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The Savoy Theatre, Strand, WC2

Introduction - First Theatre - Second and Present Theatre

The Savoy Theatre during the run of 'Porgy And Bess' in October 2006 - Photo M.L.

Above - The Savoy Theatre during the run of 'Porgy And Bess' in October 2006.

 

 

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 Savoy Theatre that we know today opened on the 21st of October 1929 with a production of Gilbert and Sulivan's 'The Gondoliers'. However, the present Theatre was actually a reconstruction of an earlier Theatre, also called the Savoy, which had first opened on the 10th of October 1881 with a production of Gilbert and Sulivan's 'Patience or Bunthorne's Bride.'

Programme for the 1954 season of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company at the Savoy Theatre.The Savoy Theatre is intimately connected with W. S. Gilbert, Arthur Sulivan, and Richard D'Oyly Carte who originally became partners whilst working at the Royalty Theatre in Soho. D'Oyly Carte was the business manager of that Theatre and both Gilbert and Sulivan had produced a one act cantata called 'Trial By Jury' there. Together they formed a company called the 'Comedy Opera Company' in order to promote the work of Gilbert and Sulivan, who had previously had a work of theirs put on at the Gaiety Theatre in 1871; 'Thespis or the Gods Grown Old Together', but this had not been a success.

Left - A Programme for the 1954 season of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company at the Savoy Theatre.

The first collaboration between D'Oyly Carte and Gilbert and Sulivan was 'The Sorcerer' which they produced at the Opera Comique in 1877, which was followed by 'H.M.S. Pinafore' in 1878, 'The Pirates of Penzance' in 1880, and then 'Patience' in 1881. Whilst ''H.M.S. Pinafore' was on D'Oyly Carte became the Lessee and manager of the Opera Comique and as the lease neared its end he decided rather than try and renew the lease it would be better to build his own Theatre, and so it came about that the first Savoy Theatre was built. Details of both Theatres now follow:

 

The First Savoy Theatre - 1881

The Beaufort Street Facade and Main Entrance to the Savoy Theatre of 1881 - From the 'Building News and Engineering Journal' of April 1st 1881. This Facade still exists as the rear of the Savoy Theatre today.

Above - The Beaufort Street Facade and Main Entrance to the Savoy Theatre of 1881 - From the 'Building News and Engineering Journal' of April 1st 1881. This Facade still exists as the rear of the Savoy Theatre today.

Seating Plan for the original Savoy Theatre - Click to Enlarge.The First Savoy Theatre opened on the 10th of October 1881 with a production of Gilbert and Sulivan's 'Patience or Bunthorne's Bride.' It was built by Messrs Patman and Fotheringham and designed by the respected Theatre Architect C. J. Phipps with its main entrance on Beaufort Street, now the corner of Carting Lane and Savoy Way, near the Victoria Embankment. The plot was a steep one stretching from the Strand down to the Embankment along Beaufort Street. The Theatre's auditorium was on four levels, Stalls and Pit, Balcony, Gallery, and Amphitheater at the top with a capacity of 1,292. The stage was 60' Wide by 52' Deep.

Right - A Seating Plan for the original Savoy Theatre - Click to Enlarge.

The Building News and Engineering Journal reported on the new Theatre in their September the 9th 1881 edition saying:- 'Two out of the three new theatres which have for some months past been in course of erection at the West-end, are rapidly approaching completion, and are intended to be opened within the next fortnight. The "Beaufort," * in the Savoy, which has been erected for Mr. D'Oyly Carte, and which we have already illustrated, is to be opened on Friday, the 16th instant, * and, preparatory to its opening, woodpaving is to laid down in Beaufort-buidings, at the cost of the owner of the theatre.

Plaque situated on the side wall of the Savoy Theatre.The theatre has two main frontages, one at the south side, facing the Thames Embankment, and the other in Beaufort-buildings. The height of the structure from the ground-level in Beaufort-buildings, and also the south frontage overlooking the Embankment, is limited; but these external features give no indication of the internal area, or altitude from the pit to the ceiling.

