Kennington Theatre

The following article is reproduced from a 1991 booklet "Lambeth's Theatrical Heritage" with the kind permission of the Streatham Society. Copies of this very interesting booklet are still available from the Streatham Society Website.

A Tram outside the Kennington Theatre Image Source : Lambeth Archives
A Tram outside the Kennington Theatre

The Princess of Wales's Theatre stood on the comer of Kennington Park Road and Kennington Park Place, which is just marginally outside the Lambeth border. It has been said that the proprietor, Robert Arthur, had it built as a wedding present for his wife.

Henry Irving laid the memorial stone on July 25th 1898 -when work was presumably well advanced. Arthur had employed W.G.R.Sprague to design the theatre, when he was at his most productive. It was a tall structure with a frontage of 80 ft executed in white Portland stone in a rich Italian Renaissance character. A fourth storey was elaborately carved and surmounted on the front with allegorical figures, the central one holding aloft a torch. A colonnaded entrance porch covered the steps into a vestibule and thence to a grand crush room. This was designed as a major feature measuring 42ft long x 22ft with Italian marble walls and columns. The interior decoration throughout was French Renaissance with a free introduction of paintings on the ceilings. The colours used were soft with liberal gold finishing.

The auditorium measured 70ft x 60ft and was on a two tier system of stalls, pit-stalls and pit on the ground floor, and dress circle and gallery and amphitheatre at the higher level. It had a capacity of 1347. The whole was lit by electric light. The plenum heating system was regarded as novel for a suburban theatre, being early air- conditioning. The stage was very large, measuring about 80ft wide and 50ft deep.

Although not fully completed, the theatre opened on Boxing Day, 27th December 1898 with a seasonal pantomime, with Lily Morris making a lovable Cinderella. Robert Arthur's policy was a weekly change of programme of West End successes with occasional visits by touring opera companies. In 1912, the management passed to Milton Bode and Edward Compton who continued the same policy as Arthur, as did subsequent lessees up to 1920. Many great stars appeared there -Sir John Martin Harvey, Gerald du Maurier, Fred Terry, Fred Benson -ranging from the classics to musical comedies. The Christmas panto was an institution, with Dan Leno on occasion.

Change came when John Morgan took over in the winter of 1921. After the finish of "Dick Whittington" in January, the theatre was closed for the metamorphosis into a cinema. They intended "to startle London by a new style of film projection." It was, in fact, back projected using a new lens system invented by Dalmeyers, producing an 18 ft x 14 ft picture that was framed within a pagoda. Seats ranged from 7d (3p)in the gallery to 2/4 (12p)in the circle. Good British films were promised -but they were to be only a proportion of the 3 hour continuous show. These were the days of cine-variety -a transition period when the cinematographic item ceased to be a filler in a music hall programme, but beginning to supersede the live acts. When the theatre re-opened on 28th February 1921, the films were coupled with a farce called "The Devilled Chicken". The film programme changed mid-week, and there was a Sunday performance, part of the proceeds going to the Mayor of Southwark's Unemployment Fund. The regular pantos continued to appear at Christmastide, although in 1927 a circus appeared as a special treat with the films.

The exact date when the Kennington closed has yet to be ascertained: it was last licensed in 1934. With the general re-building after the 1939-45 war, the site was compulsorily purchased in November 1949 to make way for flats.

John Cresswell