I went to every theatre in London … did not miss a one. (Hedvig Johnson Allen)

— London Theatre during WWII

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. 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 PrinceDelfont 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. The cast and audience sang 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, too!

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, nightclub, 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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7 Comments
  • Tobias Oliver
    Posted at 16:31h, 03 January

    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

    Toby

  • Pat DiGeorge
    Posted at 16:35h, 03 January

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

  • Stephanie
    Posted at 17:07h, 12 June

    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

  • Pat DiGeorge
    Posted at 07:58h, 14 June

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

  • Neil
    Posted at 12:52h, 27 August

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

    https://www.londontheatre1.com/index.php/47440/official-london-west-end-theatres/

  • Patrice Beal
    Posted at 17:12h, 30 July

    I am trying to find out what played at the Apollo Theater on August 7, 1943 when my parents were on their honeymoon. I have the ticket stubs but the venue is not detailed. Any ideas how I could find out what they saw? Thanks for sharing your story! Patrice

  • Pat DiGeorge
    Posted at 18:19h, 30 July

    Patrice, I googled Apollo Theater, London. I see that their parent company Nimax has a Facebook page. I have had good luck posting questions on Facebook, and that is what I recommend. Perhaps someone will be able to lead you in the right direction. Thanks for checking in and good luck!

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