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First Published 23 April 2008, Last Updated 30 January 2009

This may have been the decade in which the Theatrical Management Association launched the imaginatively titled ‘Go To The Theatre’ campaign to try counteract a perceived decline in audiences, but this period was of major significance in the history of London theatre.

The age of Olivier and the birth of the RSC

Laurence Olivier continued to preside over Theatreland. He had already become the inaugural director of Chichester Festival Theatre, transferring many productions to London, when, four years later, he became the director of the newly established National Theatre Company, which was given a £1 million government grant. While the company waited for its new permanent home on the South Bank to be built, Olivier set up shop at the Old Vic in Waterloo, where the first production of the new National Theatre Company opened in October 1963 – Olivier directed Peter O’Toole in Hamlet.

It was also a period of progress for the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre Company in Stratford. Not only did the Queen give it royal approval, but the newly renamed Royal Shakespeare Company, led by Peter Hall, announced it had secured a London base at the Aldwych theatre. The first of many productions, The Duchess Of Malfi, starring Peggy Ashcroft, opened there in December 1960.

The fight against censorship 

It was a period of change and progress in terms of productions, too. When the first UK production of Tennessee Williams’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Cat On A Hot Tin Roof was banned for public performance because of its references to homosexuality, it was about time things changed, and the Lord Chamberlain was forced to lift the ban on this and any other play that mentioned homosexuality. The Royal Court forged the way in challenging what was allowed on the London stage. Several of its productions – including Edward Bond’s Saved in 1965 – were banned, but it was the beginning of the end for the censor.

Musical premieres and iconic drama

It was a great decade for musicals. Many shows which went on to become staples of Theatreland’s musical catalogue received their UK premieres during this time, including: My Fair Lady, which broke the box office record for advance sales; the now iconic American hit West Side Story; Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound Of Music; Lionel Bart’s Olivier!, which ran for 2,618 performances at the New; Stephen Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, which propelled Frankie Howerd on to huge success with Up Pompeii; Joan Littlewood’s satirical musical Oh! What A Lovely War at Stratford East; Hello, Dolly, starring Mary Martin at the Drury Lane; Funny Girl, with Barbra Streisand recreating her Broadway performance as Fanny Brice; and Fiddler On The Roof, starring original Tevye, Topol, which ran for 2,030 performances.

There were many iconic dramatic productions too – Judi Dench in Franco Zeffirelli’s production of Romeo And Juliet, Olivier ‘blacked up’ to play Othello at the Old Vic, John Gielgud in the one-man Shakespeare anthology The Ages Of Man, Joan Plowright in Saint Joan at the Old Vic, plus major productions of Noël Coward’s Hay Fever, Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Comedy revue was changed forever by the Beyond The Fringe quartet, and the original production of French farce Boeing Boeing began its run of 2,035 performances.

Births, Deaths and Events 

It was a bad decade for Yvonne Arnaud, Clifford Odets, Cole Porter, George Devine and Olivier’s now ex-wife Vivien Leigh, who all shuffled off this mortal coil, and particularly bad for playwright Joe Orton, who was murdered by his lover at the tragically young age of 34. The decade also saw the demise of the Windmill theatre, which, during the war, had stayed open while other theatres closed, entertaining audiences with its nude revue while the bombs rained down overhead. The theatre that never closed may have finally shut its doors, but Judi Dench was to make sure it was never forgotten – she starred as the theatre’s owner in the film Mrs Henderson Presents, 41 years later.

Related Snapshots of London Theatre
1958: Censor meets its match
27 February 1962: Crawford makes West End debut
19 March 1963: Oh! What A Lovely War premieres
21 February 1967: Olivier and McEwan do Dance Of Death


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