Monday, July 29, 2013

A network analysis of London's theatres in 1965


In the English-speaking world there is a long-standing rumour that the pinnacle of live theatre involves performances in the theatres near Broadway, in New York, and those in the so-called West End of London. This seems unlikely, on the whole, and a number of other locations justifiably claim at least equality. Nevertheless, there are certainly a lot of theatres in both locations, and there have been for a long time. So, there must have been some good performances over the centuries, and plenty of good performers.

What we are interested in here, though, is the physical characteristics of the theatres in London in the mid 1960s, not the activities therein. The data to be analyzed come from this book:
Who's Who in the Theatre: a Biographical Record of the Contemporary Stage. Fourteenth (and Jubilee) edition, 1967. Edited by Freda Gaye. Isaac Pitman & Sons, London.

This book is a motley collection, published periodically from 1912 (1st edition) to 1981 (17th edition, in 2 volumes). It was originally compiled by John Parker, but was then edited by various other people from 1961 onwards. It is, to quote Noel Coward, "not only a valuable reference book but a real treasury for the stage enthusiast."

Most of the book is precisely what the title suggests, a series of biographies of people associated with the theatre, mostly in Britain. They seem to be arbitrarily chosen — for example, Jonathan Miller is there but not Alan Bennett, Peter Cook or Dudley Moore; Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe are there but not Michael Bentine or Peter Sellers; Norman Wisdom is there but not Eric Morecambe or Ernie Wise.

The rest of the book is an assortment of anything and everything that took the editor's fancy. For our purposes, the interesting information is on a foldout page opposite page 1554. It is entitled "Working Dimensions of London Theatres, 1965". It is in the section labelled "Opening of Existing London and Suburban Theatres", from which the theatre opening dates quoted below are taken.

In case you are wondering why this information is included in the book at all, I will quote Malcolm Pride: "The Table ... is immensely valuable to the designer, both in preparing a new production, and in transferring an existing show from one theatre to another."

The data

The table refers to the dimensions of the performance spaces, rather than to the external size of the buildings. It lists data for the following characteristics:
  • Width of proscenium opening
  • Height of proscenium opening
  • Depth from proscenium wing to back wall
  • Distance between side walls
  • Distance between fly rails and girders
  • Height from stage to grid
  • Depth from under fly platform to stage
  • Depth under stage
  • Height to take cloths up out of sight
  • Approximate seating capacity
The names I have used for the theatres are exactly as listed in the book.

One of the listed theatres could not be included in my analysis: the Mermaid Theatre (which is no longer in use) had an open stage. Also, I added two theatres from the previous edition of the book (the data from the 1961 edition can be seen online here): the Streatham Hill Theatre (now closed), and the Royalty Theatre (now the Peacock Theatre). For the curious, there are some current West End theatres that were not included in book, because they were not used for live theatre at the time: the Dominion, Lyceum, New London, Playhouse, and Prince Edward theatres.

For the network analysis, I normalized the data within each characteristic, and I then calculated the similarity of the theatres using the Manhattan distance. A Neighbor-net analysis was then used to display the between-theatre similarities as a phylogenetic network. So, theatres that are closely connected in the network are similar to each other based on their characteristics, and those that are further apart are progressively more different from each other.

The analysis

As anticipated, the network basically shows the differences in size between the theatre performance spaces, with the largest theatres at the top-right and the smallest at the bottom-left.


The London Coliseum was built as a variety theatre in 1904, although it now houses the English National Opera Company, who recently restored it. It was specifically planned to be the biggest theatre in London, which it still is. The biggest theatre at the time of building was the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane (built in 1812), which is still the second largest.

Drury Lane has a history as long a your arm, especially if you include the three previous theatres built on the same site (dating back to 1663). The current building was remodelled in 1922; and only a couple of months ago it was refurbished. It is currently owned by Really Useful Theatres (which is wholly owned by Andrew Lloyd Webber), which also operates the London Palladium, Her Majesty's Theatre, the Cambridge Theatre, New London Theatre (opened 1973, and thus not in the network), and the Adelphi Theatre. However, for people of my generation Drury Lane is most famous for being the scene of the comedy album Monty Python Live at Drury Lane. This show was originally intended to be 6 weeks at the much smaller Comedy Theatre (now the Harold Pinter Theatre) but ended up being 4 weeks at Drury Lane in February-March 1974, which turned it into what Eric Idle called "a total rock 'n' roll audience" for the group's first foray into London's West End.

