and the Trocadero far centre.

I would like to thank the staff of the Harold Pinter / Comedy Theatre for their evident enthusiasm and very kind assistance in helping me to photograph the Theatre in such detail in September 2009.

The Harold Pinter Theatre is a Grade II Listed building and is currently run by the Ambassadors Theatre Group whose own Website for the Theatre can be found here.

Archive newspaper reports on this page were collated and kindly sent in for inclusion by B.F.

 

The Harold Pinter Theatre during the run of 'Sunset Boulevard' in December 2008 - Photo M.L.

Above - The Harold Pinter Theatre during the run of 'Sunset Boulevard' in December 2008 - Photo M.L.

 

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Adelphi Aldwych Ambassadors Apollo Apollo Victoria Arts Cambridge Charing Cross Theatre Criterion Dominion Drury Lane Duchess Duke Of Yorks Fortune Garrick Gielgud Harold Pinter Haymarket Her Majesty's Leicester Square Theatre London Coliseum London Palladium Lyceum Lyric Menier Chocolate Factory New London Noel Coward Novello Old Vic Palace Peacock Phoenix Piccadilly Playhouse Prince Edward Prince of Wales Queen's Royal Opera House Sadler's Wells Theatre Savoy Shaftesbury St. Martin's Trafalgar Studios / Whitehall Vaudeville Victoria Palace Wyndham's

 

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