The Playhouse Theatre, Northumberland Avenue, Charing Cross, London
Formerly - The Royal Avenue Theatre
Above - The Playhouse Theatre during the run of '1984' in May 2016 - Photo M.L.
The Playhouse Theatre which stands on Northumberland Avenue today opened on the 28th of January, 1907 with a one act play called 'The Drums of Oudh', followed by a production of 'Toddles'.
The Theatre was actually a reconstruction of an earlier Theatre called the Avenue Theatre. This had first opened in 1882 but was seriously damaged by the collapse of part of Charing Cross station in 1905.
The Avenue Theatre was designed by F. H. Fowler, of Fowler and Hill, and built by Kirke and Randall, of Woolwich with a capacity of 1,200. The Avenue Theatre was built for Sefton Parry and Edmund Burke, opening on the 11th of March 1882 with a production of 'Madame Favart,' a comic opera by Offenbach (see programme below left).
Right - A Pre 1907 Avenue Theatre seating plan - Click to enlarge.
The ERA printed a review of the new Theatre on its opening night in their 11th of March 1882 edition saying:- 'This theatre, which has for proprietor Mr Sefton Parry; for sole lessee, Mr Edmund Burke; and, for manager, M. Marius, will, as already announced, be opened this evening with a revival of Offenbach's celebrated comic opera Madame Favart.
The Royal Avenue Theatre, it is hoped, will prove one of the safest and most comfortable, as it is undeniably one of the handsomest, dramatic establishments in the metropolis. It fulfills one of the first conditions of safety (as do the Grand Opera House, the Theatre des Italiens, the Opera Comique and other Parisian theatres, and the Theatre de la Monnaie at Brussels), by standing in an entirely isolated position. It faces two of the noblest thoroughfares in the metropolis - Northumberland - avenue and the Victoria Embankment. Thus, the advantages of a situation, which may fairly be called unrivalled, are heightened by the building being within half a minute's journey from the terminus of the South-Eastern, the Greenwich, and the North Kent lines; of the Charing-cross Station of the Metropolitan Railway, and within one minute of the Strand and Charing cross itself.
Mr F. H. Fowler, of the firm of Fowler and Hill, has been the architect of this elegant and tasteful edifice, which is erected in the style of the French Renaissance at its most flourishing epoch. The structure has met with the highest approval from the Royal Institute of British Architects, and from the architect of the Metropolitan Board of Works. The contractors have been Messrs Kirke and Randall, of Woolwich; M. H. Verbriecke, the eminent artist of Antwerp, has painted the elegant curtains, and has extensively contributed to the pictorial embellishment of the interior; and Mr J. Boekbinder has modeled and produced the numerous and magnificent figures, and other plastic embellishments in carton piere. The abundant statuary has been executed by Mr Plows; and Messrs Lyons and Sons have supplied the furniture and upholstery, which have been manufactured from designs prepared specially for the occasion. The splendid and tasteful chandeliers have been provided by M. Alphonse Bogaerts, and the gas appliances and fixtures by Mr Cannon.
Right - A programme for 'On Leave' at the Avenue Theatre which was produced for the first time on April the 17th 1897 (Details Below).
No efforts have been spared to minster to the convenience and to secure the safety of the audience. The approaches, staircases, saloons, and retiring rooms are all fire-proof. All the means of egress, which are both numerous and spacious, open outwards, and will be used on all occasions. By merely pulling a brass bolt any visitor may at once throw open the extra doors provided. No locks will, under any circumstances, nor at any time be placed on any of the doors, which are constructed, it may be said with emphasis, for use, and not for show.
