The Savoy Theatre – home of Gilbert & Sullivan

Samantha PillingEntertainment, History

Savoy Theatre

Built by Richard D’Oyly Carte, the Savoy Theatre opened on 10th October 1881. Originally, the theatre was going to be called the ‘Beaufort Theatre’, but Carte chose to honour the original Savoy Manor theatre, previously on the site. The Savoy Theatre was purpose-built as the showcase for Gilbert & Sullivan comic operas and the partnership subsequently becoming known as the ‘Savoy Operas’.

Plans afoot

Although Carte bought the land in 1880 for £11,000, he’d been planning the theatre for several years prior to that. The site had been left derelict ever since a fire in 1864 gutted the original Savoy Palace – leaving only the stone walls standing. Carte hired Architect Walter Emden in 1877 to draw up the plans, as he’d previously worked on the Duke of York’s theatres. However, due to Emden increasing his projected fees in 1880, Carte dismissed him – leaving Emden to sue (and subsequently win), for wrongful dismissal.

The theatre building

After he’d purchased the land, building work commenced quickly. He hired CJ Phipps for the design work and Patman & Fotheringham to build the theatre, using red brick and Portland stone. The theatre comprised of three tiers on four levels – the stalls and pit, balcony and circle, with the amphitheatre and gallery at the top. It had exits on all four sides of the theatre and fireproof materials were used, to ensure maximum safety. The original entrance was on the Embankment, but, after the opening, Carte had it moved to open onto The Strand.

The stage itself was 27 feet deep and, the proscenium arch across the stage, was 30 feet high by 30 feet wide – ensuring the stage could be seen from all 1,292 seats.

Beautiful interior

The existing theatres of the time used garish interiors, but Carte didn’t want cherubs, deities and mythical creatures to adorn his theatre. He hired Collinson & Locke to create an Italian renaissance styled interior instead, using white, pale yellow and gold for the main décor. The boxes were red with dark blue seats, whilst the act-drop curtain was gold coloured satin.

Forefront of theatre innovation

The Savoy Theatre was at the forefront of theatre innovation at that time. Carte and his manager, George Edwardes, introduced:

  • Numbered seating
  • Free programme booklets
  • Queueing system for the pit and gallery
  • No tipping policy for the cloakroom and other services
  • Good whisky to be served in the bar

The Savoy Theatre was also the first public building in the world to be lit entirely by electricity. Inventor Sir Joseph Swan supplied 1,200 Swan incandescent lamps to light the theatre. They were powered by a 120-horsepower generator (89 kW) that was on open land by the theatre. This was to counteract the two biggest inconveniences to theatre goers of other theatres – foul air and heat! However, the generator was too small to power the entire theatre and could only adequately manage front-of-house, so the stage itself was lit by gas until 28th December 1881.

The partnership with Gilbert & Sullivan

The Savoy Theatre opened with a Gilbert & Sullivan work – the comic opera ‘Patience’ and in total, the Savoy Theatre premiered the last eight works of Gilbert & Sullivan during 1885-1896. It was also home to several of Arthur Sullivan’s comic operas, after he’d split with Gilbert, as well as Gilbert’s final opera – ‘Fallen Fairies’.

Still in use to this day, The Savoy Theatre, as with the Savoy Hotel group, is now solely owned by Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG) and continues to show revivals and modern musicals

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