Today London is widely regarded as the theatrical epicentre of the English-speaking world, its ‘West End’ closely rivalled by New York’s Broadway, and provides a rich array of theatres, opera houses, concert halls and cinemas which, alongside the delights of restaurants, cafes, pubs, bars, nightclubs and shops, create a glitteringly exciting playground for the would-be theatregoer.
While John Higgins considers the West End and its fashionable rise from earlier beginnings, he also looks closely at the concurrent vigorous entertainment scene around the East End and neighbouring working-class suburbs, and their subsequent metamorphosis into the prolific operation that has today become the trendy Off-West-End London Fringe.
As the legacy of the West End provides a host of sumptuous purpose-built theatres the modern-day Fringe is housed in a numerous variety of locations, from pubs and shopping centres to railway arches and redundant chapels or factories, etc. Their value cannot be overstated: while some fringe venues are committed to providing their localities with cultural projects, events, performances and educational as well as tangible community-based facilities, many exist to produce new and cutting-edge theatrical experiences of excellence – a great number of which achieve a standard that is interchangeable with their West End contemporaries.
And so as the typical famous grand ‘Up West’ houses are paraded in their glittering surroundings of glamour and razzamatazz, their fascinating ‘Off-West’ counterparts have their own exciting tales to tell … and John says one thing is for sure: they have all been delicious to paint!
This book is a large, square format coffee table-type publication.
John Higgins’ volume West End in Watercolour, a portrait of London theatre will make an attractive and valuable addition to any theatrical bookshelf – including those already groaning under the strain of many theatrical gazetteers and coffee table photographic volumes.
Higgins’ book is different in two important respects, both of which make it a pleasure to handle and peruse. The illustrations are all his own work showing great skill as an artist and, alongside all the major places of entertainment and historic venues in London, he also includes all the old and new fringe and community venues further afield with informative potted biographies and pretty pictures. No other volume about current working theatre spaces has been quite this comprehensive, or attractive.
The introduction is a very readable potted history of the development of London and its theatres from the Romans on, and clearly states Higgin’s intention to “…cultivate a greater awareness and appreciation of the fine theatrical treasure-trove that is ours: to have and to hold for future generations”. It is safe to say he more than meets this aim and his publishers, John Offord and Jackie Staines of Entertainment Technology Press Ltd, are to be applauded for taking on such an ambitious project and realising it so beautifully.
As is the nature of any such volume it is already out of date in some respects simply because the ever-changing theatre world moves so fast, but it is up to date enough to reference building works at Drury Lane, the re-naming of the New London to Gillian Lynne Theatre, plans for The King’s Head and the 2018 refurbishment at Lyric Hammersmith.
There are a few editorial glitches too probably picked up from incorrect websites – for example both the Prince Edward and the Piccadilly are detailed as becoming the London Casino in 1936 – and some apocryphal stories are stated as fact, but these can all easily be rectified in a second edition (I am sure there will be one) and do not decrease the sheer pleasure of thumbing through and admiring the glorious and evocative illustrations.
As an experienced musical director and pit conductor Higgins obviously loves his theatre buildings and their history and his talent as a watercolour artist beautifully reflects this. The book is lavishly illustrated with a richly varied and skilful parade of over 200 watercolours including full auditorium views, theatre facades, architectural details, street scenes and maps.
Within the handily sized volume theatres are arranged in small geographical groups – “Around Covent Garden and The Strand” or “From Seven Dials to Tottenham Court Road” so readers could employ it as a guide for short walks around the central London sites if desired. It is also well indexed and includes a useful bibliography at the rear.
Congratulations to Mr Higgins on creating an informative, stimulating and fun publication which perfectly reflects exactly what good theatre is all about.
Review by Mark Fox for Sightline Magazine
The title of this study of London’s theatres is misleading. While it does include gorgeous watercolours of many of the West End’s glittering gems, the book goes much further recounting the histories of the theatres and spreading its focus far beyond what we might consider theatreland to capture the diversity of theatre buildings that exist across the capital.
Clearly a passion project of the author and artist John Higgins, more than 150 beautifully crafted pictures accurately document the theatres. The paintings mostly cover external views of each theatre’s frontage but some particularly lavish interiors have been included along with select intricate details. The project has spanned many years and this collection freezes the theatres in time, some have changed names since they were painted and the marquees list shows now closed but the images hold them still for that moment.
The accompanying theatre histories are not limited to information of the theatres original architects and architecture but also their social and theatrical past with the important shows, people and historic events that shaped them. Some of the included theatres have flitted in and out of use interrupted by the war and the growth of cinema. Some are no longer theatres but retain many marks of their theatrical origins like the Hippodrome Casino. This book serves as a useful companion for any enthusiast curious about how London became a city of so many theatres and how this has shifted over the past 200 years.
Seeing the theatres in watercolour has a different effect from seeing a snapped photograph. The painting elevates them and makes you consider their place in London’s history. To see the same care given to the converted car park that is Southwark’s Bunker Theatre as the embellished facades of Her Majesty’s Theatre shows that John Higgins truly treasures these buildings and all they stand for.
This book would be a charming addition to the library of anyone with an interest in theatres and theatre architecture and will undoubtedly uncover a new theatre for you to visit.
Reviewed by Tom Stickland, Theatres Trust Theatres Adviser, for Theatres Magazine