This imposing building on the Haymarket has housed Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 'Phantom of the Opera', with its extravagant designs by Maria Bjornson, since 1986. The production achieves some of its spectacular stage effects using the theatre's surviving Victorian stage machinery.
Her Majesty's was established in 1705 by playwrights John Vanbrugh and William Congreve on the site of a former stableyard and was then known as the Queen’s. It was essentially an opera house, since straight drama was prohibited by law, and it was the venue for over 25 works by Handel. It also presented the London premieres of several Mozart operas, as well as programmes of ballet. The name was changed to the King’s Theatre when George I acceded in 1714, and finally became Her Majesty’s when Elizabeth II came to the throne.
Vanburgh’s management of the theatre was hamfisted and eventually he was forced to sell the lease. It changed hands several times before, in 1778, it was acquired by stage manager Thomas Harris and playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan. They had the interior remodelled to include paintings by Gainsborough and removed some of the theatre’s columns. But the changes were expensive and Sheridan was forced to buy out Harris with a hefty mortgage. He was subsequently declared bankrupt and the building’s survival as a theatre continued to be precarious. Then, in 1789, a serious fire brought matters to a head and Sheridan’s former lawyer, William Taylor, seized control and rebuilt it in 1791. The theatre remained heavily indebted, however, and for the rest of the century and throughout the first half of the next it had a number of different owners. In 1867, there was another fire and this time the building was destroyed. The acting company decamped to the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and the ballet company moved to the Old Vic and later, to Sadler’s Wells, before finally taking up residence at the Royal Opera House as the Royal Ballet.
Meanwhile, the theatre itself was once again rebuilt with a four-tier auditorium and a capacious stage to allow for major spectacles. The repertoire continued to be operatic until, in 1897, the building was redesigned by Charles J Phipps for the great actor-manager Henry Beerbohm Tree. He directed premieres of plays by Shaw and Synge here and, though his style came to be seen as dated, his productions continued to be popular. He also founded the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts at the theatre in 1904 before it moved to its current Gower Street premises a year later.
The size and facilities of the theatre are well-suited to musical theatre, which made up most of the past century's repertoire. It was also the venue for a TV variety series, ‘Live from Her Majesty’s’, which saw comedian Tommy Cooper die on stage – literally – in 1986. That same year, Lloyd Webber’s juggernaut musical ‘Phantom’ opened, starring his then-wife Sarah Brightman and Michael Crawford. The theatre’s French Renaissance interior is well-suited to the setting of this gothic tale and the impressive visuals remain the main reason to revisit the show today.