There have been four theatres on this site in the Strand, operating under no fewer than seven different names. We recently celebrated the theatre’s bicentenary as the first building opened its doors on 27th November 1806.
It was called the the Sans Pareil, changing to the Adelphi in 1819 and the Theatre Royal, Adelphi, in 1829. A second theatre, built in 1858, took the name Theatre Royal, New Adelphi, which in turn became the Royal Adelphi Theatre from 1867 onwards. In 1901 the third building, reconstructed to provide a new frontage on The Strand, opened as the Century Theatre but within a year it reverted to the Royal Adelphi. The current building is the fourth and opened in December 1930 with the same name. The Royal epithet was dropped in 1940 and the theatre has just been the Adelphi ever since.
For 200 years there has been popular entertainment here ranging from the melodrama and opera of the early years, through Shakespeare and dance, to the modern musicals for which it is now best known. Early musical successes included The Quaker Girl (1908), The Girl from Utah (1913), a musical version of The Magistrate called The Boy (1918), Vivian Ellis’s Mr Cinders (1929) with Binnie Hale and Bobby Howes, and the Cicely Courtneidge and Jack Hulbert revues Clowns in Clover (1927) and The House that Jack Built (1929).
The art deco features of this current building were restored in 1993 and were big news when the theatre first opened its doors under the management of the great showman C B Cochrane. The first production was Ever Green (1930) starring Jessie Matthews, who performed Rodgers and Hart’s “Dancing on the Ceiling”, and went on to become the darling of the British cinema, starring in a series of musicals for Gaumont-British. This was followed by an adaptation of Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel (1931), A. P. Herbert’s reworking of Offenbach’s La Belle Hélène – called simply Helen! (1932), Noël Coward’s revue Words and Music (1932) and Cole Porter’s Nymph Errant (1933) which starred Gertrude Lawrence and featured Elizabeth Welch.
Marie Tempest gave her last London performance in a revival of Dodie Smith’s Dear Octopus (1940), and a revival of Ivor Novello’s The Dancing Years (1942), which had closed at Drury Lane with the outbreak of war, clocked up a run of 969 performances.
The next major successes were Cochran’s productions of A. P. Herbert and Vivian Ellis’s Big Ben (1946), Bless the Bride (1947) which starred Georges Guetary and Lizbeth Webb, and Tough at the Top (1949).
Under Jack Hylton’s management the1950s saw a series of revues based around popular radio stars including Take it from Here with Jimmy Edwards. Beatrice Lillie scored a huge hit as Auntie Mame (1958) and Van Johnson flew in to take the lead in Meredith Willson’s The Music Man (1961).
Sean Kenny’s remote-controlled sets were the most impressive thing about Lionel Bart’s Blitz (1962) but it had a respectable run, as did his next musical Maggie May (1963) following Dora Bryan’s revue Six of One (1963). Harold Fielding’s production of Charlie Girl (1965), originally starring Anna Neagle and Derek Nimmo, was a huge hit and stayed in residence for over five years.
The early 1970s saw successful revivals of Show Boat (1971) with Cleo Laine, and The King and I (1973) starring Sally Anne Howes. The first London production of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music (1975) had an all-star cast led by Jean Simmons, Hermione Gingold and Joss Ackland. Jon Pertwee and Jessie Evans headlined a revival of the 1920s musical Irene (1976) and Cameron Mackintosh presented a revival of My Fair Lady (1982) with Tony Britton and Liz Robertson. Stephanie Lawrence was Monroe in the musical Marilyn! (1983) immediately prior to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Peter Nichols’s Poppy (1983). Lena Horne starred in her one-woman show (1984) prior to Me and My Girl (1985). Originally starring Robert Lindsay and Emma Thompson, the production transferred from Leicester Haymarket. During the run of over eight years, stars playing the lead roles of Bill and Sally included Brian Conley, Les Dennis, Gary Wilmot, Lorraine Chase and Bonnie Langford.
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard (1993) starred Patty Lupone, Betty Buckley, Petula Clarke, Rita Moreno and Elaine Paige during its run of over 1,500 performances, and a magnificent revival of Evita (2006) introduced Argentinean powerhouse Elena Roger to British audiences. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (2007) opened with Lee Mead in the lead role having been chosen by the public on the BBC television programme Any Dream Will Do.
Chicago (1997) knocked them dead in the aisles for over eight years, taking the record for not only the Adelphi’s longest run but also as the longest West End run of an American musical. Stars helping to set these records included Ruthie Henshall, Ute Lemper, Sacha Distel, Marti Pellow, Henry Goodman, Chita Rivera, Leigh Zimmerman, Nigel Planer, Norman Pace, Les Dennis, Denise van Outen, Claire Sweeney, Jennifer Ellison, Jill Halfpenny, David Hasselhoff, Lynda Carter, Bonnie Langford and Brooke Shields.
Chicago was not the first time that murder has been placed firmly centre stage at the Adelphi. In December 1897 the famous melodramatic actor William Terris was dramatically and fatally stabbed on his way into the theatre to prepare for a performance of Secret Service. The stage door was then in Bull Inn Court, but Terris used the Royal Entrance in Maiden Lane as a private access route. It proved his undoing for it allowed Richard Prince, a jealous (and mad) colleague, to attack him with a knife. He died from his wounds inside the theatre in the arms of his leading lady, and mistress, Jessie Milward. He was enormously popular and greatly mourned. No-one could say ‘he had it coming’, and since his last words were reportedly ‘I’ll be back’ there may be some truth in reported sightings of his ghost here in the theatre and at Covent Garden tube station.