The vast and audacious architecture of London’s greatest theatres

Roger Bowdler takes a look at 'London’s Great Theatres', a new book by Simon Callow with photography from Derry Moore.

It must be such fun going to the theatre with Simon Callow. He is entranced by the history of the London stage and has a sharp eye for its setting. Reading this handsome book is guaranteed to enrich any West End outing.

Theatres are audacious buildings. They are vast, complicated and tricky to design. They have to cope with droves of people dashing for the bar or for the exit; they have to be fireproof; they have to sound right and entice the audiences back over and over again (not to mention the small matter of actually staging plays). Great theatres entrance: their decoration entices and the gilded muses, gods, nymphs and legends that enrich them are all part of the spell.

Wiltons Music Hall in Whitechapel, London, UK. Photograph by Alamy.

Mr Callow tells the story of 27 of the finest, ranging from the neo-Classical majesty of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, to the 1970s concrete of the (Royal) National Theatre, for which he has a hesitant admiration.

The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, Covent Garden, West End, London, England, 1809. Photograph from Alamy.

The theatres’ intricate histories are told with great aplomb by Mr Callow, an established author, as well as a celebrated actor. Acting and architecture are cleverly entwined. This is a people-led history: Laurence Olivier, marginalised in the creation of the National Theatre, ‘lashed out on all sides, like Richard III at bay’.

Derry Moore’s photographs are beguiling. He captures the silent splendour of theatre interiors and records the abstract beauty of a bank of seats, or the lighting effects that contribute so much of their glamour. The Savoy Theatre, revamped in 1929 by Basil Ionides, comes out particularly well in these images; so, too, does Wilton’s Music Hall, an outlier in the East End that exults in shabby splendour.

Entrance courtyard to the refurbished Savoy Hotel in London – reopened in October 2010. Photograph by Alamy.

One happy theme that comes across repeatedly is how preserving these historic places has made good business sense. So much originally depended on the impresarios who risked all in rebuilding their premises. The new heroes are Nica Burns, Cameron Mackintosh and Andrew Lloyd Webber, who now invest hugely in these highly successful old buildings. And what wonderful buildings they are.

London’s Great Theatres, Simon Callow and Derry Moore (Prestel, £29.99)