On 10th September 1892, the then called Trafalgar Square Theatre opened with The Wedding Eve, a production that’s original programme can be admired at the top of the staircase leading to the Terrace Bar. After a shortening of name to the Trafalgar Theatre in April 1893, it eventually became The Duke of York’s Theatre in 1895 to honour the future King George V who agreed to the name change stating, 'it is a right royal building with a theatrical tradition fit for a King.' On visits to the theatre, royalty would relax in The Royal Retiring Room, a private area just off of the auditorium which still exists and is now the exclusive Ambassador Lounge.
The theatre’s first real success came in April 1896 with a production called, The Gay Parisienne, which ran for 369 performances. Under the management of American producer, Charles Frohman, in 1900 Jerome K Jerome’s Miss Hobbs was staged on the same bill as a one-act play by David Belasco. It was entitled Madame Butterfly and, by chance was seen by Puccini who later turned it into what is probably his most famous opera. As such it was ultimately performed at the Duke of York’s Theatre in 1932 by the Carl Rosa Opera Company.
The theatre’s association with J.M. Barrie began in 1902 with the presentation of The Admirable Crichton. However, the most endearing production arising from Frohman and Barrie’s relationship was Peter Pan, first performed in 1904 and revived every Christmas until 1915. The Duke of York’s Theatre is proud to offer the aptly named J.M. Barrie Bar, decorated by images and documents in honour of this historical production.
During Frohman’s management, many well-known talents trod the boards of the theatre, including a 14-year-old Charlie Chaplin who made his only appearance on a West End stage here, as Billy in Sherlock Holmes in 1905.
On 1st December 1929 further history was made at the theatre when a mass meeting between the Actors Association and The Stage Guild was held. After much debating into the early hours, the British Actors Equity Association was formed and an agreement was signed by all present. A copy of this original document is featured in the Terrace Bar where the meeting took place.
The 1930s brought a number of interesting seasons, among them The Carl Rose Opera Company, Grand Guignol, Nancy Price’s People’s National Theatre, The Ballet Rambert and notable appearances of Markova and Dolin which greatly helped to popularise ballet in England.
The theatre closed in 1940 until 1943 due to bomb damage from the war. Prominent productions throughout the 1950s include The Happy Marriage, Orson Wells’ adaptation of Moby Dick and Richard Briers’ West End debut in Gilt and Gingerbread. The 1960s brought One Over the Eight with Kenneth Williams and Shelia Hancock and The Killing of Sister George with Beryl Reid and Eileen Atkins. The 1970s ended with two distinguished productions; Half Life which transferred from the Royal National Theatre starring Sir John Gielgud, and Clouds which paired Tom Courtenay and Felicity Kendal.
Capital Radio purchased the freehold of the theatre from Peter Saunders, closing it in 1979 for refurbishment. The first production under the aegis of Capital Radio was Rose starring Glenda Jackson which played to near-capacity from February to August 1980, not forgetting Al Pacino in David Mamet’s American Buffalo in 1984.
In March 1992, the Duke of York’s Theatre was bought by a consortium whose directors at the time were Sir Eddie Kulukundis OBE, Sir Howard Panter, Peter Beckwith, David Beresford Jones and Robin Guilleret, thus forming the beginning of the Ambassadors Theatre Group. This coincided with London’s hottest ticket, the Royal Court’s production of Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden which won awards for both the author and Juliet Stevenson’s electrifying performance.
In August 2000 the Duke of York’s Theatre played host to Stones in his Pockets and continued to do so for three triumphant years. This was followed by Shared Experience’s acclaimed production of After Mrs Rochester, Embers by Christopher Hampton starring Jeremy Irons, Eh Joe starring Michael Gambon, and In Celebration starring Orlando Bloom.
In 2010 the theatre was elaborately decorated in and out of the auditorium to house Ghost Stories by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman. Since then audiences have enjoyed a successful three-play season from the Royal Court consisting of Posh by Laura Wade, Jumpy by April De Angelis starring Tamsin Greig and Constellations by Nick Payne. Most recently Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense starring Matthew Macfadyen and Stephen Mangan as the original cast and winning Best New Comedy at The Olivier Awards 2014, and Farinelli and the King, a Sonia Friedman Production starring Mark Rylance in 2015.