Left - A Plaque situated on the side wall of the present Savoy Theatre says:- 'Opened in 1881. The Savoy Theatre was the first public building in the World to be lit throughout by electricity'.

From the Strand, or north boundary of the theatre, there is a considerable descent in the roadway along Beaufort-buildings, and, with the view of providing both stage and auditorium space, excavations have been made in the building over the entire area of the interior, to the depth at the north end of almost the height of the external walls themselves from the street level, with proportionate excavation at the south end. This permits of a spacious stage and stage dock beneath it at the north end, together with a large and convenient auditorium, including pit, stalls, lower and upper circles, and gallery. The carriage and principal approach will be from the Embankment and along Savoy-hill, but there will likewise be approaches for pedestrians on the east side from the Strand. Mr. C. J. Phipps is the architect of the theatre.'

The above text in quotes was first published in the Building News and Engineering Journal, September 9th 1881.

 

Richard D'Oyly Carte from a photograph by Walery, Regent Street - From 'The Savoy Opera' by Percy Fitzgerald, 1894.The article above suggested that the Savoy Theatre would be called the Beaufort and that it would be opened on the 16th of September 1881, however the Theatre actually opened as the Savoy Theatre on the 10th of October 1881 with a production of Gilbert and Sulivan's 'Patience or Bunthorne's Bride'.

The Theatre's Manager, Richard D'Oyly Carte, wrote an address to the public for the Theatre's opening night programme, which also included details of the construction of the building. I have transcribed the address and details below:

Right - Richard D'Oyly Carte from a photograph by Walery, Regent Street - From 'The Savoy Opera' by Percy Fitzgerald, 1894.

'Ladies and Gentlemen, - I beg leave to lay before you some details of a new theatre, which I have caused to be built with the intention of devoting it to the representation of the operas of Messrs. W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, with whose joint productions I have, up to now, had the advantage of being associated.

The Savoy Theatre is placed between the Strand and the Victoria Embankment, on a plot of land of which I have purchased the freehold, and is built on a spot possessing many associations of historic interest, being close to the Savoy Chapel and in the 'precinct of the Savoy,' where stood formerly the Savoy Palace, once inhabited by John of Gaunt and the Dukes of Lancaster, and made memorable in the Wars of the Roses. On the Savoy Manor there was formerly a theatre. I have used the ancient name as an appropriate title for the present one.

The new theatre has been erected from the designs and under the superintendence of Mr. C. J. Phipps, F.S.A., who has probably more experience in the building of such places than any architect of past or present times, having put up, I believe, altogether thirty-three or thirty-four theatres.

The facade of the theatre towards the Embankment, and that in Beaufort Buildings, are of red brick and Portland stone. The theatre is large and commodious, but little smaller than the Gaiety, and will seat 1,292 persons.

I think I may claim to have carried out some improvements deserving special notice. The most important of these are in the lighting and decoration.

 

W. S. Gilbert - From 'The Savoy Opera' by Percy Fitzgerald, 1894.From the time, now some years since, that the first electric lights in lamps were exhibited outside the Paris Opera House, I have been convinced that electric light in some form is the light of the future for use in theatres, not to go further. The peculiar steely blue colour and the flicker which are inevitable in all systems of 'arc' lights, however, make them unsuitable for use in any but very large buildings. The invention of the 'incandescent lamp' has now paved the way for the application of electricity to lighting houses, and consequently theatres.

Left - W. S. Gilbert - From 'The Savoy Opera' by Percy Fitzgerald, 1894.