The major part of the audience at the Royal Avenue Theatre are seated on the ground floor of the building, almost on a level with the street. There will not be, even to the altitude or the depth of a few feet, any needless, vexatious, and dangerous toiling upstairs and downstairs before the stalls, the pit, or the private boxes can be reached. There will be no obstructive entanglement in a labyrinth of tortuous corridors, devised seemingly only for the purpose of bewildering and impeding the visitor; and the patrons of the Royal Avenue Theatre will be enabled to reach their seats with the same ease and expedition as they will have in leaving those seats, passing through the roomy vestibule, and regaining the open street, when the performances have come to a close. The staircases which are actually required for the purpose of ascending to the boxes and amphitheatre are broadly and easily graded. Instead of narrow and stuffy box lobbies, an open pourtour (as in the American and some Continental theatres) affords the means for free circulation, and presents facilities for conversation between the acts; and the careful system of ventilation, perfected throughout the building, will ensure coolness in summer, while equally adequate measures will be adopted to warm the theatre comfortably in winter time. The electric light will be supplied by the Compagnie Generale d'Electricite.
Above - A programme for 'On Leave' at the Avenue Theatre which was produced for the first time on April the 17th 1897.
The embellishments, which comprise modelled or relievo work, are, in their entirety, of carton piere; that is to say, the background, as well as the raised ornamentation thereupon, is of the material just named, no plaster being used, and the solid slabs of carton piere being screwed bodily to the rafters. The ceiling, which is circular, of the auditorium, is divided into twelve compartments, radiating from the beautiful central chandelier by angelic figures with expanded wings, holding in one hand a palm-branch, which passes through a wreath of laurel; and with the other hand crowning a medallion or "mascaron," of which there are twelve, containing the portrait busts of as many famous dramatic writers - namely, Shakespeare, Goldsmith, Congreve, Sheridan, Van Vondel, Racine, Corneille, Moliere, Beaumarchais, Calderon, Goethe, and Schiller. These portraits are all elaborately-studied and artistically executed paintings in natural colour. Beneath the ceiling is a "cove" or concave surface, on which are highly enriched compartments, adorned with paintings in camaieu, of Apollo and the Nine Muses. This "cove" is of horseshoe form, straight at the base, and at its extremities forms two "spandrils" beautifully modelled with trophies of musical instruments.
Above - Details for ''The Little French Milliner' and 'The Wicked Uncle' at the Avenue Theatre in the early 1900s
The proscenium itself has a ceiling of seven panels taking the shape of an arch, crowning the symmetrical architectural elevation of the stage boxes, the topmost of which, on each side, is surmounted by a fronton, on which are seated figures of children holding medallions between them. On each side of the pilasters of the stage or proscenium boxes are two gracefully-modelled statues, or Caryatides, holding bouquets from which spring lights; and these Caryatides are supported by four consoles, of Tragedy, Drama, Comedy, and Burlesque. The two figures over the centre of the stage symbolise Music and Song, and they support the achievement of the Royal arms, which, covering, as it does, a width of nearly twenty-six feet, gives an effect to the whole trophy, both in modelling and colour, which is simply superb. The ornamentation of the frontals or balconies of the boxes and amphitheatre is so equally tasteful and luxurious; and with a view to make the adornment of the auditorium artistically unique, every console of the balcony is differently modelled. The prevailing tone of the decorations is ivory and gold; the twelve figures in camaieu are painted in oil colour, and have been executed, with the curtains, the "mascarones," the ceiling of the entrance vestibule, and the foyer on the first floor, by M. H. Verbrieke.
Above - Details from a programme for ''Yvette' at the Avenue Theatre in the early 1900s
The contract for the decorations was signed on the 8th October last, and the whole of this important department of the work of the Royal Avenue Theatre has been modelled, fabricated, fixed, painted, and gilded, by Mr Bookbinder, in little more than four months. The entire construction of the Royal Avenue Theatre, with all its appliances and arrangements, has been carried out and completed under the immediate superintendence of the proprietor, Mr Sefton Parry. There are seven rows of stalls; a pit calculated to accommodate three hundred persons, and seating accommodation altogether for between twelve hundred and thirteen hundred.'
The above text in quotes was first published in the ERA, 11th March 1882.
