The Original Shaftesbury Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London
See also - The Present Shaftesbury Theatre
Above - A Sketch of the original Shaftesbury Theatre, London From the Pall Mall Gazette 1888
The original Shaftesbury Theatre was built on the newly constructed Shaftesbury Avenue in 1888 and should not be confused with the Present Shaftesbury Theatre which is further up Shaftesbury Avenue today.
The foundation stone for the new Theatre, which was built for John Lancaster, was laid by his wife, the actress Miss Wallis, on February the 2nd 1888. The Theatre was designed by the well known Theatre Architect C. J. Phipps and opened ten months later with a production of 'As you like it' on Saturday the 20th of October 1888. The Theatre had a capacity of 1,800 and a very square stage of 28' 6" wide by 28' 6" deep.
Right - A pre 1907 seating plan for the original Shaftesbury Theatre - Click to Enlarge.
The day before the Theatre opened the building was inspected by a Daily News reporter who printed a report of what he saw in the paper's 19th of October edition saying: 'The latest of our London playhouses, the Shaftesbury - unless, indeed, Mr. Hare's theatre, the "Garrick," and Mr. Leslie's new house, the Lyric, both in the same neighbourhood, maybe considered as still later from the fact that they are not yet finished - was yesterday inspected by a especially-invited gathering of ladies and gentlemen preparatory to the opening, which is announced to take place to-morrow.
The Shaftesbury Theatre is a conspicuous ornament to the broad, new thoroughfare of the same name which affords so ready a means of communication between Piccadilly-circus and New Oxford-street. It is a fine square building of red brick and stone in the Italian style, with a loggia on the first floor, in front of which are a row of massive stone columns. It has been built for Mr. John Lancaster by Mr. C, J. Phipps, who is already responsible in London alone for the Gaiety, the Haymarket, the Savoy, and the Prince of Wales's.
In its internal arrangements the new theatre presents points of resemblance to the two last-named houses. Thus the staircases are of marble and, the floorings of mosaic-work as at the Prince of Wales's, and the balcony, which, like all balconies nowadays, is projected over the pit, has a pleasant lounge at the back, with which it is only connected by doorways and a window here and there, from which a view of the stage and the interior generally is obtained. In one respect, however, the Shaftesbury is utmost unrivaled, and that is on the convenience of its situation. The building is entirely isolated from surrounding property, and has entrances and exits in four thoroughfares - Shaftesbury avenue, Nassau-street, Garrard-street, and Greek-street. There is therefore reason to believe that the management only state a fact when they claim that it is one of the safest houses, if not the safest, in existance, in view of the risk of fire. The total number of doorways is eighteen, of which thirteen are for the use of the public and five for the members of the company engaged. Then again, the stage can be completely isolated from the rest of the building at a minute's notice by an iron curtain, which, however, could hardly be distinguished from an ordinary stuff curtain owing to its being carefully painted a dark blue colour to match the coverings of the seats.
Left - The Original Shaftesbury Theatre, from a period photograph.
For the present gas is employed for lighting, a flat sunlight close to the ceiling being the principal illuminant, but it is intended to supersede this entirely with the electric light as soon as the necessary installation can he got ready. The general effect of the interior is pleasing, the brown plush hangings lined with salmon-coloured silk, and the ornamentations in French gray and gold being in excellent taste, More important still, the seats have been so arranged that a full view of the stage can be obtained from any point. A full audience will consist of about 1,800 persons, which, at the usual prices, probably means receipts amounting to about 2001. Thus it will be seen that while presenting an imposing appearance with its handsome exterior and ample halls and corridors, the Shaftesbury will not rank among our largest theatres.
Everything may be said to be in readiness for the opening, although here and there workmen were yesterday to be seen, as is usual in such cases almost to the last minute, putting finishing touches here and there. That no time has been lost may be inferred from the marble inscription near the dressing-rooms recording the fact that the foundation-stone was laid by Miss Wallis (Mrs. Lancaster) on February 2nd of this year.
Right - The Original Shaftesbury Theatre during the production of 'The Prince Of Pilsen' - Detail from a postcard for the Palace Theatre.
The performance to-morrow evening will consist of Shakespeare's "As You Like It," in which Miss Wallis will play Rosalind, new scenery having been designed and painted by Mr. Henry Emden for this revival. Among the other performers who are to appear here are Mr. Forbes Robertson, Mr. Arthur Stirling, Mr. J. R. Crauford, Mr. Mackintosh, Mr. J. C. Buckstone, and Mrs. Edward Saker, The announcement of Mr. W. H. Stephens as the representative of old Adam is a sad reminder of the recent death of this valuable actor.' The Daily News 19th of October 1888.
