Along with all other West end theatres, the Shaftesbury Theatre closed its doors to the public on Monday 16th March. 6 months later, they reopened for one day only to let people go on a tour of the iconic venue.
I was lucky enough to go on one of the tours on the day - not only was it a great experience to see what goes on to make the magic happen on the stage, we were also given an insight into what the future for the theatre looks like. In this post, I'm going to share some of the things I found out on the day along with some pictures showing what the theatre is like in its current hibernating state.
The Shaftesbury Theatre opened in 1911 and has been home to a host of iconic shows such as Follies, Carousel, Hair, RENT, Hairspray and Motown. It is currently home to the phenomenal &Juliet. I personally have a deep affection for this theatre as it is where some of my favourite shows have played, including the incredible Memphis not to mention how much I adore the current show.
Walking in to the theatre I was met with a real mixture of emotions:
Sadness to see it in its current state, gathering dust with no buzz from excited audience members
Anger that it has got to this and how neglected the arts have been from this government
Relief to be back in a major West end theatre again after over six months away
Excitement to discover more about the theatre and the future of it.
More than anything though, it felt like I was back home, in a place where I belonged and a place I have truly missed.
Sitting in the foyer, staring at the merchandise stand was a strange experience. It was like looking at something from history, ideally preserved in time like nothing has changed.
When we were greeted by our tour guide, he apologised saying it was going to be about architechture and not theatre. While it was still interesting, it took all my willpower to not correct him when he talked about &Juliet featuring the songs of N Sync and Boyz II Men. If only Max Martin had written 'I'll Make Love To You'.
The seats have all been covered up so seeing the theatre like this was a very strange sight:
With the stage itself being fairly bare apart from a few odd props from &Juliet still dotted around.
The oldest part of the building dates back to 1711 and they are currently a couple of years into a huge project to refurbish and restructure the Shaftesbury theatre. The work they are currently doing is costing them around £7 million and the entire project is going to cost upwards of £20 million - as they are the only major privately owned theatre in the West end, they can't apply for public funding so rely on income from the audiences alone. The popularity and success of the current show playing the factor is going to be a huge factor in how long it takes to complete the work, but it is estimated to last another 5-10 years.
One of the things they are going to be doing in the near future is building a new basement under the stalls which will move the bars from the foyer area and create a new area for them as there is currently very little foyer space. They will also be installing a lift into the venue for the first time which will make the theatre far more accessible than it is currently. At the moment, they only have 3-4 accessible positions for patrons at royal circle level. Installing this left will create 14-15 accessible seats and bring people with access needs into the stalls for the first time. That is likely going to take about 5 years to complete but will be a great improvement once it is done.
They always keep the theatre running when they do work rather than close for a time without a production like the Theatre Royal Drury Lane has had to do with their refurbishment. The original capacity of the venue was 2500. It currently sits at 1400. The new work they are planning to do will not reduce capacity any further and will hopefully add more seats in. The current seats are more narrow than they would like so when they redo the seating they will be wider and more suitable.
For me, the most interesting thing was seeing what goes on behind the scenes at the theatre. We got to tour every inch of the theatre from the top to the bottom, taking in the dressing rooms, offices and even stand on the roof (the only Edwardian rolling roof left in London)
View from the roof of the Shaftesbury
As a fan of &Juliet, I loved seeing all the props dotted around the wings of the stage and suspended in the air ready to move into position when needed. This is a big show with a lot of props and scene changes so it was great to see how everything fits in.
&Juliet Props In The Wings
A detail I loved in the room where the band play the instruments live during the show were all the posters up, from singers and bands whose songs appear in the show such as the Backstreet Boys, Katy Perry, Ariana Grande and Celine Dion.
Another poster that was dotted around the back of house was this hilarious poster from De Bois Band "Back even without demand" for their new album 'Get It' out May 1599. This leads to some questions:
1 - Where can I get this poster?
2 - Where can I buy this album?
3 - Why aren't they touring?
Another interesting thing backstage was the sheet pinned up from their last matinee performance on Saturday 12th March listing all the changes to the show based on cast member availability due to more people being off than usual.
And one more little detail in the staff offices was this brilliant poster for the show
Looking in the wardrobe and dressing rooms, everything was so perfectly preserved, waiting for the cast and crew to get dressed and get into positions, ready to put on an amazing show. Sadly, we still have a few more months to wait until that can finally happen.
The open tour was only on for one day but it was a brilliant experience. If they do more and you ever get the chance to go on one, jump at the chance. As a theatre fan, not only was it insightful and interesting, it was also a cathartic experience. While I have been in theatres both indoor and open air in recent weeks, there's nothing like a big West end theatre. And as I have such an affinity for the Shaftesbury in particular, it felt like coming home.
&Juliet is currently planning to reopen on Friday 12th March 2021, just under one whole year after their final performance. Let's hope there are no more delays as this theatre and this show in particular deserve to play to packed audiences. I know I'll be back there the moment it reopens. Until then, I loved the opportunity to set foot inside this beautiful venue but I know the next time I return there, it will be even better.