Theatre in London flourished after the English Reformation. The first permanent public playhouse, known as The Theatre, was constructed in 1576 in Shoreditch by James Burbage. It was soon joined by The Curtain. Both are known to have been used by William Shakespeare's company. In 1599, the timber from The Theatre was moved to Southwark, where it was used in building the Globe Theatre in a new theatre district formed beyond the controls of the City corporation. These theatres were closed in 1642 due to the Puritans who would later influence the interregnum of 1649.
After the Restoration (1660), two companies were licensed to perform, the Duke's Company and the King's Company. Performances were held in converted buildings, such as Lisle's Tennis Court. The first West End theatre, known as Theatre Royal in Bridges Street, was designed by Thomas Killigrew and built on the site of the present Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. It opened on 7 May 1663 and was destroyed by a fire nine years later. It was replaced by a new structure designed by Christopher Wren and renamed the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.
Original interior of Savoy Theatre
in 1881, the year it became the first public building in the world to be lit entirely by electricity.
Outside the West End, Sadler's Wells Theatre opened in Islington on 3 June 1683. Taking its name from founder Richard Sadler and monastic springs that were discovered on the property, it operated as a "Musick House", with performances of opera; as it was not licensed for plays. In the West End, the Theatre Royal Haymarket opened on 29 December 1720 on a site slightly north of its current location, and the Royal Opera House opened in Covent Garden on 7 December 1732.
The Patent theatre companies retained their duopoly on drama well into the 19th century, and all other theatres could perform only musical entertainments. By the early 19th century, however, music hall entertainments became popular, and presenters found a loophole in the restrictions on non-patent theatres in the genre of melodrama. Melodrama did not break the Patent Acts, as it was accompanied by music. Initially, these entertainments were presented in large halls, attached to public houses, but purpose-built theatres began to appear in the East End at Shoreditch and Whitechapel.
The West End theatre district became established with the opening of many small theatres and halls, including the Adelphi in The Strand on 17 November 1806. South of the River Thames, the Old Vic, Waterloo Road, opened on 11 May 1818. The expansion of the West End theatre district gained pace with the Theatres Act 1843, which relaxed the conditions for the performance of plays, and The Strand gained another venue when the Vaudeville opened on 16 April 1870. The next few decades saw the opening of many new theatres in the West End. The Criterion Theatre opened on Piccadilly Circus on 21 March 1874, and in 1881, two more houses appeared: the Savoy Theatre in The Strand, built by Richard D'Oyly Carte specifically to showcase the comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan, opened on 10 October (the first theatre to be lit by cooler, cleaner electric lights), and five days later the Comedy Theatre opened as the Royal Comedy Theatre on Panton Street in Leicester Square. It abbreviated its name three years later. The theatre building boom continued until about World War I.
During the 1950s and 1960s, many plays were produced in theatre clubs, to evade the censorship then exercised by the Lord Chamberlain's Office. The Theatres Act 1968 finally abolished censorship of the stage in the United Kingdom.