The 'arc' light is simply a continuous electric spark, and is nearly the colour of lightning. The incandescent light is produced by heating a filament of carbon to a white heat, and is much the colour of gas - a little clearer. Thanks to an ingenious method of 'shunting' it, the current is easily controllable, and the lights can be raised or lowered at will. There are several extremely good incandescent lamps, but I finally decided to adopt that of Mr. J. W. Swan, the well-known inventor, of Newcastle-on-Tyne. The enterprise of Messrs. Siemens Bros. & Co. has enabled me to try the experiment of exhibiting this light in my theatre. About 1,200 lights are used, and the power to generate a sufficient current for these is obtained from large steam-engines, giving about 120 horse-power, placed on some open land near the theatre. The new light is not only used in the audience part of the theatre, but on the stage, for footlights, side and top lights, &c, and (not of the least importance for the comfort of the performers) in the dressing-rooms - in fact, in every part of the house. This is the first time that it has been attempted to light any public building entirely by electricity. What is being done is an experiment, and may succeed, or fail. It is not possible, until the application of the accumulator or secondary battery - the reserve store of electric power - becomes practicable, to guarantee absolutely against any breakdown of the electric light. To provide against such a contingency gas is laid on throughout the building, and the 'pilot' light of the central sun-burner will be always kept alight, so that in case of accident the theatre can be flooded with gaslight in a few seconds. The greatest drawbacks to the enjoyment of theatrical performances are, undoubtedly, the foul air and heat which pervade all theatres. As everyone knows, each gas-burner consumes as much oxygen as many people, and causes great heat besides. The incandescent lamps consume no oxygen, and cause no perceptible heat. If the experiment of electric lighting succeeds, there can be no question of the enormous advantages to be gained in purity of air and coolness - advantages the value of which it is hardly possible to over-estimate.

The decorations of this theatre are by Messrs. Collinson & Lock. I venture to think that, with some few exceptions, the interiors of most theatres hitherto built have been conceived with little, if any, artistic purpose, and generally executed with little completeness, and in a more or less garish manner. Without adopting either of the styles known as 'Queen Anne' and 'Early English,' or entering upon the so called 'aesthetic' manner, a result has now been produced which I feel sure will be appreciated by all persons of taste. Paintings of cherubim, muses, angels, and mythological deities have been discarded, and the ornament consists entirely of delicate plaster modelling, designed in the manner of the Italian Renaissance. The main colour-tones are white, pale yellow, and gold - gold used only for backgrounds or in large masses, and not - following what may be called, for want of a worse name, the Gingerbread school of decorative art - for gilding relief-work or mouldings. The back walls of the boxes and the corridors are in two tones of Venetian red. No painted act-drop is used, but a curtain of creamy satin, quilted, having a fringe at the bottom and a valance of embroidery of the character of Spanish work, keeps up the consistency of the colour scheme. This curtain is arranged to drape from the centre. The stalls are covered with blue plush of an inky hue, and the balcony seats are of stamped velvet of the same tint, while the curtains of the boxes are of yellowish silk, brocaded with a pattern of decorative flowers in broken colour.

 

Arthur Sullivan - From 'The Savoy Opera' by Percy Fitzgerald, 1894.To turn to a very different subject. I believe a fertile source of annoyance to the public to be the demanding or expecting of fees and gratuities by attendants. This system will, therefore, be discountenanced. Programmes will be furnished and wraps and umbrellas taken charge of gratuitously. The attendants will be paid fair wages, and any attendant detected in accepting money from visitors will be instantly dismissed. I trust that the public will co-operate with me to support this reform (which already works so well at the Gaiety Theatre) by not tempting the attendants by the offer of gratuities. The showing-in of visitors and selling programmes will, therefore, not be sublet to a contractor, who has to pay the manager a high rental, to recoup which he is obliged to extract by his employees all he can get out of the public; nor will the refreshment saloons be sublet, but they will be under the supervision of a salaried manager, and the most careful attention will be given to procuring everything of the very best quality.

Right - Arthur Sullivan - From 'The Savoy Opera' by Percy Fitzgerald, 1894.

The theatre will be opened under my management on Monday next, October 10, and I have the satisfaction to be able to announce that the opening piece will be Messrs. W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan's opera, Patience, which, produced at the Opera Comique on April 23, is still running with a success beyond any precedent.

