Having celebrated its bicentenary in 2006 the current Adelphi Theatre is actually the fourth venue on this site in the Strand, and in the 200 years since the first building opened on 27 November 1806 it has operated under no fewer than seven different names.
The first theatre was called 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.
The Sans Pareil was built by John Scott, a local businessman who had amassed a personal fortune by inventing a laundry product he called ‘True Blue’. The theatre opened with Miss Scott’s Entertainment and the Miss Scott in question was John’s daughter. He built the theatre purely for her, not only to display her many talents but also to allow her to act as Theatre Manager. Miss J Scott was later to find major fame by creating the role of Susan in the hugely successful melodrama Black Eyed Susan and in these early years she established The Sans Pareil as a home for such popular entertainments, usually with herself in the leading role.
In 1819 Scott sold the theatre to Messrs Jones and Rodwell who reconstructed the whole building and re-opened it as The Adelphi. They programmed the theatre with burlettas in order to circumvent legal restrictions on the performance of legitimate drama. This involved the insertion of songs and musical accompaniment into otherwise straight plays to make them acceptable as a different form of entertainment so theatre could be licensed by the Lord Chamberlain’s office.
The building was further altered in 1821 and the following year theatrical history was made when the production of Tom and Jerry by William Moncrieff was the first play ever to run for 100 consecutive performances.
In 1825 Terry and Frederick Yates purchased the theatre for £25,000 (the same price Jones and Rodwell had paid six years earlier) and had a great success with one of their first productions, The Pilot, which broke Tom and Jerry’s record by playing 200 performances.
Under various managements, including Madame Céleste, Benjamin Webster, F B Chatterton and the Gatti Brothers, the theatre found popular success throughout the 19th century and was completely re-built, with the second building opening in 1858. In the 1830s stage adaptations of Charles Dickens’s novels proved very popular starting with The Pickwick Papers, and Dion Boucicault’s The Colleen Bawn (1859) and The Shaughraun (1876) both had long runs, providing a good idea of the large-scale comic dramas that the theatre specialised in.
The Gatti brothers’ major success was The Harbour Lights by George R Sims and Henry Pettitt which ran for 510 performances. They produced a whole string of big melodramas which became known universally as ‘Adelphi Dramas’. With titles such as In the Ranks (1883), The Union Jack (1888) and The English Rose (1890) these dramatic set-pieces were the theatre’s mainstay into the early 20th century.
The Gattis completely re-built the theatre again in 1901 and although they retained ownership it was leased to various different managements until they relinquished ownership to Woolworths in 1955. Fortunately the plan to redevelop it as a supermarket came to nothing.
During the 20th century The Adelphi Theatre has mainly hosted musical theatre but it is worth remembering that as a medium sized house with 1,500 seats it has continued to host drama and comedy with some success too, often with star names in leading roles. The Way of an Eagle (1922), Tallulah Bankhead in The Green Hat (1925), Aloma (1926), Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel (1931), Magnolia Street (1934), Dame Marie Tempest’s last performance in Dear Octopus (1940), Beatrice Lillie in Auntie Mame (1958), John Inman in Charley’s Aunt (1979) and, most recently, James Corden in the sell-out transfer of the National Theatre’s enormous success One Man, Two Guvnors (2011).
The stand out productions in the theatre’s rich musical heritage are The Quaker Girl (1908), Ever Green with Jessie Matthews (1930), Noël Coward’s Words and Music (1932), Cole Porter’s Nymph Errant (1933), Bless the Bride starring Lizbeth Webb (1947), Charlie Girl (1965), Van Johnson as The Music Man (1961), Lionel Bart’s Blitz! (1962), A Little Night Music (1975), Cameron Mackintosh’s revival of My Fair Lady (1982), Andrew Lloyd, Webber’s Sunset Boulevard (1993), Evita (2006), Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (2007) and Love Never Dies (2010). Me and My Girl (1985) and Chicago (1997) both ran at the theatre for over eight years.
Chicago not only holds the record for the longest running show at the Adelphi but also holds the record for the longest West End run of an American musical.
The Adelphi was last reconstructed in 1930 when the art deco features we still see today were all introduced by the architect Ernest Schaufelberg. The last major refurbishment of the auditorium and front of house areas was in 1993 when the art deco features, many of which had been covered for many years, were restored to their original splendour. The stalls bars were decorated with tributes to Vivian Ellis (front stalls) and Jessie Matthews (rear stalls) both of whom had major career successes in the building. As a Grade II listed building the theatre requires constant maintenance and the owners are constantly striving to improve the facilities for visiting patrons.
In the six weeks between the closure of Sweeney Todd (2012) and the first preview of The Bodyguard (2012) the Adelphi underwent the latest in its very long line of major reconstruction projects. New lavatories and movement space were created in the basement (where programmes, merchandise and ice creams used to be stored) next to the Jessie Matthews Bar.
Made in Dagenham (2014) starring Gemma Arterton was followed by a week of performances by Jackie Mason and a short run of Whose Line is It Anyway?. Before the opening of Kinky Boots in September 2015, there were yet more major building works creating a new bar in the foyer and more improved lavatory facilities.
Hopefully, the work was not too disturbing for the resident ghost. 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 and since his last words reportedly were "I’ll be back" there may be some truth in reputed sightings of his ghost here in the theatre and at Covent Garden Tube Station.
Mark Fox January 2016