London Theatres | Guest blog by Michael Coveney

New book London Theatres offers a unique front of house and behind the scenes view of London’s world famous playhouses. Theatre critic, and its author, Michael Coveney, blogs about the wider themes running through the book and how it illustrates that theatres really are the intellectual property of the people.2017 London Theatres book cover I don’t think of the new book produced by photographer Peter Dazeley and myself as a “coffee table” tome, although it might indeed be that. I think of it rather as an illustrated argument for the beauty, architectural distinction, living cultural value and sheer character of our rich theatrical heritage, and the dimensions of the book ensure that we can appreciate these features to their full, whether the theatre in question is Drury Lane, the Old Vic, the Young Vic, the Almeida or the Haymarket.

Thank God for the Theatres Trust, and its first director, John Earl, who have done so much to protect and encourage our theatres since the enraged outcry against the old GLC’s plans to cut a swathe through Theatreland in the early 1970s. Covent Garden market took fright and fled to Nine Elms; the theatre community stood resolute when as many as sixteen venues were threatened.

The amazing turn-around in investment over the past twenty years, led by Cameron Mackintosh, has been complemented with the amazing re-invention and re-strengthening of such venues as the National, the Young Vic, the Prince of Wales, Wilton’s Music Hall and, next up, the Victoria Palace and Alexandra Palace. It is one job of the book to tell these stories, another to describe these places as the history of our city, the intellectual property of citizens and playgoers, guests, visitors and tourists. A theatre is not just a house of dreams, but a palimpsest of past occupation.

Mark Rylance, who has written a foreword to the book, talks about the circular patterns in the old theatres, the circles, the circumference, the community of actor and audience. Any Frank Matcham theatre – the Coliseum, the Hackney Empire or Richmond Theatre in the book – attests to this phenomenon, and the pictures illustrate it superbly.  

There is an argument that West End theatres aren’t fit for purpose, and Nicholas Hytner’s new theatre, The Bridge, is a statement of a new intent. But a theatre is so much more than its wing space, or toilets, or flying facilities, or leg-room – though all of these things really matter and most theatres are doing, or have done, something about problems arising – and the fact is that any play, or any musical, is enhanced, not hindered, by its performance in a theatre of Matcham, or Phipps, or Sprague; and it’s the brilliance of a contemporary architect like Steve Tompkins that he can adapt this legacy to modern application. That’s another theme of the book.

It is no accident that Brecht founded the Berliner Ensemble in a gilt-and-cherubs plasterwork theatre in Berlin, or that Joan Littlewood established Theatre Workshop at Stratford East, one of the most perfect Victorian houses in the capital, or indeed that Peter Brook launched the second phase of his ground-breaking career in the Bouffes du Nord, a beaten up but irresistibly atmospheric music hall in Paris with a distinct circular theme. We have rediscovered old theatres and are learning to love them more than featureless studios.

Here's a preview of some of Peter Dazeley's images:  Stars dressing rooms, Prince Edward Theatre, London by Peter Dazeley. Image from London Theatres published in September.

ROH London auditorium by Peter Dazeley, from London Theatres published in September 2017.Above | Stars dressing rooms at the Prince Edward Theatre, London, by Peter Dazeley.

Below | The auditorium of the Royal Opera House, London, by Peter Dazeley.

London Theatres by Michael Coveney and Peter Dazeley, with a foreword by Mark Rylance, was published by Frances Lincoln on 7 September and is available from all good book retailers. 

Theatres Trust Friends and Corporate Supporters can receive a 10% discount on the book until 12 October 2017. Contact us quoting your Membership number to be given the discount code.