Stand on King Street, SW1 and weep a theatrical tear. Just off that road, between Crown Passage and Angel Court, once stood the St James’s Theatre, a fascinating Greek revival building constructed in 1835 and demolished in 1957.
It was on the site of Nerot’s Hotel, a favourite of Edmund Burke and Lord Nelson – who met his wife there on his return from the Battle of the Nile in 1800 – and became lost after being unexpectedly sold to a property developer during a record-breaking run of Terence Rattigan’s Separate Tables despite a nation-wide campaign to save it, led by Vivien Leigh and Lawrence Olivier.
One fond memory is a review in the Times newspaper in September 1836 of a play written by someone under a pseudonym. The reviewer, in a mildly sympathetic tone, said “plot there was none that would require to be told”. The anonymous playwright turned out to have a lot of plots that required to be told. His name was Charles Dickens and, in what was clearly a good career move, he turned to writing novels.
Dickens later appeared at St James’s in the cast of an amateur performance of Ben Jonson’s Every Man in his Humour and his luck with it took a further turn for the better when a production of Oliver Twist was performed there in 1838.
A similarly wise career move was made by Henry James, who had written a play, Guy Domville, about someone who renounced the priesthood to save his family by producing an heir. It had already been turned down by one London theatre but St James’s accepted it. On 5 January 1895, we are told, it was “received politely by those in the more expensive parts of the house and impolitely by those in the cheaper seats”.
Such vignettes do not do justice to the long and distinguished history of St James’s. In the 1890s it staged the first performance of The Importance of Being Earnest and also Lady Windermere’s Fan and became Oscar Wilde’s favourite theatre. Olivier featured in Anthony and Cleopatra and Caesar and Cleopatra, not to mention Separate Tables, also starring Margaret Leighton and Eric Portman, which ran for 726 performances, the longest in the theatre’s history.
This sadly marked its end, as it was closed soon after planning permission had been granted for the building that would replace it. Then began a series of events that could have been the plot of a play. The London County Council soon regretted giving consent to the developer, but couldn’t meet the compensation that would have to be paid to rescue St James’s.
There were street demonstrations to try to save it and the House of Lords defied the government by voting against the demolition. One noble lord accused the administration of having a “murder on your conscience”. Lord Mancroft, the government spokesman in the Lords, made no secret of the fact that he was against the destruction of an institution he had visited 24 times, or that the government too was opposed but felt it too couldn’t justify finding the £50,000 price of stopping it going ahead.
Lord Silkin summed the situation up: “We have the extraordinary paradox that a theatre which everybody would recognise is required and should remain in existence is being demolished, and that a block of offices, which everyone would recognise is not essential in that area at the present time, is to take its place”.
As it turned out, the office block which replaced the theatre didn’t last long either. It had to be replaced by another and, after that, yet another. All that now remains of St James’s is a plaque on a wall and an arrow pointing to a “theatre bar” upstairs. However, if you walk down Angel Court you will see some fading sculptures (above left) with one face looking remarkably like Wilde’s.
They are all that is left after the curtain came down on a special piece of London’s theatrical history.