London Theatre during WWII

2012 February 2
by Pat DiGeorge

I went to every theatre in London … did not miss a one.

1944 Playbill from the Stoll Theatre

In 1991, Hedvig Johnson Allen, former secretary with the Office of Strategic Services,  wrote to her grandson Johnny about her days in London during the war.

Yes, the Americans loved to go to see the plays but the London theatre was an important part of life for the British people during World War II. When the war first broke out, the government closed the theatres for fear that they would be hit by the bombings. Gradually the rules were relaxed.  Theatres opened again and became an important “escape” for the Londoners, a reprieve from their problems.

Hedy saved the handbills, and yes … she probably did see every one!  Most of them are located in London’s “West End,” comparable to New York’s Broadway theatre. Here is a list of the ones she saved in her scrapbook:

Stoll Theatre (at this site is now the Peacock Theatre.) Hedy saw two plays there … “Hi-de-Hi” presented by Jack Hylton and starring Flanagan and Allen, a British singing and comedy team, and Florence Desmond. Another was Bernard Delfont’s “The Student Prince.” Delfont was an important figure in the London theatre and presented more than 200 shows in London and New York.

Globe Theatre (now the Gielgud) on Shaftesbury Avenue – “While the Sun Shines” starring Michael Wilding who divorced his wife in 1951 to marry Elizabeth Taylor the next year.

Prince of Wales Theatre on Coventry Street – the musical “Strike a New Note.” Here is a photo of the cast and audience singing to the King at the close of every public function.

"Our Town" at the Playhouse Theatre

The Playhouse Theatre on Northumberland Avenue. The United States Army in association with The American Red Cross presented “Our Town,” a Pulitzer Prize winning play by Thornton Wilder. According to the playbill, “The Playhouse Theatre has been provided by the British Government under Reciprocal Lend Lease to the U.S. Forces … The Theatre Unit is composed of soldiers of the United States Army together with personnel from the American Red Cross and certain London actresses. THE THEATRE UNIT is a spare time activity and all members of this cast perform normal duties through the day. The only concession to this policy has been a partial release from normal duties during the week prior to the opening of this play.

Also on the playbill were these instructions: In the event of an Air Raid Warning an announcement will be made by means of an illuminated box sign installed immediately in front of the footlights. Patrons are advised to remain in the Theatre, but those wishing to leave will be directed to the nearest official shelter, after which the performance will be continued for so long as is practicable. This alert was found on other playbills.

Hedy also saw “Mr. Bolfry” at The Playhouse.  Here is a detailed history of this theatre at the Arthur Lloyd website.

Duchess Theatre on Catherine Street –“Blithe Spirit” by Noel Coward and directed by him. This is one of the smallest West End theatres.

Theatre Royal Haymarket – “Lust for Love” starring and directed by John Gielgud. Wikipedia history.

Saville Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue – “Junior Miss,” a comedy. The venue is now a cinema. The Saville was damaged in 1941, during the Blitz, but was soon up and running again. Arthur Lloyd history.

The Savoy Theatre – a comedy, “My Sister Eileen.” The theatre is built next to the Savoy Hotel, both originally built by Richard D’Oyly Carte.

London Hippodrome, “The Lisbon Story.” At the Hippodrome have been many venues during the years …  circus, theatre, night club, cabaret.  According to Wikipedia, it is now undergoing restorations to be a casino.

Aldwych Theatre – Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in “There Shall Be No Night” by playwright Robert E. Sherwood. Incidentally, during World War II Sherwood was a speechwriter for the President and worked with Donovan and the OSS.

Apollo theatre – John Gielgud’s “The Cradle Song.”

St. Martin’s Theatre – “The Druid’s Rest,” a comedy.

View London Theatres World War II in a larger map

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5 Responses leave one →
  1. 2013 January 3

    Hi Pat

    I came across your wonderful website whilst researching some background information on West End theatre during WWII for a new show I am working on, ‘Miss Nightingale – the burlesque musical’.

    The show – written by my husband – is set in London 1942 and tells the story of nurse Maggie Brown’s rebirth as the West End cabaret star, ‘Miss Nightingale’. And the backstage struggles for love her and her two closest friends face against the backdrop of the Blitz.

    I was fascinated to read about your mother’s theatre trips. My grandmother – a former actress and huge theatre fan – used to regail me with stories of sitting out the Blitz in underground theatres. “I couldn’t bare wasting time in a shelter when I could be enjoying a play” she used to say. She sadly died many years ago and I regret not having captured these memories in more detail. So coming across your blog was both exciting and illuminating.

    We take the show on a ten week UK tour this Spring and Summer. And have had some interest from American producers so may well have the pleasure of bringing it Stateside someday.

    Given your interest in the real life experience of those who lived through WWII, you might find Felicity Goodall’s ‘Voices from the Home Front: personal experiences of wartime Britain 1939-45′ worth reading. If you haven’t already

    Best of luck with your book. I look forward to reading it.

    Best wishes


  2. 2013 January 3

    Thank you so much for your inspiring comment! I have already ordered the book and look forward to studying your website. THANKS, Pat

  3. 2014 June 12
    Stephanie permalink

    My father, American Charles Cleaver directed the Flying Yanks Dance Orchestra during WWII as they entertained the Allied troops. In going through old letters (my father died in 1995), I was excited to find Notice that the orchestra played June 6, 1943 at the Phoenix Theater “In aid of Polish Welfare Funds, Actors’ Benevolent Fund and Variety Artists’ Benevolent Fund under the auspices of The British Committee for Polish Welfare.

    Apparently the show was a hit! Thank you for this website. If you have further information on this program, I would be extremely grateful to receive it. If I find further information, I would be happy to supply it to you if you are indeed interested.

    By the by, my father married British war bride Peggy Wells in September 1945. She worked at Danesfield House which was part of the Intelligence Unit for the Allied Forces during the war.

    God bless, Stephanie

  4. 2014 June 14

    Stphanie, what a great memory! Yes I’d love to know anything you find. Thanks for checking in.

  5. 2014 August 27

    You might find it useful to have a list of the official London West End Theatre websites

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