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…

the attachments to this post:

The Greenwich Theatre Book
The Greenwich Theatre Book

11 Comments to “The Greenwich Theatre Book”

  1. miffee says:

    I well remember the Girls’ Roan School collecting to buy a brick at the theatre during the late sixties.Also sixth form lunch times spent in the bar, with relevant teachers, supposedly discussing our Economics course, but actually spotting the stars of the current play.It was all so exciting.The school arranged a visit to see The Corsican Brothers, which I believe was the second production after refurbishment.

  2. Robert Number16 says:

    I did so enjoy programme about Alan Aykbourn last njght .The mention that it was The Greenwich Theatre where The Norman Conquests was first played in London before the transfer to the West End
    This is just an idea. There is a very respected Musical Theatre Director that lives in Prior St ( round the corner from the theatre) Who has a list of West End Hits to their name also international shows. They are also head of The Musical Theatre at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. How about when the theatre have dates to fill . That shows from Guildhall are presented there (Of a very high Standard) The theatre will take the lion share of the box office. Drama students will be playing in a commercial theatre. This way Greenwich will see the new Trained theatre Stars of tomorrow. Also there could be platform shows in the bar/restaurant? down stairs. This is a place where people should meet have coffee and enjoy young talent.

  3. That would be a great idea Robert (I thought Rose Bruford already did that, but perhaps I’m behind the times.)

    I used to go to Cliveden once a year to see Webber Douglas students performing their finals pieces. They were brilliant because, obviously, as far as they were concerned, I was the least important member of the audience – the place was packed with agents and the students, desperate to get picked up were giving 1000%. I particularly liked the guy who, one year, didn’t actually get much in the way of lines, but at one point lost his clothes. He managed to steal the show by spending the rest of the performance wearing a barrel (no he wasn’t playing Diogenes)

    The last show I saw before it all ended in tears, an unknown Rupert Friend was one of the Antipholuses in Comedy of Errors. I miss it.

  4. Robert Number16 says:

    Dear Phantom
    The only reason I mentioned this was that I went to see a show with said MT dircetor and it was they who said “I feel I could help Greenwich theatre in some way” Somtimes a gentle push makes things happen. I am a great supporter of James Hadrell (Greenwich threatre Director} and in no way would want to put my oare infact he was round at Number16 last night trying to help me arrange an interview with a well know Dame of the British theatre.

  5. I think we’d all like to do more for the theatre – though of course the one thing we can do is see as many shows as possible.

  6. Robert Number16 says:

    As we are on a bit of a theatre feast this morning. I do urge all you Twittersnapers to follow “westendproducer” on twitter. He is a spoof west end producer ,but clearly is very involed in the theatre.Nobody knows who it is.Very funny!!Tweet him, and say I sent you, and you might get a naughty reply (or even worse)

  7. Robert Number16 says:

    BTW Dear Phantom.
    Who designed the cover of “The Greenwich Theatre” It looks like a Terry Frost?

  8. The book’s designer is Ray Fishwick – I don’t know if he was responsible for the cover design – no one else is credited.

  9. Alan Burkitt-Gray says:

    James Callaghan and the Bishop of Woolwich were both locals, too. Callaghan lived close to what is now the Clarendon Hotel in Blackheath, and the bishop’s official residence was then on the Cator Estate (recent bishops of Woolwich have lived in Forest Hill).
    The Greenwich Theatre in the late 1970s and early 1980s was a great place to premiere productions that went on to the West End. My now wife and I used to be members of the theatre’s first nighters club, which gave us tickets to each first performance — including, in 1981, Another Country, by Julian Mitchell, with Rupert Everett in the lead part. Great days in Greenwich.

  10. miffee says:

    Not to mention jazz on a Sunday lunch time.

  11. [...] am still hugely enjoying the Greenwich Theatre Book which is currently on loan to me. Rather than go into the theatre’s history or an account of [...]