Billy Penkethman and Jubilee Dicky
Obviously there was theatre in Greenwich before there were theatres. I’m sure the requisite number of mummers and mysteries were put on by sundry guilds in the middle ages and although the first recorded professional actors came to perform for Queen Elizabeth I you’re not going to tell me that Henry VIII, between all his jousting and feasting, didn’t have the odd play, musical or at least knockabout farce. A king cannot live by Will Somers alone.
And of course there were the strolling players for whom Greenwich Fair, with all its shabby delights, was a magnet. Problem was that was only at best twice a year and the rest of the time theatre lovers could whistle.
I guess we have three things to thank for the start of permanent theatre at Greenwich – Sir John Vanbrugh (though not in the way you might think, given what he’s famous for) a squabble between the Haymarket and Drury Lane – and the bubonic plague.
The thing that got a load of London actors’ goats was the long summer vacation at the big playhouses. This was for several reasons, not least that plague had the annoying habit of breaking out every summer in the city. Medicine was pretty poor, but they had worked out that large gatherings of humans were more likely to catch something bad. There were various ‘religious’ reasons also cited, but frankly theatregoers didn’t give a stuff about that sort of thing. If the play was on, they’d have gone.
Of course the famous actors managed nicely enough – private engagements and other theatres outside the no-go zone kept them going until the new season. But young actors yet to make their names were stuck.
A chap called, appropriately enough, Rich, decided to get round the agreement between the theatres not to put on shows in the summer, by exploiting these eager starlets and starting a ‘Young Company’ where the actors would perform at a reduced rate or, more usually, for free, thus circumventing the ‘no professional theatre’ rule – the actors would take a risk that they could live on what was left of their winter advances while they were being discovered. Unsurprisingly he ended up being sued in 1704.
But what he’d done was give theatregoers an appetite for shows in the summer months and Drury Lane Theatre, where Rich had been putting on the plays and who had some powerful friends, decided to open anyway, using all sorts of ruses, such as calling their performances ’open rehearsals’ for the winter show.
Their rivals at John Vanbrugh’s Haymarket theatre were furious and there were all sorts of shenanagins while the Lord Chamberlain was trying to knock heads together. He gave the monopoloy of operas to Sir John Vanbrugh (something he lived to regret when he lost a load of cash in a very short time and had to sell his share of the theatre) but that meant that Drury Lane didn’t get to put on plays at all in the summers of 1707-10 and eventually the Lord Chamberlain closed the place altogether and while the tumbleweed blew between the sets the actors were out on their ears.
The big stars didn’t care. They got work at the Haymarket, or continued their corporate function gigs but the rest had nothing. They even appealed to Queen Anne, to no avail.
But then one of them had a Bright Idea. William Penkethman, who’d formed a travelling troupe to at least visit the various fairs while they were all unemployed, hit on the idea of putting on the show right here. Why not have a permanent theatre in Greenwich? It would be okay for the locals, ‘but get this, get this,’ I can hear him telling potential backers. ‘We arrange the performance times around the tides and put on boats to bring the toffs down river to see the show, and then take them back again before the river goes out. Ta-da! No-summer-theatre-in-London problem – bish-bosh – solved!’*
I don’t know where the Hospital Tavern would have been, but a wild guess puts it, er, near Greenwich Hospital. What do you think – somewhere around where the Pepys building is now, perhaps? It would have been near the quay, for all those visitors and I’m sure the guv’nor would have been only too happy to have the new Play-house camp out in his pub.
The Daily Courant, 9th May 1709 has William Penkethmon performing there, but mentions that it’s next door to his new play-house, so it’s clear the permanent theatre was being built at the time and the actors were just using the pub’s ‘function room.’
The actual building opened on 15th June 1710, and, presumably as a bit of a cock-snook to the Theatre Royal, the show was Love Makes a Man, or the Fop’s Fortune, by Colly Cibber – Drury Lane’s manager.
Penkethman and his mate Jubilee Dicky Norris were the big draws. And they’d even worked out what to do when the weather was too bad/tides were not in their favour – the resting actors just took temp work on the boats as fishermen. Plus ça change…
Sadly, after 1712, Penkethman’s theare’s never mentioned again. Perhaps those fickle playgoers took advantage of the theatres in town patching up their differences and putting on plays – between 1713 and 1715 Drury Lane was once again ‘a gold mine,’ taking huge box office reciepts. Presumably theatre goers would rather not have to take a journey on a leaky barge when they could walk round the corner. But I like to think that Billy and Jubilee Dicky became so much a part of the furniture in Greenwich that they were just no longer newsworthy and continued to put on shows quietly for many years without being a story for the Daily Courant.
*Not unlike the O2 putting on clippers for stadium goers…
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