Toole’s Theatre, was a 19th-century West End building in William IV Street, near Charing Cross, in the City of Westminster. A succession of auditoria had occupied the site since 1832, serving a variety of functions, including religious and leisure activities. The theatre at its largest, after reconstruction in 1881–82, had a capacity of between 650 and 700.
As the Charing Cross Theatre (1869–1876) the house became known for bills offering a mixture of drama, burlesque and operetta. Among the authors of its burlesques were W. S. Gilbert and H. B. Farnie. Its stars included Lydia Thompson, Lionel Brough and Willie Edouin. In 1876 Thompson and her husband, Alexander Henderson, became lessees of the theatre and renamed it the Folly Theatre. They continued the theatre’s customary mix of operetta and burlesque. Their greatest successes were with English adaptations of French opéras bouffes and opéras comiques, most conspicuously Les cloches de Corneville, which began its record-breaking run (705 performances) at the Folly in 1878.
In 1879 the comic actor J. L. Toole took over the lease. In 1881 he changed the name to Toole’s Theatre and had the building substantially reconstructed. He continued the policy of staging burlesques, but introduced more non-musical comedies and farces. Among the authors who wrote for the theatre were John Maddison Morton, F. C. Burnand and Henry Pottinger Stephens; composers included George Grossmith and Edward Solomon. The theatre was important for beginning the professional careers of many actors, writers and actor-managers. Among the playwrights whose early works were presented at Toole’s were Arthur Wing Pinero and J. M. Barrie. Future stars who were members of the company as beginners included Kate Cutler, Florence Farr, Seymour Hicks, Irene and Violet Vanbrugh and Lewis Waller.
The lease of the theatre expired in 1895, and the lessor, the Charing Cross Hospital, did not renew it. The theatre was demolished in 1896.
The building opened as the Lowther Rooms in 1833 following the redevelopment of the area by the Commissioners of Woods and Forests under Lord Lowther.[n 2] Its early attractions included an exhibition by Madame Tussaud in 1834, patronised by royalty, but the venue rapidly acquired a certain notoriety: a later commentator wrote that it became “a favourite place of resort with the young men of the period, who were attracted thither by a dismal form of entertainment known as ‘Blake’s Masquerades'”. After Blake departed, the building was used for religious purposes, first as the Roman CatholicOratory of Saint Philip Neri from 1848 to 1852,[n 3] and then as a Protestant institute and working men’s club under the presidency of Lord Shaftesbury.
The premises were acquired by the entertainer William S. Woodin, who converted them, reopening as the Polygraphic Hall on 12 May 1855. Woodin gave one-man comic shows, beginning with The Olio of Oddities. He remained in possession of the hall for more than ten years, giving performances there between his provincial tours. When he was not in residence the hall was used for other one-man shows, lectures, amateur dramatic productions, and minstrel shows.
The building was sold to a partnership, E. W. Bradwell and W. R. Field, who acquired the adjoining houses and reconstructed the premises as a small playhouse called the Charing Cross Theatre.The Times reported that they converted the building “into a regular playhouse, of light and elegant appearance, with two tiers of boxes, abundant stalls, a limited pit and no gallery – altogether an edifice satisfactorily answering to the favourite word ‘bijou’, and well worth seeing”. Its capacity was 600. The theatre opened on 19 June 1869 with a triple bill consisting of an operetta, a three-act drama and a burlesque, the last being W. S. Gilbert‘s The Pretty Druidess, a parody of Bellini‘s opera Norma.
In 1872 an American manager, John S. Clarke, became proprietor.[n 4] Under his management the theatre was variously advertised as the Charing Cross Theatre and the Theatre Royal, Charing Cross. He renovated the interior, receiving praise from The Sunday Times:
Among Clarke’s productions was a revival of Sheridan‘s The Rivals, featuring Mrs Stirling as Mrs Malaprop and Clarke as Bob Acres; it ran for more than 50 performances, an unheard-of run at the time for an old classic.
In 1874 Lydia Thompson starred in H. B. Farnie‘s burlesque Blue Beard, in which she had played in the US nearly 500 times; her co-stars were Lionel Brough and Willie Edouin. The following year the theatre featured Kate Santley in a series of comic operas, and later Virginie Déjazet in a French season. John Hollingshead then presented burlesque, and in 1876 Thompson and her husband, Alexander Henderson (1828–1886) returned from a “farewell tour” of the US[n 5] and became proprietors of the theatre.