|1855 Rose and Crown Music Hall
1871 Crowder's Music Hall
1879 Royal Borough Theatre of Varieties
1897 Greenwich Hippodrome
1898 Parthenon Theatre of Varieties
The two facades of the Greenwich Theatre, to either side of the Rose and Crown pub, on 3 February 2007
|Rebuilt||1871, 1898, 1969|
|Architect||B Meeking (1969 rebuild)|
The first appearance of theatre in Greenwich arrived at the beginning of the 19th century during the famous Eastertide Greenwich Fair at which the Richardson travelling theatre performed. The current Greenwich Theatre is the heir to two former traditions. It stands on the site of the Rose and Crown Music Hall built in 1855 on Crooms Hill at the junction with Nevada Street. But it takes its name from the New Greenwich Theatre built in 1864 by Sefton Parry on London Street, almost opposite Greenwich Station.
Richardson's travelling theatre
At the beginning of the 19th century, the Richardson travelling theatre made its annual tented appearance during the famous Eastertide Greenwich Fair. In Sketches by Boz, Charles Dickens reminisced enthusiastically, “you have a melodrama (with three murders and a ghost), a pantomime, a comic song, an overture, and some incidental music, all done in five-and-twenty minutes.”
In 1842, The Era reported that performances at Richardson's theatre attracted upwards of 15,000 people.
The Fair was closed down in 1853 “in consequence of the drunkenness and debauchery (it) occasioned, and the numerous convictions of pickpockets that took place before the police magistrates”.
On at least two subsequent occasions, the Greenwich Theatre celebrated its Richardson heritage. In April 1868 at Miss Bufton's first night as manager, she recited a poem written for the occasion, weaving the Richardson saga around her own. Five years later, at Easter 1873, lessee and manager Mr J. A. Cave reproduced Richardson's performances as closely as possible and even brought back Paul Herring, veteran clown of the 1820's.
After extensive experience as an comedian and manager in Australia, South Africa and London, Sefton Parry built his first theatre on a vacant site on London Street (now Greenwich High Road) at Greenwich. It was opened in May 1864 with seating for a thousand people. The style of performance was intended to approximate to that of the old Adelphi, but with improvements to suit contemporary taste and also to make the most of the latest skills and inventions. His aim was to attract the highest class of residents by superior pieces carefully acted by a thoroughly efficient company. On opening night The Era described it as 'perhaps the most elegant Theatre within twenty miles of London'.
Initially christened the New Greenwich Theatre, it subsequently acquired several new names including Theatre Royal, New Prince of Wales’s Theatre, Morton's Theatre and Carlton Theatre. Even so, it continued to be known as the Greenwich Theatre, and was still recorded as such in 1911 before becoming a cinema. The alternative name Theatre Royal, Greenwich emerged as early as 1865 and was used in The Era as late as December 1902.
The Swanborough family, who managed the Strand Theatre for many years, were lessees of the Greenwich Theatre at an early stage. On Saturday, the 11th April, 1868, the theatre opened for the season under the new Management of Miss Eleanor Bufton (Mrs Arthur Swanborough) . The house had been entirely renovated and redecorated.
. Miss Bufton recited a poem in typical burlesque style, written for her opening night, that recalled the days of Richardson’s travelling theatre at the Greenwich Fair and included the lines:
No matter what the rival shows might be,
Richardson's held, o'er all, supremacy;
Asserting o'er men's minds the Drama's pow'r
With play and pantomime, four times an hour!
The Drama, then, in tent of canvas pent,
Though, in low booth, upheld its high in-tent!
And, 'midst the outside Fair's discordant din,
It cried "Walk up! - just going to begin."
The poem also made topical allusions to John Stuart Mill and the women's suffrage movement.
Continuity and decline
In 1872 Mr J A Cave took out a long lease from Mr Parry and made considerable alterations and improvements before opening. He promised that admission prices would be materially reduced without in any way reducing the quality of the entertainment. Twenty years of past successes had proved the value of full houses at moderate prices. Additionally, for those who could afford higher prices, ample accommodation would be provided.
After Mr Cave's time the theatre went into decline with a succession of managers, including Mr Robertson, Mr H C Sidney, Mrs W Lovegrove & Mr George Villiers and Mr D M'Intosh. In the autumn of 1879 Mr J Aubrey became Sole Lessee and Manager, but soon after presenting his Christmas pantomime he was made bankrupt.
William Morton's first success had been to launch and sustain the careers of magicians Maskelyne and Cooke at the Egyptian Hall. In May 1884 Morton, who already managed the thousand-seater New-cross Public Hall, secured a lease of the Greenwich Theatre, which, reconstructed and redecorated, he proposed to rename as the New Prince of Wales's Theatre. He intended, if possible, to meet the growing demand for good dramatic performances in south-east London.
Morton devoted sixteen years to running the Greenwich Theatre, investing his own money, and rightly claimed that by engaging some of the best of the touring companies such as D’Oyly Carte, he turned a derelict property into something that mattered. Despite many other theatrical achievements, he liked to be called 'Greenwich Morton'. He also boasted that Greenwich was the only temperance theatre in the whole of London.
