The Arts Theatre opened in April 1927 with the intention of being a performance space for unlicensed plays. As a members-only club these works could be performed whilst avoiding the theatre censorship imposed by the government. It became known as a venue for shows that were not thought to be commercially viable. The building itself is rather attractive, with a period façade containing arched windows that pre-date the actual theatre. The theatre itself was designed by P Morley Horder who managed to create an intimate theatre in the basement without allowing it to feel claustrophobic – the clever design enables the theatre to feel larger than it actually is.
Whilst a subscriber-only house, the Arts Theatre did manage to produce some excellent productions that went on to find a larger audience, the first being Young Woodley by John Van Druten which transferred to the Savoy Theatre in 1928 once the theatre censorship had been relaxed.
The 1942 takeover by Alec Clunes and John Hanau saw the theatre produce over a hundred plays in a decade and gave the theatre the nickname of ‘The National Pocket Theatre’. A 1951 fire brought this series of plays to an end, with the auditorium needing to be rebuilt.
Ronnie Barker began a 13 year association with the Arts Theatre in 1955, making his West End debut here in a production of Mourning Becomes Electra, directed by Sir Peter hall. Hall took control of the theatre from 1956 to 1959.
The Unicorn children’s theatre took over the lease of the building in 1967 and remained there until 1999, allowing straight plays to perform in the evenings whilst giving the touring children’s theatre company a permanent London home during the day. It was during this time that Tom Stoppard’s plays Dirty Linen and New-Found-Land enjoyed a four year run from 1967.
The new millennium saw new leaseholders steer the theatre in a new direction, and it is now considered an independent commercial theatre, giving productions the opportunity to perform for up to twelve weeks, whilst still hosting cabarets, showcases and stand-up comedians.
The auditorium has two levels – Stalls and Circle. It’s a very intimate space, so all patrons will feel close to the action. The Circle overhangs the Stalls from Row E.
The seating in the Circle is only lightly raked and does not offer as much legroom as those seats in the Stalls.