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Victoria Palace: A century of crazies and musicals

Published 7 November 2011

The Victoria Palace did not receive a birthday card from the Queen last week, or even a text message from the Duke of Edinburgh, though the celebrated Frank Matcham-designed building did mark its 100th birthday. 

There has actually been a theatre on the site of the Victoria Palace far before 1911, since 1832 in fact, prior even to London’s famous train station being built opposite. With the rise of electricity and new technologies at the turn of the 20th century, the Royal Standard Music Hall was demolished and Matcham’s design was built for a grand £12,000. Its plush red auditorium has barely changed since, though it has housed a wide variety of shows.

First opened as a music hall in 1911, the venue presented its first play in 1934, with a production of Walter Reynolds’s Young England, which was seen by a quarter of a million people. Musical Me And My Girl proved a success before the Second World War.

For many the theatre will always be associated with Bud Flanagan, Chesney Allen, Jimmy Nervo, Teddy Knox, Charlie Naughton, Jimmy Gold and Eddie Gray, known collectively as The Crazy Gang. The team of comedians and variety stars played at the Victoria Palace for 15 years between 1947 and 1962, ably supported by the famous Tiller Girls dance troupe.

Former Tiller Girl Doremy Vernon remembers her time at the Victoria Palace well. Though Sir Stephen Waley-Cohen, current owner of the venue, claims that fellow producers have dubbed his the best dressing rooms of any West End theatre, Vernon remembers a different time: “We were like battery hens in the dressing rooms,” she said at the celebration. “If one of us wanted to go to the loo we had to ask each girl either side of us to stand up, it was so bad.”

Since the 1980s, the theatre described by Waley-Cohen as seating 1,500 but feeling like a far cosier venue, has been synonymous with hit musicals. Buddy opened there in 1989, playing until 1995, where it was followed by Jolson which, on opening night, invited the entire audience to stay at the theatre to celebrate its success at a huge party.

Amid the list of successful tuners, Waley-Cohen particularly remembers taking a hit on profits to present a short West End season of the Tricycle theatre’s tribunal play The Colour Of Justice which, though it lost money, enabled 15,000 more theatregoers to see the seminal piece about the Stephen Lawrence Enquiry.

West End regular Hannah Waddingham performed at the Victoria Palace in back-to-back productions of Grease and Tonight’s The Night in the early 2000s. “It’s one of those theatres,” she says, “that’s not too big, so it feels like a little family. It’s like a little jewel; mid-sized, intimate and beautifully looked after.”

So may it stay for many a year, but alongside looking back, the Victoria Palace is also looking forward. The building work currently annoying commuters around the Victoria area does have a silver lining; it will allow the Victoria Palace to develop the theatre, adding a full height fly tower, improving the comfort of the auditorium and enhancing the public facilities of this grand statesman of London’s Theatreland.

The Victoria Palace’s past may be glittering, but with Billy Elliot The Musical continuing to entice audiences and a plan of renewals in place, the venue can look forward optimistically to another century of theatrical greatness.

MA

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