In 1905, twenty five years after the Theatre had first opened in 1882, the interior was being remodeled by the architects Detmar Blow & Fernand Billerey when a disastrous accident occurred caused by part of the roof from Charing Cross station, which was situated above the Theatre, collapsing onto the building, killing six workmen and extensively damaging the unfinished interior of the Theatre. The Times Newspaper carried a report on the tragedy in their 6th of December 1905 edition saying: 'The terminal station of the South-Eastern and Chatham Railway at Charing-cross was the scene yesterday afternoon of a remarkable and disastrous accident. Just before 4 o'clock., when the officials of the company were expecting the arrival of the Continental boat express train from Folkestone, and preparations were in progress for the despatch from No. 4 platform of the usual train to Hastings, two bays at the southern end of the gigantic roof which spans the station and the western wall on which they were partially supported suddenly collapsed. Some 20 or 30 men who, suspended from the roof in swinging cradles, were engaged in scraping and painting the ironwork of the bays, fell into the station below and were buried beneath a mass of debris which was variously estimated at from 50 to 100 tons in weight. The immediate fear was that the majority of the men had been killed, and the most sensational rumours were quickly in circulation as to the loss of life which had been occasioned by the accident. Fortunately, however, investigation showed that the statements which had gained currency were greatly exaggerated, for, although the actual number of deaths cannot be given with absolute certainty, it is confidently believed that they will not exceed four. Three of these, it is understood, occurred in the station itself, while the fourth man killed was employed in the Avenue Theatre, which adjoins the western wall of the railway, and which was partially wrecked by the falling debris. All the men who were working on the station roof, and several of those who were engaged in the alterations in progress in the Avenue Theatre, sustained injuries, but in only six cases were they of so serious a character as to necessitate their detention at the Charing-cross HospitaL The others, who were suffering from cuts and bruises, were allowed to proceed to their homes after their wounds had been dressed by the medical staff of the hospital...
Above - Details from a programme for ''Gulliver's Travels' at the Avenue Theatre in December 1901
The roof, it may be interesting to recall, was constructed by Sit John Hawkshaw in 1860. The type is one which is common to all the great railway termini in the country. A rough description of it is that it consists of wrought iron rods tied together by bars of large diameter and braced with ties and struts in the usual way. The Charing-cross Station roof itself is divided into 13 bays; it has a length of about 700ft. and a span of something like 165ft. No structural alterations have been made in the roof since its erection 45 years ago, and it has not even been found necessary to replace any of the iron rods and bars which play so prominent a part in its support. Sir Benjamin Baker has not yet had the opportunity of examining any of the fallen material, but on such evidence as is at his command at the present moment he has based the conclusion that the collapse was brought about by the fracturing of one of the tie rods. He acknowledges his inability to account for the fracture. The roof, he points out, has weathered storms and gales of varying severity during nearly half a century, and then, as he expressed it, "for some unaccountable reason," a portion of it collapses on a day which was absolutely free from wind or stress of any kind. The determination of the cause of the fracture must remain, in the view of Sir Benjamin Baker, for further investigation.
The first indication of the accident was given at a quarter to 4 o'clock, when a heavy beam fell from the "screen" of the roof at the southern end of the station, which, like the roof itself, was undergoing repair. Immediately all those who were at that end of the station - railway servants, Custom House officials, and others - hurried from the platforms. The few passengers who were in the Hastings train at once left it, and the signals were placed against the incoming Continental train, which was stopped on Hungerford bridge and sent to Cannon-street. A few minute: afterwards about 60ft. of the roof collapsed. The huge mass of debris completely blocked the lines, destroyed two or three of the carriages of the Hastings train, and enveloped the station in clouds of dust.
