Trafalgar Studios | London Theatres

The Whitehall opened in the peak year, 1930, of the West End's inter-war boom in theatre building. Opening as a playhouse it became a home for the revues of Phyllis Dixey, the stripper, from 1942. A series of memorable farces followed from 1945 to 1969. In 1971 Paul Raymond took over, producing a nude musical. In the later 1970s he turned it into a 'Theatre of War' (actually a tourist-trap war museum), a use which was unauthorised, and which led to enforcement action by Westminster City Council, followed by an important public inquiry in which Westminster was supported by the newly-formed Theatres Trust and the Save London's Theatres Campaign. The decision, which went against Raymond, set a crucial precedent in the defence of theatre use in London's West End (later reinforced by the strengthening of the Use Classes Order). The Maybox Group, in which Ian Albery was then the guiding spirit, acquired the Whitehall from Raymond, set about restoring it from its gloomily ‘painted out’ state and reopened it as a live theatre. Externally, the Whitehall, which has Portland stone public elevations, front and back, set a style which was copied elsewhere, occasionally with a sort of 'chapter and verse' homage such as Bournemouth Playhouse. The plain geometric Whitehall façade was praised by modernists and, notably, by Professor C H Riley, as 'so clean and simple...that it makes the Government offices, banks and public houses...look as if they need a shave'. Early programmes described it as 'modern without being outre...the 'Boulevarde' (sic) theatre of one's dreams'. The interior, 'a dream in black and silver', was the work of Edward Stone's collaborators Marc-Henri Levy and Gaston Laverdet. The single-balconied auditorium relied on crisp geometry, sharp Art Deco forms and concealed lighting for its dramatic effect. Black, tinted silver, green and rose were used in a manner reminiscent of Ionides's Savoy of the previous year but, in this small space, so highly concentrated that the few multi-coloured panels of flat decoration have a quite remarkable impact. The thoughtful restorations ordered by Albery in 1985 were more faithful than it was reasonable to expect for a then unlisted building. The blotted-out colours and decorative motifs were carefully recreated from a few remaining untouched fragments, but with midnight blue replacing black. A late-comers viewing box was added and alterations to front of house were made using the established architectural vocabulary. The long-lost glass-beaded house tabs, with Art Deco patterns illuminated by the (also lost) concealed lights in the proscenium cove have not been restored, but an owner following the example of 1985 might, perhaps, be persuaded to make this further contribution to the enrichment of this fine theatre. The auditorium was as intimate and pleasing as any architect succeeded in designing in the uncertain thirties (Stone did not actually train as an architect) and it is remarkable that it remained without the protection of listing until 1997. The stage was extremely constricted in both wing space and depth, and with a road at front and back there was no practicable way of increasing its depth. This defect did not, however, prevent ingenious designers from creating illusions of space. The Whitehall's location on the edge of the West End, separated by Trafalgar Square and close to government offices, gave it a patchy career by the 1990s. Its unusual character was no longer viewed as an advantage. It fell out of favour with producers and was exposed to regular pressures for relaxation of strict theatre use. A major redevelopment went ahead in 2004. Listed building consent was granted for a period of four years, which meant that the changes to the two level auditorium had to be easily reversible and have minimum impact on the Art Deco interior. In Studio 1 the original circle balcony front was removed and the rake of the circle extended forward by four rows to meet a new raised stage projecting into the auditorium. The original stalls level below the circle was converted to form Studio 2, a small 100-seat space with new dressing rooms to serve it, provided below the main stage.

14 Whitehall