The Greenwich Theatre Book
Ed. Hilary Evans, Neil Rhind, 1969
I am one excited Phantom this morning. I have finally got to see the most elusive book about Greenwich (that I know about – obviously the others are so elusive I haven’t heard of them) – kindly loaned to me for a short while. I’m telling you – it’s easier to find the leather-bound 1816 charity-produced Legacies of the Parish of St Alphege, Greenwich than this slim volume, more than 150 years younger.
Presumably that’s because this little gem could pass for a pamphlet. Although it is book-shaped, I am willing to bet that many people kept it with leaflets,pamphlets, theatre programmes etc., and over the years it’s the sort of thing that gets turfed out during periodic clear-outs. I guess that’s the problem with ephemera – it’s um, ephemeral…
I’m having to read it very cautiously as the glue from the perfect binding has cracked with age and if I open it too widely the whole thing is going to collapse which is a shame as the photos, drawings and playbills are worth close inspection on their own, without all the history (not just of the theatre but of entertainment in Greenwich), messages of good wishes and articles by famous people, features about other aspects of the theatre in 1969 (I was delighted to see listed in the section about the theatre’s Art Gallery one Terry Scales who is just about to show yet another exhibition, at Paul McPherson’s Gallery) and personnel listings – from director to tech stage manager – from the time.
What I get most from the book is the sheer energy and excitement that the project to recreate the broken-down Crowders music hall – to gut it completely (not, perhaps what would happen today, given the quality of the albeit very broken grandeur, dusty cherubs, faded plush and tatty gilding – but then I’m not convinced that the project would be taken on at all today – just look at the agonies Wilton’s has been enduring…) and create a fresh, modern theatre space for an exciting programme of excellent home-produced productions. The pages reveal the dream of Ewan Hooper, the 34-year-old director who managed to enthuse enough people to raise the walloping sum of £120,000 to rebuild.
He was well-connected, and that can’t have hindered the operation. The list of patrons runs from Dame Sybil Thorndyke, Sir John Betjeman and C Day Lewis (who, of course, lived opposite) to James Callaghan, Dame Flora Robson and the Bishop of Woolwich. But time and again, it is the people of Greenwich who seem to have raised most of the cash.
Of course Greenwich Theatre went on to flourish in a golden age during the 1970s through to the 1990s – the other two Greenwich Theatre Books are both albums of photographs from the productions from that time and comprise a galaxy of major stars. This one is different – it’s the scream of triumph as a long-cherished project nears completion and the kind of unbridled enthusiasm that we last saw, frankly, in the 60s.
I’m still eagerly reading (it’s a slow business, peering into the pages) but utterly fascinating – with photos of before, during and after the operation, diagrams of the layout and, of course, an account of the build. And it’s opening so many questions for me – I’ve already gone scuttling off to find out more about a couple of things I’ve noticed in the pictures/text.
And as I read this, I find myself thinking of the current Greenwich Theatre, which I love with a passion. I make no bones about their panto being my favourite night out of the year (sad, but true) and I try to get to as much as I can there. But with the best will in the world the place is not what it was. It can’t afford to be. Gone are the days when the arts were subsidized to any real effect and the panto is now the only in-house production the place can afford to stage.
They had a pilot scheme with a video production company a couple of years ago that saw the welcome return of proper, home-produced, large-cast shows – a real coup – and very exciting, but it doesn’t appear to have lasted. Such a shame; I had hoped that the need to create classics for schools would at least mean we’d get some in-house serious stuff with a cast of more than two.
I find myself thinking about this book and the current theatre. Wondering whether there might be a case for creating a reprint of this rare-as-hens-teeth volume – perhaps with an update – where some of the proceeds could go to help the theatre now, which remains open despite the ever-diminishing finances and, when it’s allowed to produce its own material, can still punch above its weight? It might be a bit of effort and presuming on people like Michael Billington to agree to having his article reprinted again – but given he wrote it quite happily for the good of the theatre the first time, surely he wouldn’t begrudge it again..?
I would buy a copy.
I’ll be coming back to this book and some of the issues it raises several times before I give it back – luvvies beware…
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