Scene/Unseen: London's West End Theatres
By Susie Barson, Derek Kendall, Peter Longman and Joanna Smith
Preface by Fiona Shaw
Published by English Heritage at £14.99
Dateline: 21st November, 2003
This book turns a spotlight on the architectural stars of the West
End's two square miles: its fifty theatres. Thirty-six of them are on
the statutory list of buildings of special architectural and historical
interest, ranging in date across two centuries. Fire was always a huge
hazard, though, and with the life expectancy of a theatre in the 1880s
at only 21 years, most of the surviving theatres were built in the 1890s,
1900s and 1920s. None from before this time has survived in its entirety,
but the theatres themselves are incredibly architecturally diverse.
In the late Victorian and early Edwardian theatre-building boom, a few
specialist architects came to the fore and in designing these worlds
of 'artifice and illusion' they worked outside the architectural mainstream,
playing around with classical orders, proportion and decorative styles.
Between 2001 and 2002 English Heritage completed a comprehensive photographic
survey of the West End theatres, and this book offers a fascinating
selection of these images. EH were given access to all areas of the
theatres, and the photographs are presented as a journey from the foyers
through to the auditoria and then out to the backstage areas and all
their hidden spaces. Accompanying text provides invaluable little nuggets
of historical, architectural and cultural context.
As Fiona Shaw notes in her preface, these buildings tend to make us
think 'posh' today, but in fact they were designed to accommodate all
classes and types of people. One striking photo of the Lyceum Theatre
is a vivid reminder of this, as it shows how the elaborate decoration
in the auditorium suddenly stops over the highest and cheapest tier
The real treat of these EH images is that they allow us to see areas
usually closed to the public. If you've ever wondered about the loos
provided for the Royal Box, then your curiousity will be satisfied here.
There are also wonderful shots of backstage and understage machinery:
the huge hydraulic rams used to tilt the stage at the Theatre Royal,
Drury Lane which date from the end of the nineteenth century yet contrast
starkly with the nearly contemporary wooden shafts and drums at St Martin's.
There are also some wonderful views of the 'hemp lines' used for 'flying'
sets on and off the stage, as surprisingly some West End theatres still
fly completely by hand.
Along with this unique photographic record are some short informative
essays that explore the practical issues to be addressed when adapting
these historic buildings to contemporary expectations, and explain the
conservation management and maintenance of the theatres.
For anyone interested in the full photographic record of forty images
for each of the fifty theatres, they are all available to the general
public in the National Monuments Record. For those who regularly visit
these extraordinary buildings to see performances, this book provides
a unique and colourful insight into their outer designs and inner workings.
can buy Scene/unseen
from our Bookstore.
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