A Theatre by Any Other NameDate: 13 March 2006
Aldwych or Novello? Albery or Noel Coward? Whitehall or Trafalgar? Al Senter explains why a rash of potentially confusing theatre renamings is nothing new.
It’s hard to keep pace with the recent dizzying change of landscape in the once static West End. Accompanying this process of simultaneous expansion and contraction has been a flurry of name-calling, as theatres find themselves not only under new management but also new monikers.
In 2004, the Whitehall, synonymous with the farces of the Brian Rix era, was transformed into Trafalgar Studios, numbers 1 and 2, by the Ambassador Theatre Group. More recently, Cameron Mackintosh celebrated his acquisition of the Strand with a lavish refurbishment after which the theatre emerged from the dust-sheets, reborn as the Novello. Next on the Mackintosh masterplan is the disappearance of the Albery, to be re-branded as the Noel Coward while, looking much further ahead, the Sondheim is to be quarried from the existing innards of the Gielgud and Queen's Theatres.
Few would quarrel with Mackintosh’s decision to honour Stephen Sondheim in this way, although it may reflect more of his passion for the man and his work rather than the American composer-lyricist’s patchy record at the West End box office. Coward's connection with the theatre that will bear his name dates from the start of his illustrious career. His first West End play, I'll Leave It to You, ran for just five weeks at the Albery (then called the New). The re-emergence in the West End of Ivor Novello is more puzzling. The work of the Welsh-born actor, composer and writer is seldom produced – in striking contrast to the constant revivals of the plays of Coward, his contemporary and rival. Nevertheless, it's good to see Mackintosh memorialising artists.
Neither writers nor performers are especially prominent in the roll-call of London theatres. Royalty and the aristocracy, on the other hand, are well represented. We have the Queen’s, the Palace, the Duchess and Her Majesty's, not to mention the Prince of Wales (in reference to the then future Edward VII, 1901-1910), the Duke of York's (the future George V, 1910-1935) and the Prince Edward (the future Edward VIII, who abdicated after only a few months in 1936).
The West End’s former Globe was presumably chosen because of its association with the Bard. But the opening of Shakespeare's Globe on Bankside caused some confusion so the Shaftesbury Avenue venue was renamed in honour of the great John Gielgud as part of his 90th birthday celebrations in 1994. The Gielgud's neighbour, the Lyric, and its namesake in Hammersmith indicate initial hopes, only occasionally achieved, that they would be homes of musical entertainments.
Other motives are harder to fathom. Does the Apollo honour the Greek god of music? Why was the Phoenix so called, unless it rose from the ashes of a previous building when it opened with Coward's Private Lives in September 1930? Vaudeville is generally understood as the American equivalent to music hall, but the name's origins appear to lie in French music and satire of the 17th century. Neither definition would seem to have much to do with the theatre in the Strand. The New Ambassadors is another puzzle. Does the West Street venue attract a steady stream of patrons from the diplomatic corps? Or is it the proximity to the Ivy that makes it a favourite with his (and her) excellencies everywhere?
Geography has played its part whenever inspiration has run low. So we have the Aldwych, the St Martin's, the Savoy and the Cambridge (even if the latter is somewhat removed from Cambridge Circus). The Theatre Royal, Haymarket is obvious enough, but its counterpart in WC2 retains Drury Lane in its name while now brazenly fronting Catherine Street, a considerable distance from the aforesaid thoroughfare.
When the Albery gives way this summer to Noël Coward, a distinguished name will disappear. The theatre has only been known by its Albery title since 1973, having struggled along under the less than inspired name of New since its opening in 1902. The previous change was to commemorate the recently deceased Sir Bronson Albery, whose son Sir Donald and grandson Ian made such a contribution to London theatre. Donald's name lives on in the first syllable of the Don-mar (the second is in honour of his great friend, the prima ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn). The founder of the Albery dynasty was the playwright James; after his death, his widow, the actress Mary Moore, married her sometime leading man, actor-manager Charles Wyndham. Although Wyndham was initially associated with the Criterion, it’s in the first of the back-to-back theatres he built, between Charing Cross Road and St Martin's Lane, that his name is perpetuated.
Changes of name are not unusual. The Novello began life as the Waldorf and the Gielgud as the Hicks, in honour of the writer and actor-manager Seymour Hicks. For most of its existence, the Prince Edward was known as the London Casino and the Shaftesbury spent many years as Prince’s. Compared to Broadway, though, London theatre is a haven of stability. But at least Broadway gives proper recognition to its creative artists: the Helen Hayes, the Richard Rodgers, the Eugene O'Neill, the August Wilson and the Neil Simon.
Most bizarre to a British eye is New York’s honouring of critics, as reflected in the Brooks Atkinson and the Walter Kerr. Such a situation is unthinkable here. If neither Kenneth Tynan nor his great rival Harold Hobson are names thought worthy of preservation, what hope is there for the current crop?