West End Theatre Through the Ages: From the Plague to COVID-19

Posted on 27 March 2020

London's West End is no stranger to coping with difficult times, and whilst COVID-19 is something new, the shutdown sure isn't. Over the centuries, London theatre has survived the bubonic plague, multiple fires, two World Wars, and that ghastly Lord of the Rings musical. There's no doubt the industry will be taking a huge hit this year due to the coronavirus crisis, but we are confident the West End and UK theatres will bounce back stronger than ever before.

For #WorldTheatreDay this year, we're hopping into Doc Brown's DeLorean and travelling through time. Join us in discovering the many dark moments in West End history that we've managed to overcome.

A timeline of trying moments in West End theatre history

  • 1592—1594: All London theatre venues were shut down due to the bubonic plague that swept the nation. Outbreaks of the plague were sporadic during these years.
  • 1613: The Globe Theatre burnt to the ground on 23 June 1613 after a cannon ignited a fire during a performance of Henry VIII. Another theatre was erected in its place and reopened in 1614.
  • 1642: The Puritans, under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell, forced the shutdown of all theatres in Britain. If you think the current COVID-19 shutdown is bad, this shutdown lasted for 18 years! The Puritans felt theatre served no purpose and drew in obscene crowds, the likes of which included prostitutes, thieves, and beggars, who negatively affected the overall safety and wellbeing of the surrounding neighbourhoods.
  • 1644: The Puritans had The Globe demolished two years after the mass closures of theatres. In its place, they had tenement houses built.
  • 1655 & 1666: The Great Plague struck twice, killing 15% of London's population in the years 1655 and 1666.
  • 1672: "Tubthumping." The Theatre Royal Drury Lane suffered its first fire, which completely devastated the entire building.
  • 1674: "Theatre Royal Drury Lane got knocked down, and then got up again." A new theatre was erected on the same plot of land and reopened this year as "The Theatre Royal in Drury Lane," lasting almost 120 years before it was demolished.
  • 1737: Creative freedom was censored for the first time. The 1737 Licensing Act had a huge negative impact on British theatre, as it granted the Lord Chamberlain the power to subjectively censor content that he deemed to be inappropriate. Theatre owners and producers could be prosecuted for staging a play that had not received a prior seal of approval.
  • 1791: The Theatre Royal Drury Lane was rebuilt (again). The venue had become so overwhelmingly popular that it was frequently filled to capacity. Under the management of Richard Birnsley Sheridan, the theatre was torn down and replaced with a much larger building.
  • 1794: The Theatre Royal Drury Lane reopened.
  • 1809: The Theatre Royal Drury Lane caught fire for the second time. The venue's new owner Richard Birnsley Sheridan, who acquired ownership after Richard Garrick, had the theatre refurbished. It's rumoured that Sheridan sat outside to watch it burn and said "May a man not take wine at his own fireside?" after his friend suggested to leave.
  • 1828: The Royal Opera House was destroyed by a large gas explosion. The venue had been producing and storing their own gas but went back to using oil lamps after the incident.
  • 1929: The Great Depression plagued the world and had a detrimental impact on the creative industries in Britain. The nation was still recovering from financial hardship caused by the First World War and the demand for big West End productions plummeted. The nosedive meant theatres were unwilling to take any risks and instead elected for more conservative productions that the public was familiar with.
  • September 1939: The government closed all places of amusement, throwing the stage into a tailspin and creating financial hardship for workers in the industry. Bookings were cancelled, companies disbanded, and arrangements abandoned.
  • September 1940: The Blitz bombings began on 7 September 1940 and lasted for 57 nights in a row, killing over 40,000 civilians and destroying as many as one million London houses. Central London and Mayfair were hit the hardest, with the West End's Queen's Theatre and Piccadilly Theatre hit directly and other venues damaged from falling debris. Many theatres were closed during the Second World War, though some like the Windmill Theatre, which staged "tableaux nudes" performances, refused to close.
  • 1990: The interior of the Savoy Theatre was destroyed in a fire whilst it was still being renovated. Only the stage and backstage areas survived unscathed and it took three years for the venue to be restored. An extra storey was built that included a Savoy Hotel health club and a swimming pool installed directly above the stage.
  • 2007—2009: The most expensive (and possibly the most critically panned) musical of all time was released: The Lord of the Rings. The production, which cost £12 million throughout its 13-month run, needed £350,000 a week just to break even. The set was so over the top and dangerously heavy that the original stage had to be carefully dismantled and removed from the theatre for the musical's run.
  • 19 December 2013: During a performance of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, the Apollo Theatre roof collapsed on audience members, causing 80 injuries (7 of which were severe) and 58 hospitalisations, but luckily no deaths. Following an investigation, it was found that old and weak building materials were the root cause of the collapse. The incident temporarily shut down the West End before then London Mayor Boris Johnson declared Theatreland open for business.
  • 6 November 2019: The Piccadilly ceiling collapsed on audience members during a performance of Death of a Salesman. Four people were sent to the hospital with no deaths or serious injuries. The collapse was caused by a localised water leak and a weak ceiling. The venue's in-house staff were widely praised for their swift action in evacuating the theatre. The Young Vic Theatre also earned a nomination for Achievement in Technical Theatre from The Stage for their emergency scratch performances of Death of a Salesman staged immediately after the collapse. The show went on at the Piccadilly several days later after it was given the go-ahead by safety inspectors.
  • 17 December 2019: A Cardiff performance of Les Miserables was interrupted for 10 minutes by an on-stage fire. The safety curtain was dropped and the fire was quickly extinguished.
  • West Coronavirus Shutdown 2020: SOLT and UK Theatre member venues were shut down as of 16 March 2020 following advice from Boris Johnson to "avoid the theatre and cinemas." The Prime Minister's failure to outright ban venues sparked outrage, as it meant theatres could not claim on their insurance. Recently, measures were adopted to protect self-employed workers with a new relief package, though this may not apply for all self-employed workers during the crisis. Arts Council England also recently announced a £160 million relief fund to help organisations and individuals in need.

    Ticket refunds for coronavirus cancellations are expected to surmount to over £150 million, potentially crippling many organisations and employees and likely to result in job losses and permanent venue closures. It is estimated that as many as 300,000 people work for the theatre and entertainment industry in the UK.
📰 If you would like to learn more about what you can do to help keep theatre alive, then be sure to read our article: "How can I support West End and UK theatres during the COVID 19 crisis?"
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Nicholas Ephram Ryan Daniels

By Nicholas Ephram Ryan Daniels

Ephram is a jack of all trades and enjoys attending theatre, classical music concerts and the opera.