The secret life of theatres: London's stages like you've never seen them before

Following the release of a beautiful new book on London’s theatres, writer Michael Coveney explains some of the gems he and photographer Peter Dazeley discovered

It seemed utterly appropriate that, having knocked regular reviewing on the head after a mere 45 years – the last ten here at WhatsOnStage – I should find myself writing the text for Peter Dazeley’s stunning collection of photographs of four dozen venues in and around the West End.

I didn’t even have to see the shows, or mingle with audiences. I simply spent several months visiting theatres in daylight hours, climbing to the fly floors, descending to the sub-stages, poking my nose into dressing rooms and corridors, prompt corners and workshops. I even went on the wonderful theatre tours you can sign up for at Drury Lane, the Palladium, Royal Opera or the Coliseum.

Having spent my life in these theatres I soon realised how much I’d missed

In other venues, we were entertained by company managers, theatre executives and, at the Old Vic, the stage doorman Ned Seago, an extraordinary character who dates back to my early days of queueing along the Waterloo Road for tickets to see Olivier play Othello and Maggie Smith in The Recruiting Officer.

Having spent my life in these theatres I soon realised how much I’d missed. If you now go to a Delfont Mackintosh theatre – magnificently refurbished by Cameron Mackintosh, who really kick-started the phenomenal West End restoration programme after the government said they weren’t interested twenty years ago – you should spend time looking at the walls, for he’s created a living museum of these theatres’ histories.

ATG followed suit. The Duke of York’s, for instance, has a Peter Pan display in the stalls bar to complement the under-stage wooden machinery, still intact, for the show’s premiere in 1904. And did you know that in the lovely circle bar at the Duke of York’s there’s the original document signed by actors at the formation of Equity in 1929? I didn’t. Take a look. Most of the signatories are actresses, not actors. Feminism has ruled in the British theatre since Lilian Baylis set about "improving" our cultural life at the Old Vic and Sadler’s Wells; her story runs through our book at those theatres, the National and the Royal Opera.

Steve Tompkins is the modern architectural hero of the book

Really Useful are about to spend a fortune on Drury Lane. And of course Cameron’s own £30m re-fit of the Victoria Palace opens with Hamilton later this year. Steve Tompkins – responsible for the extraordinary re-definitions of the Court, the Young Vic, the Donmar, the National – is now onboard at Drury Lane. He’s the modern architectural hero of the book in succession to the great Victorian visionaries Frank Matcham (Coliseum, Hackney Empire, Richmond) and WGR Sprague (Gielgud, Aldwych, Ambassadors, Wyndham’s). Wyndham’s is probably the most beautiful theatre in London, the Palace the most magnificent, the St Martin’s the most surprising and under-appreciated.

Like the Phoenix and the Criterion, both of which I love, the St Martin’s is a theatre of marked and singular individuality. It has remained in private ownership since its inception. The Mousetrap has now been in situ there for longer than it was in its original home, the Ambassadors, so "no-one we know" ever sees it.

But I urge you to take another look, even if it means re-visiting or even actually seeing The Mousetrap for the first time. The auditorium is a unique creation of Italian walnut balconies and balustrades, warm and seductive, a sort of interim statement between the Edwardian plasterwork and decorative extravagance of many West End theatres and the sleek art deco lines of, say, the Adelphi, the Cambridge or the former Whitehall, now obscured in the vandalism of the Trafalgar Studios.

Audiences love the West End theatres, despite cramped seats and troublesome toilets

We tell a tale of evolution and regeneration in the West End while the new commercial NHS alliance (Nicks Hytner and Starr) in their new warehouse theatre The Bridge seeks to prove that the West End is not fit for purpose (Starr’s phrase). Our book’s foreword, by Mark Rylance, rebuts this canard big-time, but we do not gloat. Audiences love the West End theatres, despite cramped seats and troublesome toilets, though both these disadvantages are under constant review and frequent improvement.

And the unconventional spaces of the Young Vic, the Almeida, the Tricycle (we’ve celebrated the old courtyard structure, now removed in the current refurb) and the retrieved Victorian music hall of Wilton’s are as interesting to us as the glorious Haymarket or the sumptuous Savoy.

The other thing is – the history of these places, all different, all fascinating, is amazing. I hope we’ve captured something of that. There’s a hint now, too, of new development not only with The Bridge, but with the restoration of Alexandra Palace, where Gracie Fields once strutted her stuff in revue. My all-time favourite theatres? The Theatre Royal Stratford East, for all sorts of reasons, subjective and objective, but also the Wyndham’s, the Palladium and the Royal Court. I hope you share that love.

Order the book on Amazon

London Theatres by Michael Coveney and Peter Dazeley, with a foreword by Mark Rylance, is published by Frances Lincoln.