He engaged Ellen Terry at a guaranteed fee in order to gain prestige for the theatre, knowing that he was bound to make a loss ,. At 'Treasury' Ellen Terry asked the manager for a statement of the total receipts, and, realising that Morton would have a serious loss, said she would accept only a net share, the only instance, said Morton, of any one who offered to take less than their 'pound of flesh'.
Dan Leno was involved in a minor drama on the evening of 12 December 1895. Double-booked in Greenwich and Brighton, he was whisked off the Greenwich stage at 10.10, bundled into a cab to New Cross Station where a specially chartered train took him south and by 11.40 he was on the stage of the Alhambra,Brighton.
There were several name changes during his time. New, as is customary, was dropped after a while. Later it became 'Morton’s Prince of Wales’s Theatre' to distinguish it from a new London theatre bearing the same name but whose letters and telegrams were getting mixed up with theirs. After renovations in 1891, he reopened it as Morton's Model Theatre, finally around 1898/99 simplifying the name to Morton's Theatre. In 1897 he produced plans to build a new theatre seating 3000 on a nearby vacant site but this was never followed through. He sold the theatre in 1900 and moved to Hull where, in 1934 at the age of 96 he published his autobiography.
By July 1901, the Greenwich Theatre was operating under the management of Mr Arthur Carlton and named the Carlton Theatre. It remained so until about 1909. During the final twelve months the entertainment had become mainly of the music hall type.
Soon after, it was converted into a cinema and by 1914 had become the Cinema de Luxe managed by H Morris of Cinema Palaces Ltd.
The building was later demolished to make way for a new Town Hall.
The site of the current theatre was originally a music hall created in 1855 as part of the neighbouring Rose and Crown public house, but the Rose and Crown Music Hall was reconstructed in 1871 and renamed Crowder's Music Hall. It briefly rejoiced in the name 'Crowder's Music Hall and Temple of Varieties', but was renamed in 1879 as Royal Borough Theatre of Varieties. This name lasted less than 20 years. After a brief spell as the Greenwich Hippodrome, it was rebuilt in 1898 and became the Parthenon Theatre of Varieties.
Having shown both live performances and films since 1915, in 1924 it was converted into a cinema. In 1949, the building was closed and it took a concerted campaign to save it from demolition during the 1960s. After substantial alterations, the building eventually reopened as the Greenwich Theatre in 1969 under Artistic Director Ewan Hooper and Director Alan Vaughan Williams, who directed the opening production and world premiere of Martin Luther King, written by Ewan Hooper. In 1975, Vivien Merchant and Timothy Dalton headed the cast of a revival of Noël Coward's The Vortex.
It had to survive a further crisis in the late 1990s prompted by the 1997 withdrawal of its annual subsidy from the London Arts Board. It eventually reopened in November 1999.
The seating capacity is currently 421, around an open thrust stage.
From 1969, the theatre became a showcase for many new dramatic works. Early plays included Chekhov's Three Sisters and Jean Genet's The Maids, featuring Glenda Jackson, Susannah York and Vivien Merchant - many of the Greenwich cast featured in the subsequent film version. Greenwich Theatre also saw the première of John Mortimer's A Voyage Round My Father and, on 5 November 1981, Rupert Everett appeared in the 1981 première of Another Country - another play which successfully transferred to celluloid, having also won accolades in the West End.
In 2009, the theatre returned to producing, collaborating with a new company, Stage on Screen, to stage and film plays, making them available on DVD for theatre lovers and students. The first two productions were Dr Faustus and The School for Scandal, followed in 2010 by Volpone and The Duchess of Malfi.
In 2013, Sell a Door Theatre Company partnered with the Greenwich Theatre following nine productions at the South London venue. James Haddrell and David Hutchinson officially announced the partnership on 19 November 2013.
- Greenwich Playhouse a studio style theatre in Greenwich (now closed).
- Dickens, Charles (1836). Sketches by Boz. London.
- "The Era" – via British Newspaper Archives.
- "The Era". March 1880 – via British Newspaper Archive.
- "The Era". 31 May 1884 – via British Newspaper Archives.
- "The Era". 4 December 1909.
- "The Era". 21 December 1895.
- "The Era". 11 December 1897.
- Morton, William (1932). I Remember. (A Feat of Memory.). Market-place. Hull: Goddard. Walker and Brown. Ltd.
- The London Project (Centre for British Film and Television Studies).
- "The Vortex (1975–1976)", Timothy Dalton - Shakespearean James Bond, accessed June 28, 2012
- The Maids (1974) at the Internet Movie Database
- A Voyage Round My Father (1982) at the Internet Movie Database
- Another Country (1984) at the Internet Movie Database
- "Greenwich Theatre Partners with Sell a Door". The Stage. 19 November 2013.
- "The Who’s Tommy has anniversary production at Greenwich Theatre this summer". Musical Theatre Review. 24 April 2015. Retrieved 15 July 2015.
- Guide to British Theatres 1750-1950, John Earl and Michael Sell pp. 113–4 (Theatres Trust, 2000) ISBN 0-7136-5688-3
- Greenwich Theatre website
- Theatres and Halls in Greenwich, London (Arthur Lloyd, theatre history)
- Stage on Screen website