The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden had two previous theatres built on the same site (dating back to 1732), but the current building dates from 1858. Since then, the auditorium has been reconstructed, increasing the audience size, and the building itself enlarged; and it has also been recently refurbished, funded by a lottery (an idea first used in 1957 to fund the building of the Sydney Opera House).

The Streatham Hill Theatre opened in 1929 and closed for theatrical use in 1967. It is apparently now used as a bingo hall. It is one of only six theatres in the network not actually in the West End, and it apparently suffered from being a large theatre too far away from "the action". It held a bigger audience (2,600) than the Coliseum (2,500), Drury Lane (2,283) and Covent Garden (2,128) theatres, although its stage size was smaller than these other venues. Indeed, the London Palladium (2,338) and Golder's Green Hippodrome (2,200) also had large audiences but smaller stage sizes. The Golder's Green theatre is another non-West End theatre, opening in 1913 and closing as a live theatre in 1968. It is now a Christian centre.

As an aside, and by way of contrast, the three biggest Broadway theatres in the 1960s were:
the Metropolitan Opera (audience 3,800) and the State Theatre (2,729), both in the Lincoln Center Plaza, followed by City Center (2,935), where Monty Python performed in April-May 1976 (and recorded the album Monty Python Live! at City Center), and where the "pop concert" atmosphere was apparently even more marked than during their Drury Lane season.

To return to the London theatres, the Saville Theatre was a medium-sized (audience 1,067) theatre in the West End (built 1931) that has closed (in 1970). It is now the Odeon Covent Garden, a four-screen cinema complex. The Scala Theatre (1,141), on the other hand, was demolished in 1969, having existed in the West End since 1905 (although the site had hosted entertainment since 1772). It's most recent claim to fame was as the concert venue for the Beatles' film A Hard Day's Night. While the Scala was replaced by an office building, the smaller Westminster Theatre (audience 618) was a West End theatre actually replaced by another theatre (in 2012), the St James Theatre. The Westminster apparently originally opened just the day before the Saville Theatre.

The Sadler's Wells Theatre is second only to Drury Lane as the oldest continuous entertainment location in London, dating from 1683, although the first of its four theatres was erected in 1733. The building that appears in the network (the third theatre) was built in 1931 and demolished in 1996. The New Sadler's Wells Theatre (and also the Lilian Baylis Studio Theatre) was completed in 1998.

At the small end of the network, several of the theatres had audiences of less than 500, including the Duchess Theatre (491), Ambassadors' Theatre (453), Royal Court Theatre (439), Fortune Theatre (438), New Arts Theatre (339), and May Fair Theatre (310). The Westminster Theatre, Criterion Theatre (607), and New Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith (750) had larger audiences, but they are grouped with these theatres in the network because of their small stage sizes. The smallest, the May Fair Theatre, is now the screening room of the May Fair Hotel conference venue.

The small Ambassadors' Theatre is famous as the original venue for Agatha Christie's play The Mousetrap, which apparently was deliberately placed in a very small theatre in order to enjoy a longish run (royalties being based on the number of performances) — Christie is said to have expected 8 months and the producer 14 months. At the time the book was compiled (end of 1965) it had completed 5,439 performances (having opened in November 1952), but it is now in excess of 25,000. This is five times as many as if the play had been put on at Drury Lane, instead. It moved to the St. Martin's Theatre (audience 550, an increase of 20%) in 1974.

Much more information about these theatres can be found at The Music Hall and Theatre History Site, which is a glorious treasure chest of photos and information about the theatres of Britain, maintained by Matthew Lloyd. I first came across the "Working Dimensions of London Theatres" data at this site, although the site itself refers to the thirteenth edition of the book.

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