The piece is mounted afresh with new scenery, costumes, and increased chorus. It is being again rehearsed under the personal direction of the author and composer, and on the opening night the opera will be conducted by the composer.

I am, ladies and gentlemen, your obedient servant, R, D'OYLY CARTE, Beaufort House, Strand: October 6, 1881.'

 

Details of Construction

This new theatre has been erected for Mr. D'Oyly Carte from the designs and under the superintendence of Mr. C. J. Phipps, F.S.A., architect of the Gaiety, the Haymarket, the Princess's, and other theatres. It is situate on the west side of Beaufort Buildings, Strand, and occupies a site absolutely isolated on all four sides, thus affording free and expeditious entrance and exit for all classes of the public. The entrances are thus distributed, and are arranged so as to utilise the peculiar levels of the site: For the stalls and dress circle, and for all persons coming in carriages, the entrances are from Somerset Street, just off the Thames Embankment. The pit is also entered here, and there is an entrance to the upper circle. The audience for both these latter parts can come direct from the Strand by a short flight of steps adjoining Beaufort House. In Beaufort Buildings also is an entrance to, and on a level with, the upper circle. The entrances before referred to, from the Embankment, are on a level with the dress circle, and a few steps lead down to the stalls and pit. The gallery is entered from Carting Lane, a street in a direct line from the Embankment to the Strand. The royal entrance is at the angle of Somerset Street and Carting Lane. The stage entrance is in Herbert's Passage, and the box office for booking seats during the day is situated close to the Strand at the angle of the Beaufort Buildings frontage. The theatre is entered from Somerset Street through a semicircular vestibule paved with black and white marble, in which are the offices for booking and obtaining seats in the evening. Doorways immediately opposite the entrances lead to the dress-circle corridor, out of which wide staircases will be found on both sides of the theatre leading to the stalls. From this vestibule are also means of communicating, by an ascending staircase, with the upper circle, and by pass-doors to the pit staircase. All the entrances, passages, and staircases are of fire-resisting material; the flights of stairs are supported at each end by solid brick walls, and each staircase has a hand-rail on either side. There is no part of the theatre that has not two means of both ingress and egress, and the stag;e is separated from the auditory by a solid brick wall taken up completely through the roof. Water laid on from the high-pressure mains is in several parts of the theatre, and every possible means has been taken to ensure both comfort and safety to the audience. On the floor below the vestibule is a large refreshment saloon for the pit, and contiguous to it a smoking room opening out of the stalls corridor, with a separate boudoir lounge for ladies. There are also refreshment saloons on the upper floors of the theatre for both the upper circle and gallery, with all necessary retiring and cloak rooms...

W. S. Gilbert reading 'Utopia (Limited)' to the Actors at the Savoy Theatre - From 'The Savoy Opera' by Percy Fitzgerald, 1894.

Above - W. S. Gilbert reading 'Utopia (Limited)' to the Actors at the Savoy Theatre - From 'The Savoy Opera' by Percy Fitzgerald, 1894.

...The auditory is thus arranged: On either side of the stage opening (which is 30 feet wide and 32 feet high) are three private boxes on each of the three levels. These are divided by partitions and ornamental pillars, and are surmounted by an arch spanning the whole width of the proscenium, springing from a cornice on the level of the gallery front. These boxes are richly upholstered in hangings of gold-coloured brocaded silk. The orchestra is in front of the stage, and is of sufficient capacity for a full band of twenty-seven or more musicians. There are nine rows of stalls immediately adjoining the orchestra, seated to hold 150 persons in arm-chairs, with ample space allowed for passing between the several rows, and wide unimpeded gangways on either side of the entrance passages. Behind the stalls are six rows of pit seats, calculated to seat 250 persons, with a spacious open corridor behind for standing and promenading. Above the pit, but at sufficient height to allow of persons at the very back seeing the full height of the scenery, is the dress circle of six rows of seats, with arm-chairs for 160 persons. There are no pillars of any kind in the dress circle, so a clear, unobstructed view of the stage is obtained from every seat. Above the dress circle, but receding some 9 feet back from it, is the upper circle, seated to accommodate 160 persons in five rows. The amphitheatre and gallery recede 5 feet behind the upper circle, and will seat 400 to 500 persons in eight rows. The whole seating accommodation will be for 1,292 persons.

