The Changing Fortunes of the West End’s Fortune Theatre

Take a walk down Russell Street in Covent Garden and you’ll see one of the saddest looking theatre façades in London. But major plans are afoot to renovate the Fortune Theatre.

The current state of the Fortune Theatre
The current state of the Fortune Theatre

The years since 1924 have not been kind to the Fortune Theatre, the 400-odd seat theatre in Russell Street that is dwarfed by its neighbour, the giant Theatre Royal Drury Lane.

Home to successful thriller The Woman in Black for the last 21 years, the Fortune was one of the first buildings in London to experiment with concrete and, since the demolition of Wembley Stadium, is now the oldest remaining public building to be designed using concrete as a textured and exposed façade.

And it’s the concrete that is the problem. Last winter’s bad weather has led to the concrete façade becoming pot-marked and eroded, which is why David Blyth, who was upped last month to Property Director of Ambassador Theatre Group, owner of the Fortune, is planning a major renovation of the theatre.

Work is timed to start in June this year and completed at the beginning of September, ready for the winter onslaught.

“We plan to completely strip both the front and side façades of the theatre”, he told, “and put a replica of the original canopy back over the front of the theatre”. The theatre will also see new display boards, signage and a brand new lighting system.

Planned renovations of the Fortune Theatre
Planned renovations of the Fortune Theatre

Originally designed by Ernest Schaufelberg, who also rebuilt the Adelphi Theatre in 1930, the Fortune was the first theatre in London to be built after the First World War and opened, suitably enough given The Woman in Black’s long residency, as the Fortune Thriller Theatre on 8 August 1924.

Owning West End theatres is not for the faint-hearted, with significant investment required in continually renovating these historic, often listed buildings. The Theatre’s Trust warned this week that recent Arts Council cuts will have an adverse effect on the protection of theatres, and even multi-millionaire Andrew Lloyd Webber, who owns a number of West End venues including the London Palladium and Her Majesty’s Theatre, admitted recently that the enormous investment required to continually redevelop West End theatres was “simply beyond me”.

Ambassador Theatre Group, now by far the largest theatre owner in the West End (and, according to their press, the world), will carry enormous responsibility in preserving West End theatres and continually investing in their upkeep.

David Blyth’s team seem up for the challenge, and are currently renovating the Phoenix Theatre, home to Blood Brothers, to be ready by the end of May. As David says, “both theatres will look quite smart when they are finished”.


The planned renovations for the Fortune Theatre

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