Designed by architect Ewen Barr, the Duchess theatre opened on 25th November 1929. This is one of the smallest proscenium-arched theatres in London’s West End. The designers were rather forward-thinking for the time and fixed a series of steel girders to the roof when building the dress circle. This ingenious method meant that no ground level pillars were needed, giving the Duchess theatre a uniquely clear sightline to the stage from nearly every seat in the house.
Some of the most notable productions to have graced the small but perfectly formed stage of the Duchess include the 1935 staging of Emlyn William’s Night Must Fall, Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit in 1942, which transferred from the Piccadilly Theatre to the St James Theatre before moving to the Duchess, where it completed a run of 1,997 performances.
Terence Rattigan's Deep Blue Sea arrived in 1952, Harold Pinter's The Caretaker in 1960. The stage version of Alfie played at the theatre in 1962, where the screenwriter Lewis Gilbert saw it and later turned it into the iconic film. The 1970s heralded the slightly naughty entertainment that was The Dirtiest Show in Town, which ran for just under 800 performances, while in December 1974 the controversial production of Kenneth Tynan’s Oh, Calcutta! transferred from the Royalty theatre and remained at the Duchess until 1980.
Between 1987 and 1990, The Players Theatre Company presented their Late Joys Victorian Music Hall programme at the theatre while their new home under the arches in Villiers Street was being built, now the Charing Cross theatre.
The Duchess theatre has always hosted transferred productions. Back in 1965, Marc Camoletti's farce Boeing Boeing transferred and ran for 2035 performances in just under five years. With a sense of déjà vu, the 1992 production of Camoletti's farce Don't Dress For Dinner transferred to run for an impressive six years.
In more recent times, the theatre has been the home of a variety of plays and musicals including the musical Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story in 2007, plus quality plays including Endgame, Ghosts, Morecambe, Plague Over England, The Pitmen Painters and August Wilson’s Fences staring Lenny Henry.