The Little Theatre, John Street, London
Above - The auditorium of the Little Theatre, John Street, London - From Theatre World Vol. LVIII No.446 March, 1962 - Courtesy Maurice Poole
The Little Theatre was situated on John Street, behind the former Tivoli Theatre and the Strand. John Street is now known as John Adam Street, and for good reason, as it was the Adam Brothers who built the whole Adelphi Development between the Strand and the Embankment in the late 1700s. The Theatre itself was a reconstruction of the former Coutts Banking Hall and the conversion was carried out to the designs of the architects Hayward and Maynard. The Theatre opened on the 11th of October 1910 with the play 'Lysisfrata'.
Above - A Section of Batholomews 1922 Map of London showing the position of the Little Theatre on John Street
The Theatre's auditorium was designed in the Adam Style with a raked floor and it originally had no balcony but did have seven boxes at the rear of the stalls. Dressing rooms were situated below the stage. Alterations were carried out in 1912 by its original architects, Hayward and Maynard, who removed the rear stalls boxes and added a small balcony, with four new boxes underneath, which enlarged the seating capacity from its original 300 to 388.
The Little Theatre had an eventful and successful career but it was damaged by bombs in both world wars. The first of these was on the 4th of September 1917 when it was badly damaged and was closed for a number of years. The Theatre was later altered and refurbished, again by its original architects, Hayward and Maynard, and reopened on the 24th of February 1920 with the play 'Mumsee' by Edward Knoblock. The second and more serious bombing of the Theatre was on the 16th of April 1941 and this proved to be the end for the Theatre, it was demolished some years later in 1949.
A detailed history of the Little Theatre was published in Theatre World in 1962 and I have transcribed this article below, along with its accompanying images.
A plan showing the Theatre in some detail can be seen here.
The Little Theatre by N. M. Bligh
From Theatre World Vol. LVIII No.446, March, 1962
Tucked away in John Street off the Strand behind the Old Tivoli Music Hall (which itself disappeared in 1914) was a small, attractive, and intimate theatre with original seating for only about 300 persons. This fact was reflected in its name, the Little Theatre, which it bore during its 30 years of existence. Yet if it was miniature in size, its success and importance were considerable, and some of its productions will be remembered fondly and spoken of whenever theatre history is recalled.
The building stood on an historic site, for there in the 13th century was Durham House, the London residence of the Bishops of Durham and later a royal house for Henry VIII; there Lord Darnley married Lady Jane Grey, and from there she went to her execution in the Tower. In 1583 it was granted to Sir Walter Raleigh who lived there for twenty years. The house was demolished in 1650, but since 1609 the New Exchange buildings had stood on the Strand frontage. The Adam brothers, having taken the lease in 1768, built the Adelphi, and in due course Coutts the banking firm occupied what was later to be the site of the Little Theatre. Construction of the theatre in 1910 was heavy work, for the cement walls were up to three feet thick, largely strengthened with hoop-iron bonding. Thus removing walls and cutting openings involved considerable difficulties. The dressing rooms beneath the stage were old strong rooms, and the entire structure stood on arches reaching to more than 30 feet below the auditorium floor and built by the Adam brothers to bring John Street and the Adelphi up to the level of the Strand. Behind the enterprise of establishing the theatre was Gertrude Kingston, an actress of considerable experience, whose plan was to make it the home of repertory, though its actual history followed very different lines. The handsome little auditorium was decorated in the Adam style with walls and hangings in Wedgwood tints. In the ceilings of the vestibule, foyer, and box entrances were four fine paintings, probably by Angelica Kauffmann, saved from a ceiling demolished some years earlier. There were seven boxes at the rear of the stalls, but at first no circle or gallery, though, as we shall see, a balcony was constructed in 1912.
The actual opening was on October 11th, 1910; the play was Lysisfrata with Gertrude Kingston in the title role; and, an ardent suffragist, she no doubt chose the play for its propagandist value. This and the two plays which followed are typical of the wide diversity of productions found as we turn the pages of this story, for on the policy of a month's run for each play, after Lysistrata came a comedy Just to Get Married, and The Dragon of Wrath, a Chinese play of great charm and colour, with a native cast. As the whole life of the house is well within the recollection of older playgoers we shall find, not surprisingly, the first or early appearances of numerous celebrities familiar on the recent or contemporary stage. Thus in 1911 Noel Coward made his stage debut as Prince Mussel in a children's fairy play. The Goldfish, and June Tripp, later so famous in the musicals of the '20's, appeared as a sea-nymph in the same show. This year saw also Lillah McCarthy's season, notably a revival of The Master Builder with a cast including Norman McKinnel, Harcourt Williams, and Christine Silver, and the immensely successful Fanny's First Play, by G. B. Shaw, which had a run of over 600 performances. It might be worth while to recall that the leading players included Harcourt Williams, Christine Silver, Fewlass Llewellyn, Dorothy Minto, Cicely Hamilton, and Lillah McCarthy, all famous names. The year 1912 covered Charles Kenyon's season in which we note an appearance of Owen Nares in The Blindness of Virtue, Rutherford and Son, which transferred to the Vaudeville, and The Spanish Lover, a play popular in 16th and 17th century Europe but now done for the first time on the English stage. It was produced by B. Iden Payne. In December Charley's Aunt had one of its annual presentations. It had been felt that provision of some cheaper seating was desirable, so during the summer the seven boxes were removed, the roof raised, and a balcony was included. The Music Cure by Shaw and described by the author as "a piece of utter nonsense," and a private performance of Damaged Goods, by Brieux, at that time so highly controversial. It was put on by the Author's Producing Society, but three years later was played at the St. Martin's Theatre for 281 performances.
