Whitehall pulls up its trousers for a listing

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When the Whitehall theatre opened in 1930, surrounded by government ministries and the occasional palace, an architect of the time noted: "The Whitehall Theatre is so simple in its line that it makes the new government offices, banks and public houses of that great thoroughfare look as if they need a shave."

It is the theatre's art deco architecture setting it apart from "the avenue of bureaucracy" that prompted the government's decision yesterday to make it a listed building.

But for theatregoers, and indeed non-theatregoers, it is not the architecture but the fare served up on the stage that gave the place its national reputation. The plays presented by the theatre's manager and leading actor in the Fifties and Sixties, Brian Rix, not only delighted audiences, they gave the English language a new phrase: the Whitehall farce.

The theatre had had a history of brash entertainment from its earliest days. During the Second World War it mounted a series of revues, suggestive and titillating, to cheer up London in the Blitz. In 1942 a programme billed as The Whitehall Follies featured a non-strip performance by Phyllis Dixey. The show brought a new audience as Miss Dixey's claim to fame was as the West End's first stripper.

The revues were very successful and it wasn't until Brian Rix arrived in 1950 that farce became the staple diet. Rix, later Lord Rix, was a pioneer of bringing in coach parties as audiences for the farces spread; and he later arranged for plays to be televised. Terry Scott was one of many comics who learned his skills in the farces.

But if Phyllis Dixey seemed daring and Brian Rix chose plays that involved falling trousers and double entendres, the 1970s saw the Whitehall go a stage further. The impresario Paul Raymond took over and presented the West End's first nude production, Pyjama Tops, starring Fiona Richmond.

The theatre's ownership passed to the Maybox Group and later Chesterfield Properties, and it recently staged Trainspotting, maintaining the theatre's capacity both to shock and to be in tune with the times.

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