Designed by renowned theatre architect Frank Matcham, whose other surviving West End theatres include the London Palladium and the Coliseum, the 1600-seat Victoria Palace opened in 1911, having been built by Henry Lovatt Ltd at a cost of £12,000. It was the fourth theatre to be built on the site since 1832. Matcham’s original drawings and plans for the Palace are now on display as part of the centenary exhibition.
One of the venue’s longest-running hits was comic troupe The Crazy Gang, who staged a series of post-war sketch shows from 1947 to 1962 with the backing of dancers The Tiller Girls. Amongst the guests at Friday’s lunch were two of Frank Matcham’s great grandchildren and descendants of The Crazy Gang, as well as original members of The Tiller Girls and stars of more recent productions including Hannah Waddingham and Michael McKell, who co-starred in the Rod Stewart musical Tonight’s the Night at Victoria in 2003.
Speaking to Whatsonstage.com, Victoria Palace owner Sir Stephen Waley-Cohen explained why he thinks the Victoria Palace is one of the jewels of the West End and holds a special place in audiences’ and artists’ affections: “It has a history of long-running shows - Me and My Girl before the war, The Crazy Gang just after the war, the deeply politically incorrect Black and White Minstrel Show in the Sixties, Buddy and now Billy Elliot (which premiered in 2005). People do feel an affection for this place because they came and saw family-friendly shows in a family-friendly atmosphere here over a number of years.
Waley-Cohen continued: “I like to think that in the 20 years that I've been running the Victoria Palace we've achieved something that not every theatre does achieve, which is to understand that, while for us each performance is just one of eight a week and there are 52 weeks in a year, to the patron, it's their big night out. So we say to our staff ‘remember that for the 1500 people who are coming to this performance, it's a major event, so greet them with a smile and if they have a problem work hard to resolve it’.”
As part of the overhaul of Victoria station, now under way across the street from the Victoria Palace, Waley-Cohen has obtained planning permission for a major renovation of the theatre. Work is due to begin within two years and should be completed by 2016/17.