Odeon Covent Garden Frieze | The Former Saville Theatre
Today known as the Odeon Covent Garden, at 135-149 Shaftesbury Avenue you need to look up to admire one of London’s more impressive sculptural friezes.
Shaftesbury Avenue is known for its theatres. But one in particular, the former Saville Theatre, is worth a closer look.
The Saville Theatre
Designed by TP Bennett & Son and constructed by Gee, Walker and Slater, the Saville Theatre opened on 8 October 1931.
It had a seated capacity of 1,229, rising to 1,526 if you included standing room.
Image – Public Domain – Illustration from theatre programme of 1936 based on a photo of the Saville Theatre, featuring the play The Limping Man by Will Scott
It was still working as a theatre until 1969 but in the ‘60s was bought by Brian Epstein who used it for concerts as well.
Acts including Elton John, The Bee Gees, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, Pink Floyd and The Who.
Image – Wikimedia Commons – A poster from September 1967 advertising Sundays at the Saville
Epstein died in 1967 and in 1969 Cameron Mackintosh produced ‘Anything Goes’, one of his first London productions which closed after only two weeks. Today Mackintosh is of course one of the most successful theatre producers in the West End.
The Saville Theatre was converted into a cinema in 1970 and bought by Odeon in 2001. Now it’s known as Odeon Covent Garden, despite not actually being in Covent Garden.
There are some nice interior pictures on the Arthur Lloyd website here.
But we’re really here to talk about the wonderful frieze…
The Odeon Covent Garden Frieze
Designed by Gilbert Bayes for the Saville Theatre, the apt subject is ‘Drama through the Ages’.
Historic England calls it “one of the largest and most important works of public sculpture of its age”.
The frieze runs the length of the facade on Shaftesbury Avenue – about 40m! – as well as two small panels tucked around either side. It earned Bayes the silver medal from the Institute of Sculptors in 1931. Let’s have a closer look.
As if waiting in the wings, an angel ushers St Joan onto stage. The French Saint seems an odd theatrical choice, but re-enactments of her martyrdom in 1431 were performed almost immediately and continued over the centuries.
It was probably on the mind too, as George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan had premiered in New York 1923 and London the following year, just 7 years before this frieze was unveiled.
Around the corner we see travelling minstrels, the inscription informs us they’re ‘Chester Players’, a man sings along to his lute, while a more pensive priest – complete with shaved head – contemplates his cross.
Early plays up and down the country were largely religious, groups performing Bible stories in different towns and cities.
Between the horse’s legs stands a rather chunky dragon, held with only a thin string, he obediently follows a kneeling St George.
Mirroring St George, another kneeling figure marks the starts of the Greek chorus, dressed in robes, they seem curious to see their own reflections as they drop their theatrical masks.
Standing to attention behind are the Roman Gladiators, huge circular shields at their feet. Their theatrical performances in Amphitheatres literally meant life or death.
Behind them stand Imperial soldiers – one appears white, wearing an animal headress while the other seems to be African – both straining to hold back two lions.
Next, bring on the dancing girls!
Lithe women twist and turn ahead of a goat-legged man riding a donkey. These are followers of Bacchus (the Roman God of wine and fertility) who, let’s just say, loves a party.
Unimpressed, and forcing the revellers along, the next troupe comes from commedia dell’arte.
Originally from Italy and popular throughout Europe from 16th-18th centuries, they give us the Harlequin and Pierrot characters. The latter shown, hands on hips and head tilted back, with typically gigantic billowing trousers.
We’re then presented with a select from Shakespeare; A sinister, Puck-like, small child plays with a pair of shadow puppets.
While sat on the back of a cart a fairy – maybe Titania? – watches the petals of a flower float away on the breeze. Looking thoroughly impatient behind her, King Richard V leans on his Royal Coat of Arms as the hapless Bottom – with his donkey head – looks on.
A better-dressed double date line up behind him, ladies in front fanning themselves while a pipe-smoking man with a hand puppet in his pocket watches curiously.
To the right of his head we see more puppets, this time to unmistakeable hooked nose and curved hat of the eponymous villain of Punch and Judy.
The next inscription just says ROMANTIC as we see a collection of historic outfits.
Then we officially arrive at the TWENTIETH CENTURY with a cloaked figure points a gun at another man with his pipe and smoking robe who appears thoroughly unconcerned.
Next march a trio of Can-Can style dancers, while behind them a woman consoles her male partner who inexplicably holds a bunch of grapes.
In Renaissance Art, grapes are often used as a symbol of sacrifice – namely Jesus on the Cross – and so perhaps his distracted gaze alludes to the final figure around the corner?
The Stage Manager Angel reappears. But this time it’s ambiguous as to whether she’s drawing back the curtain, or slowly concealing the solider.
Although Historic England gives the description ‘a figure in Boer War uniform’ to me it seems much more likely to be an infantry soldier from the First World War. In either case the suggestion of a final curtain adds an extra poignance at the loss of so many young lives.
Above the frieze there are also some attractive roundels.
Grouped in pairs, they represent art from Egypt and Assyria (Ancient Iraq), Rome and Greece, Italian Renaissance and Medieval, Elizabethan and Georgian, finall Pompadour (18th Century France) and the Victorian period.
Future of 135-149 Shaftesbury Avenue
The building is Grade II listed and in March 2021 Camden rejected a new plan to transform the building into a hotel.
One positive of the building being investigated for development was the discovery that more “significant elements of the existing theatre survive” than was previously thought, including an unknown amount of the original Art Deco decorative scheme.
If it is eventually redeveloped, perhaps as another arts venue, these features will hopefully be protected!
More Gilbert Bayes
You can spot more work from Gilbert Bayes around London, however the most famous work can be found on Selfridges; the Queen of Time.
Read more about London’s best historic clocks here.