When the Thames broke its banks in January 1928, flooding the Playhouse and forcing the cancellation of performances across Theatreland, so began a decade of mixed fortunes for London’s West End. Worldwide depression, brought on by the 1929 Wall Street crash in America, coupled with the much-opposed Entertainment Tax, took their toll on producers and theatre owners, while the growth of other forms of entertainment became an increasing worry to the industry. The advent of ‘talking’ films, the BBC’s decision to broadcast live theatre on the radio and, by 1936, the first television broadcasts in the London area, all caused concerned rumblings in Theatreland.
The expansion of Theatreland
But, physically and artistically it was a period of growth. Many theatres opened – including the Cambridge, Phoenix, Adelphi, Whitehall (now Trafalgar Studios), Duchess, Dominion and Prince Edward – while Sadler’s Wells reopened with a flourish and the Open Air had its first season in Regent’s Park. Meanwhile, some of the 20th century’s most renowned actors were coming to prominence. It was the beginning of the golden age of John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson, twenty-something actors, friends and colleagues who first made their indelible mark on Theatreland in this decade, a dominance that was to continue for several decades. Both together and separately they performed in many iconic productions of classics and new plays: Gielgud in Richard II, Macbeth, Hamlet and Chekhov’s The Seagull; Richardson in Henry V and Somerset Maugham’s Sheppey, directed by Gielgud; Olivier in the premiere production of WWI play Journey’s End, in Noël Coward’s Private Lives, and with then-wife Jill Esmond in Twelfth Night. In Oct 1935 Gielgud and Olivier alternated in the roles of Romeo and Mercutio in Romeo And Juliet at the New, a definitive production of the 20th century.
A golden age
It was also a productive decade for other ‘greats’ of last century: Coward starred in and directed many of his plays, including Still Life, a one-act play performed as part of Tonight At 8.30 which went on to be made into the film Brief Encounter; Ivor Novello continued to wow the West End with his musicals and matinee idol looks; Fred and Adele Astaire danced their way across London stages; fellow twenty-somethings Michael Redgrave, Alec Guinness, Peggy Ashcroft, John Mills and Jessica Tandy were all making their mark; and it was the decade in which Vivien Leigh met her future husband, Laurence Olivier.
Births, Deaths and Events
While they enjoyed their time in the spotlight, this decade gave birth to many others who would make their name in the West End in years to come: Alan Bennett, Tom Stoppard, Maggie Smith, Ian Richardson, Harold Pinter, Edward Albee, Peter Hall and Stephen Sondheim, to name but a few. Sadly, for the great actress Ellen Terry, playwright and novelist Arthur Conan Doyle, director-manager Lilian Baylis and King George V, it was the end of the road. The new King, Edward VIII, was known to be an avid theatregoer, but unfortunately Theatreland was not to benefit from his regal presence after all – he abdicated in favour of Mrs Simpson before the coronation.