The opening night production of 'As You Like It' seems to have been a rather unsuccessful choice and was not very well received but the Theatre itself was more pleasing. Two days after the Theatre opened the Pall Mall Gazette printed an extensive review of the opening night production of 'As You Like It' and a small review of the building itself, accompanied by a sketch (shown top of page) in their 22nd of October edition which can be seen below:
THE SHAFTESBURY - LONDON'S NEWEST
LONDON'S latest theatre was opened on Saturday night with great eclat. The pittites were propitious, the terrible Mr. Scott evoked not a sign of sibillation, in fact, everybody, even the grim critics and the frivolous flaneurs, was in high good humour, and Miss Wallis must have been greatly delighted with the enthusiasm which greeted her carefully elaborated and agreeable impersonation of Rosalind. Taken as a whole, the production seemed to lack the presence of a "guiding hand and directing brain," but the most exacting critic would stay his hand in awarding praise and blame on such an occasion as this formidable ordeal. In the earlier scenes Miss Wallis seemed ill at ease, and no wonder.
London's latest theatre boasts that it is isolated. But even isolation has its inconveniences. In the middle of a most poetic passage the braying of what must have been a Salvation Army band filled the theatre, and disconcerted the performers. There were other unseemly interruptions too, which are notable, because they were the only hisses that were heard on this memorable occasion. We refer to the voices of some turbulent steam pipes which had evidently been celebrating the event too freely, or were out on the loose for a Saturday night frolic.
Left - A Programme for 'Oh! Oh! Delphine!!!' at the original Shaftesbury Theatre on the 18th of February 1913.
In view of these little hitches it is not surprising that the opening scenes went slowly and without spirit. Nervousness and over anxiety had of course much to answer for. The later scenes Miss Wallis played with charming vivacity. The audience was certainly very well pleased with the production, which was well mounted, but without the obtrusion of that lavishness which is looked for in an age when Shakespeare means spectacle. The dresses were handsome and the scenery very pretty. Who is Mr. Emden's authority for Adam's residence on the Boys estate, which quite startled a certain lauded proprietor, who assured us that it must have been painted from one of his model cottages in Surrey Miss Wallis was supported; by Mr. Forbes Robertson, who made an interesting and picturesque Orlando. Mr. Stirling poured out his melancholy in magnums, and Mr. Mackintosh (who was said to be suffering from a severe cold) was a rather doleful Touchstone. Miss Annie Rose made a pretty Celia. What becomes of gentlemen who play the wrestler in revivals of "As You Like It "?
On Saturday, a Mr. Fenwicke officiated - a gentleman with magnificent muscles and terrible torso, towering head and shoulders over Mr. Robertson. The contest was conducted with a realism which caused it to be watched with an interest as keen as if Sullivan and Jet Smith had been having a set-to.
Right - A Programme for 'Promise' at the original Shaftesbury Theatre in 1936.
We give here a view of the theatre. The auditorium is well arranged, commodious, and tastefully decorated. The hangings are brown plush, lined with salmon silk, the colour of the decorations being light French grey and gold. The theatre will hold about 1,800 people, and at present is lighted by gas, electricity being projected in the near future. Mr. Phipps is the architect, and he has taken care that the theatre shall be isolated, the site being surrounded by Shaftesbury avenue, Nassau, Gerrard, and Greek streets.
It is stated that access and egress for the public are provided by thirteen doorways, while the stage has five doors. On Saturday night the iron curtain was very much in evidence, and received an ovation. The theatre is sure to prove a welcome addition to the playhouses of the metropolis. It is readily accessible from the heart of London, it is sumptuously equipped with all the luxuries which the modern playgoer loves, and Mr. Phipps vouches for its safety. - The Pall Mall Gazette, 22nd October 1888.
One of the most successful plays at the Shaftesbury was in 1922 when it became home to the premier of 'Tons of Money'. This was written by Will Evans and Arthur Valentine and subsequently transferred to the Aldwych Theatre where it became the first of a series of successful farces.
The Shaftesbury Theatre was bombed and destroyed during the second world war on the 17th of April 1941.
The site subsequently stood empty for many years until a Fire Station was eventually built on the site.
Right - The Fire Station which was built on the site of the original Shaftesbury Theatre - Photo M.L. 2004.
See also the current Shaftesbury Theatre, formerly the Princes Theatre here.
Archive newspaper reports on this page were collated and kindly sent in for inclusion by B.F.