The end of the 60s and the start of the 70s was an era of change for the world, the country and the theatre industry. Boundaries were being pushed and tested. Theatre censorship was abolished in 1968 heralding a new era of what could be put on stage, which was immediately exploited – the day after the abolition, in fact – by rock musical Hair which famously included nude scenes. John Gielgud played Oedipus in a production that also featured a seven-foot phallus, Peter Storey’s The Changing Room was set in a rugby changing room and featured the nudity that would naturally go with those surroundings, and Equus premiered in London.
It was a time of change for institutions as well, beginning with Trevor Nunn becoming Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1968. Nunn presided over a company that included Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Francesca Annis, Donald Sinden, Zoë Wanamaker, Jeremy Irons, Patrick Stewart, Timothy West, Glenda Jackson, Alan Howard, John Wood and Michael Gambon. Laurence Olivier’s time as Director of the National Theatre at the Old Vic came to an end as Peter Hall took charge of the National in its new home on the South Bank. It was the end of an era for Olivier, who became the first actor to be made a Lord in 1970, but also made his final stage appearance in 1973’s The Party.
Gielgud and Ralph Richardson followed Olivier to the Royal Court in 1970, starring in Peter Storey’s Home. It was a production that moved the theatrical greats in to the modern mainstream. Sadler’s Wells Opera moved to the London Coliseum and became English National Opera. The Laurence Olivier Awards, London theatre’s most prestigious awards, were first presented in 1976, when they were known as the Society of West End Theatre Awards. Among the first winners were Howard, Peggy Ashcroft and Penelope Keith.
Though the mood was dominated by progression and looking to the future of theatre, the industry was hit hard by fuel strikes in the early 70s. Electricity cuts to preserve power forced theatres to reschedule performances or cancel them altogether. A severe bout of Asian flu in 1970 also hit theatres hard during the winter months as audiences stayed at home.
Lloyd Webber makes his mark
Composer and impresario Andrew Lloyd Webber started to make his mark on the London theatre scene, with Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Jesus Christ Superstar opening, the latter to a barrage of anger from religious protestors. Other shows premiering in London included Cabaret, The Price, Sleuth, Company, Jumpers, The Rocky Horror Show, Grease, The Norman Conquests, A Little Night Music, Abigail’s Party and Sexual Perversity In Chicago. Performers such as Anthony Hopkins, Maggie Smith, Robert Stephens, Joss Ackland, Alan Bates, Ian Holm, Margaret Tyzack, Diana Rigg, Ben Kingsley, Helen Mirren, Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay shared the stage with Guinness, Mills et al.
Births, Deaths and Events
It was also a decade that saw the passing of many theatre greats: Donald Wolfit, Tallulah Bankhead, Tyrone Guthrie, Margaret Rutherford, Noël Coward, Agatha Christie, Edith Evans, Sid James, Margaret Leighton, Paul Robeson, Alistair Sim, Maggie Teyte, Sybil Thorndike, Maria Callas and Terence Rattigan all passed away.
Related Snapshots of London Theatre
28 February 1968: Dench makes musical debut in Cabaret
25 February 1969: Dotrice opens Brief Lives at Criterion
15 April 1975: Sondheim plays A Little Night Music
22 February 1977: Privates On Parade makes award-winning premiere