A portion of the ironwork, and the upper part of the western wall, which was thrust out by the collapse of the roof, tumbled almost bodily upon the Avenue Theatre. It crashed through the roof of that building and fell with deafening noise on to the stage, which was partially destroyed There were over 100 workmen engage in the alterations and decorations which were being carried out in preparation for the reopening of the theatre in January by Mr. Cyril Maude and it is regarded as little short of miraculous that so many escaped either instant death or serious injury.
Above - Details from a programme for 'The Adoption of Archibald' and 'By Mutual Consent' at the Avenue Theatre in the early 1900s
During the progress of the work it has been the practice of the architect, Mr Detmar Blow, and his assistants to hold a consultation on the stage each Tuesday afternoon It so happened that one of these weekly meetings was being held at the time of the accident Mr. T. E. Bare, surveyor to Mr. Cyril Maude, who was one of the company, gave a graphic description of the exciting and dangerous experience of himself and his colleagues. He said.: - We were engaged in conversation when we heard a prolonged roar. This was followed by what sounded like an explosion. Immediately we were plunged into darkness. Something had dashed against the electric light and extinguished it. We moved to the side of the stage where there was some shelter, and had scarcely done so when a great mass of bricks, mortar, and other rubbish fell upon almost the exact spot on which we had be standing and carried that portion of the stage into the basement below, a distance of 16ft. Our clerk of works was carried down with the mass and was seriously injured, but no one else who was on the stage at the time suffered any hurt.
The effect of the fall on to the roof of the theatre was, to use Mr. Bare's own expression, to give a side thrust to the whole of the building. The "principals" were shoved through the western wall, which was rendered so unsafe that a wide cordon was drawn round the building, beyond which no one was allowed to mass.
Above - Details from a programme for ' Lorna Doone' at the Avenue Theatre in the early 1900s
The whole of the theatre has been rudely shaken, and it is feared that, in addition to the western wall, other portions of the roof may collapse. Every precaution has been taken to protect the public, but it will not be possible to undertake any work of repair and restoration until the wall of the station has been strengthened and stayed up and the accumulated debris has been removed. The portion of the western wall in the station bulges so much that a further fall is considered possible. It was thought wise, in these circumstances, to remove the inmates of the houses in Craven-street nearest to the theatre.
THE STATION CLOSED TO TRAFFIC
The principal officials of the company were on duty at the station practically throughout the whole of the night. Mr. Vincent Hill, the general manager, Mr. Tempest, and Mr. W. F. Thomson, superintendent of the line, were at Charing-cross Station at the moment of the accident or arrived there shortly afterwards, and during the course of the night Sir Alfred Watkin, one of the directors, was in attendance. The chairman of the company, Mr. Cosmo Bonsor, was informed of the unfortunate accident, and he forwarded a telegraphic reply to Mr. Vincent Hill expressing his sympathy with the relatives of the men who had been killed and with those who had been injured.
DEAD AND INJURED
The names of the killed are not known, with the exception of one man, who was removed from the station to Charing-cross Hospital and died on admission to that institution. This was William Adams, a cleaner, employed by Messrs. J. Smith and Sons. An unknown workman lies crushed under a girder in the station, where a third man is said to have been killed. The name of the man who lost his life in the theatre is unknown.
The injured persons detained at Charing-cross Hospital as in-patients were:Charles Wilkes, of Creed-place, East Greenwich; William BIackwall, St. John's-hill, Clapham-junction, shock and severe injury - Frank Whitlock, Temple-place, Woolwich, internal injuries; Edward Roberson, Napier-road, Wimbledon, compound fracture of legs; William Thorogood, Lambeth, fractured leg; and Edward Janes, Acton, fractured collarbone and injury to head. Upwards of 30 other men were treated and allowed afterwards to proceed to their homes.
