Designed by Thomas Verity in 1881, we were built from first brick to opening night in six months. Under our original name of the Royal Comedy Theatre, the curtain rose on our first production, The Mascotte, on October 15th 1881. The ‘Royal’ was dropped from the title in 1884 and we remained the Comedy Theatre for the next 127 years.
Since the opening, the interior of the theatre has changed very little and the auditorium retains the original architectural horse-shoe shape of 1881, set over four levels.
Our reputation grew as a house of dramatic operetta and classic drama. Marie Tempest made her debut in Boccaccio in 1885. Sir Herbert Beerbohm-Tree began his career in management here in 1887. Lottie Venne, W.S.Penley, Frank Benson, Lionel Brough, Violet Cameron, Charles Brookfield, Fred Terry, Ellaline Terriss and H.B.Irving became season regulars, amongst many, to be joined on stage and in management by Nina and Dion Boucicault, Cyril Maude and Charles Hawtrey.
Throughout both World Wars we remained steadfastly open. In 1914 the famous revues of Cochran and Charlot kept the public entertained, and distracted, as did Dougie Byng, Winifred Shotter and the two Hermione’s – Gingold and Baddeley, two decades later. 1925 gave us The Vortex with Noel Coward and Lilian Braithwaite, and Coward’s playing understudy was John Gielgud; returning to the theatre two years after his West End debut, at the age of 19, in Charley’s Aunt. The 1930’s brought us the Green Room Rags and a host of notable names including Basil Radford, Ann Todd, Rex Harrison, Jack Hawkins, Ronald Ward, Jill Esmond and Laurence Olivier.
In 1956 the New Watergate Club began, establishing a private membership club that could be joined annually for a 5shilling subscription. This Club was instrumental in ending the control of the Lord Chamberlain’s Office. The outdated Theatres Act of 1843 still required scripts to be submitted for approval, where language and subject matter, in particular homosexuality, was censored and banned. ‘Club’ conditions were not controlled by the Office, so many works, such as Arthur Miller, could be produced without interference. In 1958 legislation was enacted that lifted, albeit with restrictions, this censorship. However it took a further ten years for the Act to be abolished. In 1960 our production of Look On Tempests became the first play in England performed to a ‘public’ audience.
Our range of works have been far-reaching, plays, melodrama, comedy, revivals, musicals, experimental theatre, Hindu Dance and Shak-speare. We have played host to countless well known faces, Paul Scofield, Judi Dench, Alan Bennett, Stockard Channing, Francesca Annis, Timothy Dalton, Patricia Routledge, Ewan McGregor, Damian Lewis, Kristin Scott Thomas, Anne Reid, Maureen Lipman, David Tennant, Vanessa Redgrave, to name just a few of the 4’000 actors who have graced our marquee.
Over the decades we have had numerous ‘debutantes’, West End, London and even Stage debuts – these include Paul Eddington, John Stride, Brian Bedford, Kim Stanley, Peter Hawkins, Tim Seely, Keira Knightly, Barry Andrews, Leigh Lawson, Adam Faith, Britt Ekland, Melvyn Hayes, Jimmy Tarbuck, Laurence Harvey, Richard Harris, Nigel Bruce, Keith Baxter. Maggie Smith made her West End debut in Share My Lettuce on 25th September 1957, and to mark her 80th Birthday we renamed a dressing room “Dame Maggie’s”.
There have been poignant final stage performances too, from Michael Hordern, Alex Guinness and Marie Ure, who passed away only a few hours after her opening night.
The next five decades saw John Gielgud’s return as director on Five Finger Exercise, Joan Littlewood in Uranium 235, Spike Milligan in The Bed Sitting-Room and Son of Oblomov, Robert Stephens in George Dillon, Zoe Wanamaker in The Glass Menagerie, Ralph Richardson in Early Days, our longest running play There’s A Girl in My Soup at 1226 performances, and Harold Pinter - as actor, director and playwright. No history of the Comedy Theatre would be complete without reference to him. The Homecoming, The Caretaker, No Man’s Land, Moonlight, The Hothouse and Betrayal have all been presented over the years.
On the 13th October 2011, the Comedy Theatre became The Harold Pinter Theatre.
If you would care to take a walk around our corridors, you will find a pictorial history - the productions and the Actors that have created our Profession. Should you have a question about any aspect of our history, please ask a member of the front-of-house team, or visit our archivist at Stage Door.