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First Published 23 April 2008, Last Updated 30 January 2009

After years blighted by war, London theatre had its best business for 10 years in 1948, partly due to the effect of the London Olympics. The decade was one of rebuilding as the many forms of rationing that had made staging theatre difficult during the war years came to an end. The Festival of Britain, in which theatre took a central role, lifted spirits in 1951, only for the country to be shocked by the death of King George VI in 1952. The King’s demise led to every London theatre closing for one night as a sign of respect. Queen Elizabeth was officially crowned the following year. As the decade drew on, Theatreland was apparently threatened by the introduction of a second television channel – ITV – and was proclaimed dead by Nat Day who cited Bill Haley And The Comets playing at the Dominion and Laurence Olivier appearing in The Entertainer as signs that London theatre had given its final speech.

The post war evolution 

Theatre, of course, was not dying, but simply changing, as was the world it served. The recovery from the war saw the Old Vic reopen under the control of Tyrone Guthrie, before Michael Benthall replaced him as Artistic Director and embarked on his plan to stage every Shakespeare play at the Waterloo venue over a five year period. American musicals started to really make their mark, with Drury Lane taking a series of Rodgers and Hammerstein shows. The foundation stone for the National Theatre was laid, Theatre Workshop was formed at Stratford East and the English Stage Company took to the stage at the Royal Court under the guidance of George Devine.

The Royal Court leads the way 

It was the Royal Court that really signalled the change for British theatre, with the staging of John Osborne’s Look Back In Anger in 1956. The production heralded the end of dominance of ‘drawing room dramas’ and the rise of grittier, working class ‘kitchen sink dramas’. This was also the decade in which Beckett’s Waiting For Godot debuted at the Arts theatre under the direction of Peter Hall. Though not universally loved, it too changed the boundaries of what could and couldn’t be put on stage. This was a boon time for shows now regarded as theatrical classics. Death Of A Salesman, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Crucible, The Threepenny Opera, Carousel, Kiss Me Kate, The King And I and Porgy And Bess were all seen in London for the first time, as was The Mousetrap. The whodunit, which has run in London for the last 56 years, originally starred Richard Attenborough as the detective. 

Attenborough was not the only well known name to take to the London stage. Actors including Richard Burton, Paul Scofield, Michael Redgrave, John Mills, Dirk Bogarde, Katherine Hepburn, Clare Bloom, Geraldine McEwan, Sam Wanamaker, Joan Plowright, Patricia Routledge, Prunella Scales, Donald Pleasance and Anna Massey started to appear more regularly. Young, unknown actress Judi Dench made her professional debut as Ophelia to John Neville’s Hamlet at the Old Vic in 1957.

Births, Deaths ands Events 

The decade saw John Gielgud knighted for his services to the industry in the same year that he was arrested for importuning. Also recognised were actor/manager Donald Wolfit, director Bronson Albery, actress Peggy Ashcroft and ballerina Margot Fonteyn. It saw the births of playwrights David Edgar, Stephen Poliakoff and Frank McGuinness, and composer/producer Andrew Lloyd Webber, but it also saw the deaths of George Bernard Shaw, Ivor Novello, Eugene O’Neill, Bertolt Brecht.

Relevant Snapshots of London Theatre
1 April 1951: Garland debuts at Palladium
31 March 1953: Donat makes final stage performance
10 April 1957: Olivier is The Entertainer


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