The accident naturally created immense excitement in the neighbourhood of Charing-cross and the Avenue Theatre. The station was besieged with people anxious to gain admission, but the officials took prompt measures to prevent their work being hampered. The gates leading into the courtyard and the doors giving access to the platforms were dosed and no one was permitted to pass through them except they could show good cause for being admitted. Telegrams were immediately despatched to Scotland-yard, and in response 800 police-officers from various districts were drafted to the station with 20 ambulance detachments. Police-surgeons were summoned from a large number of metropolitan districts, while the medical staff of Charing-cross Hospital and a number of nurses from that institution also attended at the request of the officials of the company. The Metropolitan Fire Brigade and the Salvage Corps were quickly on the scene, while a breakdown gang from Ashford was also brought to the station. The efforts of the officials were concentrated on the work of rescuing those who lay buried under the tons of rubbish. The task was a difficult one, but, thanks to the splendid exertions of those engaged, all the injured men had been released and removed to the hospital in the course of an hour and a half...
TODAY'S MAIL TRAIN ARRANGEMENTS
We are requested by the general manager of the South-Eastern and Chatham Railway to state that to-day the 9 o'clock a.m. mail boat train will leave Cannon-street and Victoria for Dover. The 10 and 2 20 mail boat trains will start from Victoria for Folkestone. The 11 o'clock and 2 20 trains will start from Victoria, and the corresponding trains due at Charing-cross at 3 50 and 10 45 will arrive at Victoria.
At the meeting of the London County Council yesterday Mr. Lewis Sharp asked the chairman of the-Building Act Committee, in reference to the accident at Charing-cross Station, whether the Council had any power of supervising these structures or any power to see that the public were safeguarded in the future. Captain Hemphill (chairman of the committee) said the Council hail no control over buildings belonging to railway companies, and it was extremely desirable that they should have such control. The building was now under the observation of the officers who took proceedings with regard to dangerous structures, and the necessary steps were being taken to ensure the safety of the public.'
The above article in quotes on the collapse of the roof of Charing Cross station into the Avenue Theatre was first published in the Times, 6th December 1905.
Above - The Playhouse Theatre during the run of 'Dancing
in the Streets' in December 2006.
In the end there were six men who had lost their lives in the accident at the former Avenue Theatre. Cyril Maude received £20,000 in compensation for the damage to his Theatre and would go on to run the new one until 1915, but how the families of the dead and injured faired is unknown.
Once the station had been repaired and wreckage from the accident had been cleared away, the Theatre was rebuilt by Patman and Fotheringham to the designs of Detmar Blow and Fernand Billerey. Most of the exterior of the building was retained but the auditorium was completely remodeled.
The Avenue Theatre eventually reopened as The Playhouse Theatre on the 28th of January, 1907 with a one act play called 'The Drums of Oudh', and 'Toddles,' a play by Tristan Bernard and Andre Godferneaux. The newly reconstructed Theatre had a smaller capacity than the former of 679.
Frank Curzon took over the running of the Playhouse in 1915 with his leading lady Gladys Cooper, who would go on to perform in many of the Theatre's productions and eventually manage the Theatre with Curzon from 1917. Cooper returned as sole lessee of the Playhouse in 1927 and even had one of the Theatre's Boxes named after her, (see seating plan below).
Above - A Seating Plan for the Playhouse Theatre, probably from the mid 1920s
Above - The Playhouse Theatre during the run of 'Dreamboats and Petticoats' in May 2011 - Photo M.L.
The Playhouse was used by the BBC as a studio from 1951 and it remained in this use for the next 25 years, but after the BBC left the Theatre stood derelict and in danger of demolition for the next 10 years.
Thankfully the Theatre was finally rescued in the late 1980s by allowing the building of an extra storey on top of the Theatre to be used for commercial use, which helped to pay for the restoration of the Theatre itself.
Right - The Playhouse Theatre during the run of 'Three Sisters' in 2003.
The Playhouse Theatre is interesting in that it still retains its original substage machinery. The current seating capacity is 786, and the Theatre is today run by the Ambassadors 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.
Above - The Playhouse Theatre during the run of the 'Rocky Horror Show' in September 2015 - Photo M.L.
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