In each tier the balcony front takes the form of a horseshoe, that being the best adapted for perfect sight of the stage. The ornamentation of these several balcony fronts is Renaissance in character, and is elaborately moulded and enriched with the figures and foliage peculiar to the Italian phase of the style, and gilded. The ceiling over the auditory takes the form of an extended fan from the arch spanning the proscenium, and is divided into a series of geometric panels, richly modelled in Renaissance ornament in relief, of the same character as the balcony fronts. Colour is sparingly used in the ceiling, the background of the ornament only being painted a light gold colour. The proscenium arch is divided by ribs and cross-styles into a series of panels, and the ornament in these is gilded. Over the proscenium in the tympanum of the arch is a basso relievo of figures and foliated ornament. The walls of the auditory are hung with a rich embossed paper, in two tones of deep Venetian red. The seats are covered in peacock blue, plush being used for the stalls and stamped velvet for the dress circle. A pale-gold coloured satin curtain, with an embroidered valance, takes the place of the usual painted act-drop.

The stage, which is laid with all the latest improvements in mechanical contrivances, is 60 feet wide, by a depth from the float-light to the back wall of 52 feet. There is a clear height above the stage of 56 feet for the working of the scenery, and a sink below of 15 feet. Behind the stage, and occupying the whole wing of the building in Herbert's Passage, are the dressing-rooms.

The theatre is fitted with a complete system of gas-lighting, but this is only for use in case of emergency, the whole of the illuminating for all parts of the establishment being by means of electricity. This has been undertaken by Messrs. Siemens & Co., and the lights adopted are those introduced by Swan, of Newcastle, and known as the Swan incandescent light, the power necessary to generate the electric current for so many lights being supplied by powerful steam-engines placed in a separate building on the vacant land adjoining the theatre. These 'Swan' lights are of a beautiful colour, and in no way impair the atmosphere of the theatre, and emit no heat. They are not of the piercing brightness of the electric arc lights as seen in our streets and elsewhere, and therefore not unpleasant to the eyes. This is the first instance of a public building being lighted permanently in all its departments by the electric light.

The exterior facade of the theatre is in Somerset Street, facing the Thames Embankment, and both this and the Beaufort Buildings frontage are built of red brick, with Portland stone for all moulded parts, and are of the Italian style of architecture. The contractors who have been engaged upon the works are as follows: Patman & Fotheringham for the whole of the builder's work, including the stage. Collinson & Lock have arranged the scheme of colour for the interior, and have executed the painting, papering, and gilding, and have supplied the upholstery and carpets; they have also executed the plaster ornamentation of the auditory, in conjunction with Jackson & Sons. Strode & Co. have done the whole of the gas arrangements. Wadman has manufactured the arm-chairs for dress circle and stalls. Burke & Co. have laid down the marble floor of the vestibule. C. Drake & Co. have executed the concrete floors and staircases. Faraday & Son have made all the internal fittings in connection with the electric lighting. Merryweather & Sons have supplied the fire hydrants and other such appliances. Clarke & Co. have constructed the revolving iron shutters and blinds at entrances. Mr. J. E. Walker has been the architect's clerk of works.

The above address by Richard D'Oyly Carte, and details of the construction of the Savoy Theatre, were first published in the Theatre's opening programme, and later reproduced in the book 'The Savoy Opera' by Percy Fitzgerald, in 1894.

 

A programme for the premier production of 'Journey's End' at the Savoy Theatre in January 1929 - Courtesy Sally Stark.In 1903, when the Savoy Hotel was built with profits from the Theatre, the entrance to the Theatre was moved to the Hotel's courtyard off the Strand, where it still is today.