There must have been an element of distinct novelty in As it Used to Be, a compilation of scenes from plays as presented a hundred or more years ago. It included Garrick's campaign against fops seating themselves on the side of the stage, orange women in the theatre, and the dying scene from Romeo and Juliet, by that fantastic exhibitionist "Romeo" Coates which he would have repeated after two encores if Juliet had not got up from the tomb and stopped him! From the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, the Irish Players, including Arthur Sinclair, J. M. Kerrigan, and Harry Hutchinson put in a season during 1915; one of their productions was The Playboy of the Western World with Eithne McGee as Pegeen. The First World War was now well into its stride and the theatre was closed for the second half of the year and for the whole of 1916. On 4th September 1917 it was badly damaged by a bomb and did not re-open until February 24th, 1920 when it came under the management of Vedrenne and Vernon. The first new production, Mumsee by Edward Knoblock, featuring Eva Moore, Henry Kendall, and Edna Best was not a success.
But in September, under the management of Jose G. Levy, came the first of the two monumental success epochs with which the Little Theatre will be for ever associated: the run of super-horrific Grand Guignol plays which occupied the boards for nearly two years. They were interpreted by casts which included Sybil and Russell Thorndike, Lewis Casson, Dorothy Minto, George Bealby, and Minnie Rayner. In some instances the deceptively innocuous titles of these blood-curdling dramas, such as How to be Happy, G. H. Q. Love, The Old Women and Shepherd's Pie, gave no indication of their real implications. Aubrey Hammond designed a very famous and brilliantly clever poster which depicted members of a terrified audience bathed in perspiration, fainting, collapsing in their seats, clutching their heads, or rushing out with arms raised in horror. It might be of interest now, some forty years later, to recall briefly the sub-stance of three or four representative plays of this series. In The Hand of Death a queer old doctor has discovered an electrical device to apply to the heart for bringing the dead to life. His own daughter dies and is brought on to be cut open and resuscitated. The operation is performed amid storms without, but the girl comes to life just long enough to grip the doctor by the throat and strangle him. In The Kill a bloodthirsty Count throws his wife's lover to his purposely under-fed boarhounds. The Old Women is set in a French lunatic asylum where a nun leaves a young girl (Sybil Thorndike), who has recovered sanity and is awaiting discharge, to sleep in the same room as some deformed and horrible lunatic women (played by Athene Seyler and Barbara Gott). The terrified girl hears them plotting her destruction, aid this they put into effect, gouging out her eyes. Finally, in Shepherd's Pie, a Frenchman, whose arm has been cut off by a Hamburg tramcar and carried away by a dog, identifies, by means of a ring, the long lost arm served at dinner in a Shepherd's pie.
Closely following this outstanding run, there started in October 1922 the second of the two great success epochs : the series of clever and witty intimate revues with which the name of the Little Theatre is inseparably connected. The first of the series, The Nine O'Clock Revue, by Harold Simpson and Morris Harvey, included such famous names as Irene Browne, Joan Emney, Beatrice Lillie, Mimi Crawford, and Anita Elson; it secured a run of 385 performances. As the title implied, by starting at nine o'clock, it conceded to the growing habit of later dining and the demand for a light theatrical entertainment starting later than the normal time. It was followed by The Little Revue Starts at Nine with Jack Hulbert, Cicely Courtneidge, Harold French, Mai Bacon, and Bobby Howes, and, in due course, by The Second Little Revue, and, in 1925, The Nine to Eleven Revue. These happy and witty shows captivated a large section of London theatregoers and became almost an institution providing a continuous and highly appreciative audience.
During the next sixteen years the house was seldom unoccupied, but naturally had its share of failures as well as many outstanding successes. So it remains to select from a long list of productions those that for some particular reason deserve mention or comment. The Vortex, with Noel Coward. Lilian Braithwaite, and Bromley Davenport had a revival here, and The Seagull scored 56 performances with John Gielgud as Konstantin and Valerie Taylor as Nina. In 1926. Autumn Fire, with Una O'Connor and Godfrey Tearle was very well received but The Idiot, adapted from Dostoievsky's novel had only a short run, though Ion Swinley, playing opposite Stella Arbenina, gave an extremely fine performance as the half-idiot prince in this morbid story of Russian gloom. The event of 1927 was the horrific Dracula which scored 391 performances with Raymond Huntley as the Vampire Count.
