Now we all know theatres are for plays and musicals, but not all theatres stick to one type of performance.
In my first dip into London’s West End, the home of theatres, I’ve picked two, The Duke of York’s and the Dominion. The Duke of York was built in 1892 with four tiers (eventually reduced to three) and 900 seats. It wasn’t originally called the Duke of York, it started out as the Trafalgar Theatre – it’s not far from Trafalgar Square. It was built for Frank Wyatt and his wife, Violet, who owned it until 1935, by Walter Lawrence Emden (1847-1913).
Emden was a prolific designer. He built not only theatres, but hotels, restaurants and cinemas. He started out as a civil engineer and joined a firm of architects. Unfortunately, at the time, his work was considered ‘architectural illiteracy’. Now his buildings are listed (protected) as historical significant.
He built a Globe Theatre (not The Globe) in London (demolished in 1902), the Garrick and Palace theatres, and the renamed Duke of York – given that title in honour of the future George V.
From the outside its upper frontage is classical white with columns and a plethora of windows. You won’t know there’s a theatre behind the façade. It mostly stages plays – Woodehouse, Ibsen, Ayckborn, Noel Coward, Shakespeare – and occasionally musical – Little Shop of Horrors, the Rocky Horror Show. But to be honest, I’d never heard of the theatre. It’s one of many scattered across the West End. I picked it because it’s typical of the lesser known ones of London.
I have heard of the Dominion. Built in 1928 it seats 2069 on two levels. Originally the location of the Horse Shoe Brewery, the theatre is faced with Portland stone, white, glazed, and at one point the bow window was home to sculptures of griffins. They were removed in 1932 and replaced with a mounted aeroplane for the produce of Silver Wings. And this is where the Dominion differs from the Duke, it isn’t just about plays. During WW2 and onwards, it hosted films, including Taylor’s Cleopatra (2 years on show), the Sound of Music (3 years), South Pacific (4 years). Then there are bands, lots of hit 80s ones, including Duran Duran. Tangerine Dream recorded their live album Logos in 1982 in the Dominion. And from 2002 to 2014 the Dominion was the home of We Will Rock You, the Queen tribute musical – Freddie Mercury’s statue grandly displayed in front of the bow window.
It’s easy to think of serious thespian plays when the word ‘theatre’ is mentioned, but they are versatile function venues, and continued to be so today.