Architecture: New golden age at the Savoy Theatre

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The Independent Culture
When the Savoy Theatre, London, was rebuilt in 1929 in a sensational Art Deco style, it drew some of the classiest theatrical acts, some of the smartest audiences and some of the greatest set designers, dancers, playwrights, composers and conductors of the age. The Great Crash notwithstanding, the Savoy frolicked on, offering its public an escape from depression, marrying the decorative style of Hollywood to the starkness of the European avant-garde. William Walton composed for the Savoy, Thomas Beecham conducted, McKnight Kauffer designed, Lotte Lenya sang and Tilly Losch danced. In between, the D'Oyly Carte company packed the house with perennial revivals of Gilbert and Sullivan.

The silver and gold theatre, designed by the architect Frank Tugwell and decorated by Basil Ionides, was likened by some to a 'glorified fish and chip shop'. But to Arnold Bennett it was 'the first outstanding example of modern decoration applied to a public place on a commercial basis'. This month, the Savoy Theatre reopened after a three-year closure, during which time it has undergone a complete restoration.

A team of experts, working under the architectural direction of Whitfield Partners, has - at a cost of pounds 12m - rescued this magical interior from the ravaging effects of a fire that destroyed it in 1990. The fire was a tragedy. Not only was the Savoy popular, but it was also one of the finest surviving Art Deco interiors in Britain. Commissioned by Rupert D'Oyly Carte in May 1929 and completed just five months later, it succeeded the original theatre opened in 1881 by Richard D'Oyly Carte (this proved to be so successful, thanks to the genius of Gilbert and Sullivan, that it paid for the hotel that shimmers above its successor).

Like most of London's popular theatres, the Tugwell and Ionides's Savoy hid its decorated bulk behind the tiniest street front. It is odd - not to say disturbing - to think that when you enter the miniature lobby off the Strand you stand above the top of the auditorium's lofty proscenium arch. Beneath this jewel-like entrance lies a cavernous 1,130-seat theatre. And the auditorium itself now supports the hotel's swish new health club, complete with swimming-pool and the 60 tons of water that fill it.

But, then, the Savoy is a remarkable place and, says Julian Courtenay, its general manager, even more special now than it was in the days of Tilly Losch. 'It might sound the wrong thing to say,' he says, 'but the fire has been a blessing in disguise. We've been able to re-equip the theatre with the very latest gadgetry, and all of it hidden away.'

Putting in the new technology was not perhaps as difficult a task as that of the recreation of Basil Ionides's lavish interior. Red Mason of Whitfield Partners, faced with a decorative tabula rasa, ploughed through the back rooms of the Victoria & Albert Museum in order to find the sources of Gilbert Seale's 'Chinese lacquers' that had filled the 82 panels flanking the stage and gave the auditorium much of its character. Meanwhile, the carpets were rewoven to their original specification, and the comfortable seats re-covered in Utrecht velvet, coloured vermilion, amber, honey, fawn and deep crimson. Experts from Ashby and Horner re-covered the walls in miles of silver and gold leaf as archaeologists from the Museum of London dug under the seats to retrace the banks of the Thames as they had been in Saxon times.

The ceiling was repainted to represent an April sky, as it had been, but with the addition of a cloud in the guise of Sir Hugh Wontner, chairman and managing director of the theatre from 1948-92, who commissioned the restoration. 'Sadly, Sir Hugh never made it to the re- opening,' says Julian Courtenay, 'but now he looks down on every performance.' This month Sir Hugh looks down on Tim Luscombe's revival of Noel Coward's Relative Values, first directed here by the author in 1951. It is worth going to see anything the Savoy puts on to revel in one of the most spectacular and hedonistic interiors on show in London.

(Photograph omitted)