The year ended with a Shaw season by the Macdona Players extending into 1928 and including Getting Married and You Never Can Tell. In the new year Charles Laughton was outstanding as the red-haired fiend in A Man With Red Hair, adapted from Hugh Walpole's novel; also in the cast were Ion Swinley and Gillian Lind.
Right - L to R: Ion Swinley, Charles Laughton and J. H. Roberts in The Man with Red Hair, adapted by Rena Levy from Hugh Walple's novel, which had a successful run at the Little Theatre in 1928.
There was a short revival of Grand Guignol, and this was followed by Diversion which moved in from the Arts Theatre and featured Alison Leggatt, Maurice Evans, C. V. France, and Cathleen Nesbitt; it ran for nearly 100 performances.
Three items claim a mention for 1929: Red Rust dealing with modern life in Russia, particularly amongst students, scored some success, and playing in it were John Gielgud, Ion Swinley, Nadine March, and Selma Vaz Dias. There was a revival of The Face at the Window, a good old real melodrama with the full works! In August, Sun-Up, a play laid in the mountains of North Carolina, which had been done at the Vaudeville four years earlier, was revived with Lucille La Verne as the masterful old widow. This actress was a tall woman with a deep and powerful voice, but she was ill-advised enough to play the part of Shylock. This was deplored as another instance of Shakespeare being so often used in London to exploit some outlandish or freakish idea. But the critics were kind and conceded it to be "a good attempt at an impossible task" or "well enough done, but should never have been done at all."
During 1930 there was Frankenstein with the title role finely acted by Hamilton Deane, and a Christmas revue, Caviare, which must have been remarkably poor as the best item was said to be a marionette act. In 1931 we note a good renaissance play, The Venetian, with Catherine Lacey, Margaret Rawlings, Alastair Sim, and John Clements; also Fear, Lord Lathom's last and best play. Dennis Neilson-Terry, playing opposite Mary Glynne, is said to have given the finest performance of his career as the young man who spends a night in the haunted room; a study of fear in a man who is afraid of being afraid.
The diversity of plays appearing at this theatre could hardly be wider, revue, horrifies, drama, Irish plays, revivals, and musicals all had their turn. Galsworthy's Strife was revived with its large cast including Franklyn Dyall, Nancy Price, Ivor Barnard, and Marie Ault. Later came Sunshine House, a rather grim play which with difficulty secured only a short run; it was an attack on the private mental home and was written with inside knowledge by an author who had worked in one.
The decidedly mixed bag for 1934 included East Lynne as played by a stock company in 1890 with Edgar K. Bruce as Levison and Helena Pickard as Lady Isabel, a period of Maskelyne's Mysteries, Pirandello's The Life that I Gave Him in which Peggy Ashcroft played, and in November that vastly successful willow-pattern fantasy Lady Precious Stream; this ran through nearly the whole of 1935 and on to April 1936; it was back again at the end of November by which time it had reached about 800 performances.
Left - Fabia Drake and Roger Livesey are seen, right, in "Lady Precious Stream, the charming play by S. I. Hsiung, which had its first performance on 27th November, 1934, at the Little Theatre.
The Insect Play had a four month's revival 13 years after its original presentation, and was followed by The King and Mistress Shore in which Pamela Browne made her first London appearance. Unfortunately the play had a bad Press and was a failure. Memories of the Nine O'Clock revue sagas were revived when Nine Sharp sparkled in January 1938 and blazed its way through 405 performances of supreme success into the following year; the cast included Cyril Ritchard, Hermione Baddeley, George Benson, and Betty Ann Davies. There was some controversy over the inclusion of one item - Hollywood Funeral - involving the lying in state of a film idol, as it was considered in bad taste. Finally it was decided to include it only on one evening a week, though many thought it one of the best items. There followed in April 1939 Farjeon's Little Revue in which Vida Hope and Joyce Grenfell both made their London debut. In the summer the show was seen by King George VI and the Queen. The revue ran through three editions to total 415 performances. By now the shadows of the War were falling on London entertainments and in September the performances were retimed to 1.15 - 6 p.m., continuous, reverting in October to 2.30 and 8.30 daily. The air-raid shelter under the stage in the old bank strong-rooms was advertised as one of the safest in the country.
But the days of the intimate, happy, and successful little house were drawing to a close. In April, Farjeon presented The Country Wife with Alec Clunes, Hermione Baddeley, Ursula Jeans, Max Adrian, and Vida Hope. The last presentation appears to have been a lunch hour ballet group early in 1941, for on the night of April 16th the theatre was destroyed by a bomb. There were hopes of its rebuilding but this was not to be; it was submerged by the relentless tide of commercial development. For all its diminutive size, it had made its mark on London theatrical history and will be fondly remembered for the excellence and infinite variety of so much of its contributions to the pleasures of discriminating playgoers.
The above article on the Little Theatre was written by N. M. Bligh and first published in Theatre World Vol. LVIII No.446 in March, 1962, and was kindly sent in for inclusion on the site by Maurice Poole. Images, except where mentioned, are from the same publication.
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