South West to West End

1 Jul 2023
The Harold Pinter Theatre (London), Mark Rylance at Bristol Old Vic (photo Geraint Lewis)

Dr Semmelweis, starring Mark Rylance opens in the West End this month, after starting its journey as a BOV-grown production in 2022. This is just one in a long line of Bristol Old Vic productions that have found their way into London’s West End (or thereabouts!) We’ve gone back in time to share a few of those moments..

1766 – In the beginning

Right back at the beginning – our beautiful Georgian theatre was based on drawings of the original Drury Lane theatre in London’s West End (built in 1674).  Although Bristol architect Thomas Paty supervised construction, the theatre was built to designs by James Saunders, the carpenter who worked for actor-manager David Garrick at Drury Lane.

Drury Lane, original design showing a design attributed to Christopher Wren. 1 Proscenium arch. 2. Four pairs of shutters across the stage 3.Pit seating

1946Bristol's Old Vic was born

C.E.M.A (the forerunner of the Arts Council), decided to experiment with the idea of subsidizing a regional theatre for the first time by asking the London Old Vic to send a company of actors to the Theatre Royal in Bristol.

The London Old Vic Company opened in Bristol with a performance of She Stoops to Conquer on the 11th May, starring Dame Sybil Thorndike. It was such a success the company became permanent (and the name Bristol Old Vic was born!)

The first production by the Bristol Old Vic Company was The Beaux Strategem which opened on Feb 19, 1946. The Company’s first Artistic Director was Hugh Hunt. 

Dame Sybil Thorndyke at Bristol Old Vic. Photo courtesy of Theatre Collection, University of Bristol

1946-7 - Everyone's a critic

It wasn't plain sailing however and it took us a little while to get started.

The first London transfer in 1946 was panned by the critics - a "jazzed-up" version of Twelfth Night wasn't what they wanted.

Things didn't go much better in 1947 when Artistic Director Hugh Hunt took the HORRIFYING decision to have Much Ado About Nothing in modern dress (the horror!)

London may have hated the eccentricity but, not a theatre to miss an opportunity, the show toured to Butlins Holiday camps instead!

You can't please everyone I suppose.

Twelfth Night, Photo courtesy of Theatre Collection, University of Bristol
Much Ado About Nothing, Photo courtesy of Theatre Collection, University of Bristol

1954– Salad Days

We were off and running by the 50s!

Salad Days, written by Julia Slade and Dorothy Reynolds, was billed as a "summer musical” for the Bristol Old Vic's resident company. 

This production transferred to London’s Vaudeville Theatre in Aug 1954 and became the longest running musical production in West End history (2,283 perfs). 

It would take another 6 years before that record would be beaten by Oliver!

Salad Days, Photo courtesy of Theatre Collection, University of Bristol

1963 A Severed Headwas written by Iris Murdoch and J.B. Priestley. Transfers to London for 1000+ performance run and then onto New York, Amsterdam and Sydney. Robert Hardy, Sheila Burrell and Paul Eddington in cast.

1965 The Killing of Sister George was written by Frank Marcus and was a BOV World premiere. 

This lesbian-themed black comedy starred Eileen Atkins, Lally Bowers, Selma Vaz Dias and Beryl Reid. 

It transferred to London and New York before being made into film.

The Killing of Sister George, Photo courtesy of Theatre Collection, University of Bristol

1970s– Born in the Gardens

Written and directed by Bristol-born playwright Peter Nichols. Designed by John Elvery. 

Nichols wrote the play in 1979 after his now famous drama Privates On Parade was rejected by the Bristol Old Vic for being too controversial.
Born In The Gardens was staged in BOV to celebrate its 200th anniversary.

The cast for the premiere included Beryl Reid, Peter Bowles, Barry Foster and Jennie Linden and the production transferred to the Gielgud Theatre in London where it played for nine months.

A TV version with Constance Chapman replacing Reid was shown in 1986.

The play centres on an elderly Bristolian mother and son living in a crumbling Victorian manor house.

Beryl Reid in Born in the Gardens, Photo courtesy of Theatre Collection, University of Bristol

1990 - The Man Who had All the Luck
By Arthur Miller. Paul Unwin producer. 

The play was written in 1940 but did not make its US stage debut until four years later. It was Miller’s first play to be mounted on Broadway and opened at the Forrest Theatre on 23 November 1944, but only ran for four nights. The play’s failure nearly derailed Miller’s career, and remained one of his least known works until BOV revived it in May 1990. The Bristol production featured an actual working 1940s Cadillac, which broke down during one matinee; the AA had to be called out to fix it! The Bristol production transferred to the Young Vic in London that year.

Photo courtesy of Theatre Collection, University of Bristol

2010s - BOV, Sally Cookson and National Theatre

Peter Pan – This magical production opened at BOV for Christmas 2012 and was even endorsed by the late Queen Elizabeth II who visited the theatre to open the Royal Box after the first refurbishment of the auditorium earlier that year. 

She watched some of the rehearsal from the royal box before telling Tristan Sturrock (playing Peter) about meeting JM Barrie as a young girl. 

The show was a huge hit, before we joined forces with National to create a show perfect for the theatre and also available through NT Live. 

Trsitan Sturrock as Peter Pan (photo Mark Douet)
Madeleine Worrall as Jane Eyre (photo Manuel Harlan)

In 2013 Jane Eyre arrived on the Theatre stage - an ambitious and bold new production directed by Sally Cookson and devised by the company. 

It starred Madeleine Worrall in the title role (who had played Wendy in Peter Pan) and started life as a 2 show-long event in Bristol full of visual wonder and musical power led by Sally's long-time collaborator, Composer Benji Bower.

It was given a further life in collaboration with the NT in 2015 (after being condensed to a speedier one-nighter for the London crowds!) 

2016 – Long Day's Journey

Long Day's Journey Into Night starring Lesley Manville and BOV alumni Jeremy Irons and directed by Richard Eyre, was performed to mark BOV’s 250th birthday before transferring for a glittering run at The Wyndham's Theatre

Lesley Manville and Jeremy Irons. (Photo Hugo Glendinning)

2018 - Touching the Void

Touching the Void – Based on the memoire of climber Joe Simpson of his life or death struggle on a mountainside. The production opened in Bristol in 2018 and marked the first production in the newly refurbished building.  It went on to touring the UK, with versions running in Hong Kong and an acclaimed West End run. (You can still catch it on Sky Arts until Dec!)

Josh Williams as Joe. (photo Geraint Lewis)

2018 – The Grinning Man 

Macabre Musical The Grinning Man took on a life of its own in 2018 when it hit the west end and still has its die-hard fans today!

Louis Maskell as Grinpayne. (Photo Simon Annand)

Most recently, our powerful production The Meaning of Zong which ran in April 2022, transferred to the Barbican in Spring 2023.

Written, co-directed by and starring Olivier-winning actor Giles Terera, this story of the 18th century atrocities aboard the slave ship Zong won a UK Theatre Award for Giles Terera. 

Giles Terera as Olaudah Equiano. (Photo by Curtis Richard)

Next up!

Dr Semmelweis – break a leg to the whole cast and crew!

Dr Semmelwies, Bristol Old Vic Company 2022. Photo Geraint Lewis