Lord Richard Attenborough and Dame Judi Dench led a renaming ceremony at the West End’s freshly minted Noël Coward Theatre this afternoon (See News, 23 May 2005). Following a multi-million pound refurbishment, the 870-seat theatre on St Martin’s Lane, formerly the Albery, has been rechristened in honour of the late British playwright, actor, musician and wit.

Today’s champagne event, hosted by theatre owner and impresario Cameron Mackintosh, was attended by many other theatrical dignitaries including Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan (who famously appeared in a multi award-winning revival of Coward’s Private Lives at the then Albery in 2001), June Whitfield, Donald Sinden, Belinda Lang, Adam Godley, Simon Callow, Janie Dee, Sheridan Morley, Ned Sherrin, Patricia Hodge, Twiggy and, currently appearing with Dench in Sir Peter Hall’s revival of Coward’s Hay Fever at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, Peter Bowles, Dan Stevens and Kim Medcalf as well as other producers, directors and industry figures.

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At today’s event, the 82-year-old Attenborough said he didn’t regard himself as a great “man of the theatre” and had only been invited to speak because “I’m so bleeding old, I’m one of the few people who does remember Noël very well indeed”. Coward cast Attenborough in his first acting job, the 1942 film In Which We Serve, cast Attenborough’s actress wife Sheila Sim early in her career, and became godfather to the couple’s son, Michael Attenborough, now artistic director of the Almeida Theatre.

“He’s meant a huge amount to us,” said Attenborough, later adding: “We loved him. He was the most kindly, the most generous, the most touching man I have ever met … We owe him a huge huge gratitude, and all of London and theatre owe him.” In commemorating Coward in this way today, Attenborough remarked “how wonderful that Noël’s name is outside a theatre”, to enthusiastic applause.

Judi Dench recalled the one time that she met Coward, shaking his hand at the Savoy Theatre: “I never have been able to find the smell that he left in the palm of my hand – it must have been his aftershave – but I’ve never forgotten how wonderful it was.” She then read extracts, from Coward’s autobiography Present Indicative and his novel Pomp and Circumstance, about the theatre, a place he described as “a house of strange enchantments, a temple of dreams”.

Before raising his glass to toast Coward’s memory, Cameron Mackintosh explained that - with the encouragement of Coward’s former life partner Graham Payn, who died in November 2005 and whose life was honoured in a service this morning at St Paul’s in Covent Garden prior to the renaming ceremony – he had long been wanting to pay tribute to the man who had four plays on in the West End before the age of 25. “The moment I got this theatre (in 2005), I thought it was the perfect theatre for Noël,” said Mackintosh. However, he waited until after completing the refurbishment as he didn’t want it to carry the playwright’s name until it was “as smart and witty and loveable as Noël was”.

Mackintosh announced last year that the Albery and Strand Theatres would be renamed in honour of, respectively, Coward and composer Ivor Novello, following £6 million’s worth of renovation. In 1920, the Albery (then named the New Theatre, first opened in 1903) hosted Coward’s first-ever play, I’ll Leave It to You. The playwright continued to dominate the West End until the early 1940s with a succession of comedies including Fallen Angels, Hay Fever, Private Lives, Design for Living, Blithe Spirit, The Vortex and Present Laughter, many of which Coward also appeared in with his muse Gertrude Lawrence.

At the Noël Coward - currently hosting the UK premiere of Broadway musical comedy Avenue Q, which opened this week – an exhibition of images of the artist is dedicated to the memory of Graham Payn “without whose enthusiasm and generosity it would not have been possible”.

- by Terri Paddock