This Savoy Theatre was the first Theatre to use electricity to light its auditorium rather than Gas Lighting which was used everywhere else at the time and later it was also used to light the stage. However Gas Lighting was also installed in case the electricity failed.

One of the last productions at the original Savoy was on the 21st of January 1929 when the Theatre was home to the premier of R. C. Sherriff's 'Journey's End' which launched the careers of Colin Clive and James Whale.

Right - A programme for the premier production of 'Journey's End' at the first Savoy Theatre in January 1929, shortly before the Theatre was rebuilt - Courtesy Sally Stark.

The Theatre was reconstructed in 1929 to the designs of Frank A. Tugwell, built by the Pitcher Construction Company, opening on the 21st of October 1929 with a production of Gilbert and Sulivan's 'The Gondoliers'. More information on the reconstruction and history of the second Savoy Theatre can be read below.

 

The Second and Present Savoy Theatre - 1929

The Savoy Theatre during the run of 'Porgy And Bess' in October 2006 - Photo M.L.

Above - The Savoy Theatre during the run of 'Porgy And Bess' in October 2006 - Photo M.L.

Rear elevation of the Savoy Theatre in 2006 - Photo M.L.The Second Savoy Theatre was a rebuilding of the first and opened on the 21st of October 1929 with a production of Gilbert and Sulivan's 'The Gondoliers'.

The exterior of the earlier Theatre was kept but the interior was completely reconstructed to the designs of Frank A. Tugwell, and built by the Pitcher Construction Company. The decorations were by Basil Ionides. Originally this Theatre had its main entrance on the Embankment just as the first Theatre did, but this was soon moved back to the Savoy Hotel Canopy position where it remains today.

Right - The Rear elevation of the Savoy Theatre in 2006 - Photo M.L. This was originally the main entrance to the first Savoy Theatre of 1881.

The new Savoy was a far more modern construction and hailed at the time as being 'a really outstanding example of modern decoration applied to a public place on a commercial basis.' The new auditorium was on three levels, Stalls, Dress, and Upper Circle with a capacity of 1,138 and the new stage was much smaller at 29' 4" Wide by 29' 6" Deep.

In February 1990, whilst the Theatre was being renovated, a fire started in the middle of the night in the auditorium and was soon to engulf the building. Everything but the stage and backstage areas was completely gutted and it looked as if the Savoy Theatre had come to its end as nobody believed that it would, or indeed could, be rebuilt.

 

A Seating Plan for the Savoy Theatre's 1929 auditorium before the fire of 1990

Above - A Seating Plan for the Savoy Theatre's 1929 auditorium before the fire of 1990

 

Programme for 'Clive Of India' at the Savoy Theatre in 1934.However, by 1993 the Theatre had been rebuilt, despite the fact that D'Oyly Carte himself had long ago destroyed the original plans. The Theatres Trust says:- 'The restoration is a triumphant example of what can be achieved by a meticulous examination of fragmentary remains, coupled with research and deductive skill.'

Programme for Agatha Christie's 'Spider's Web' at the Savoy Theatre in 1954.During the renovation an extra storey was added above the Theatre to house plant machinery, a health club for the hotel, and amazingly, a swimming pool above the stage. The renovation was carried out by Whitfield Partners who restored the original Ionides auditorium and decorations but added some alterations for modern requirements.

Right - A Programme for 'Clive Of India' at the Savoy Theatre in 1934.

Left - A Programme for Agatha Christie's 'Spider's Web' at the Savoy Theatre in 1954.

All in all the renovation of the Savoy after a catastrophic fire is remarkable, first that it happened at all, and second that it was so meticulously done, leaving the Savoy Theatre to carry on into the 21st Century in style. The current capacity is 1,158.

The Savoy Theatre still produces Gilbert and Sulivan Operas on occasion. The Theatre is currently owned by The Ambassador Theatre Group whose own website for the Theatre can be found here.

 

 

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