West End theatre renamed after Cats choreographer Gillian Lynne

By Neil Smith
Entertainment reporter

image copyrightCraig Sugden
image captionDame Gillian Lynne with Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cameron Mackintosh and dancers from Cats

The original London home of Cats has been renamed after its choreographer, becoming the first West End theatre to be named after a non-royal woman.

The New London Theatre was officially renamed the Gillian Lynne Theatre on Friday at a ceremony hosted by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh.

"You've made many stars look wonderful over your career, but today you are the star," said Sir Cameron.

Cats, for which Lynne won an Olivier, ran at the venue from 1981 to 2002.

The former ballerina, now 92, was made a dame in 2014 for services to dance and musical theatre.

image copyrightPA
image captionThe theatre played host to Cats for 21 years

Dame Gillian's feline choreography for Lloyd Webber's musical was a significant factor in its phenomenal success.

Based on Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats by TS Eliot, the show opened in May 1981 with Elaine Paige, Bonnie Langford and Paul Nicholas among its cast.

After Cats, Lynne worked with Lord Lloyd-Webber again on The Phantom of the Opera and Aspects of Love.

Her many other credits include the stage version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Barbra Streisand's film Yentl.

Friday's event saw a brief dance performance from Cats followed by Dame Gillian being carried onto the stage on a golden throne.

The veteran choreographer was then presented with a key to the theatre by Lord Lloyd-Webber, whose School of Rock musical is currently playing there.

image captionThe theatre was officially renamed on Friday

Lynne, who revealed this year that her 90s had "not been kind", told the audience she could hardly believe the "incredible" accolade.

To affectionate laughter, she expressed "how lucky" she felt to be honoured by "two such special, attractive men - even on a bad day".

"It seemed so obvious to name the theatre after her," said Lord Lloyd-Webber afterwards. "I was ashamed I didn't think of it earlier."

Mackintosh echoed his sentiments while clarifying that the Dame Gillian Lynne exhibit currently housed at his Victoria Palace Theatre would remain in situ.

Langford, who played Rumpleteazer in Cats and who can now be seen as Carmel in the BBC's EastEnders, said it was an "extraordinary honour" and "very fitting".

"Not only is it a theatre named after a woman, it's a woman who's still living and very much present," she told the BBC.

media captionAt the age of 88, Dame Gillian Lynne is recreating a ballet, 'Miracle in the Gorbals' which she performed to troops in the second World War

"Her name will now remain in lights forever, which is what she has always wanted."

"It's wonderful and timely that Gillian should be given this honour," said Paige, who played Grizabella in Cats and who now presents a Sunday afternoon show on BBC Radio 2.

"I was very proud to be part of Cats, so to come back to this theatre and see her be lauded is just brilliant."

"It's a tribute to all the choreographers and movement directors who have made our musical theatre as great as it is," said the theatre owner and producer Nica Burns.

'Spoilt for choice'

Though London's West End has many theatres bearing the names of male actors and playwrights, Lynne is the first non-royal woman to have that honour.

The Old Vic, the Apollo Victoria and the Victoria Palace are named after Queen Victoria, while Her Majesty's Theatre is so named for Queen Elizabeth II.

Men, in contrast, are well represented, with John Gielgud, Harold Pinter, Noel Coward and Ivor Novello among those to have theatres bearing their name.

This contrasts with New York, where one can find the Ethel Barrymore Theater, the Vivian Beaumont Theater and the Lucille Lortel Theatre among others.

image copyrightPA/BBC
image captionL to R: Noel Coward, John Gielgud and Harold Pinter

When asked who should be the next woman to have a theatre in her honour, Elaine Paige admitted she was "spoilt for choice".

"There are lots of dames around so take your pick," the Evita star told the BBC. "There are so many deserving candidates."

"You're not going to tempt me into naming names," said Burns, co-owner of six London houses. "These kind of things have to be very carefully considered."

"It'll happen naturally," insisted Mackintosh. "The best ideas are Eureka moments, so hopefully the next one will seem just as obvious."

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