Archive for the ‘theatre history’ Category

First Night Jitters

Wednesday, February 6th, 2013

“Sir, I thought it had been better.”

Sam Johnson’s characteristically honest reason for leaving the room when someone started reading his only play, Irene, at a country house party in 1780.

Today playwrights around the world can take comfort that their fabulous, darling manuscript, perfect in every respect in their own eyes, might not be the collossus they thought it was but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will not turn out to be an incredible writer. Perhaps all they need to do is switch genre…

If you’d nipped backstage at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane on the 6th February 1749, you might well have witnessed an aspiring playwright pacing backstage, nervously chewing his fingernails as he contemplated what the actors might do with his baby.

He didn’t have much of an opinion of their ability to do it justice. “Players, Sir? I look on them as no better than creatures set upon tables and joint stools to make faces and produce laughter, like dancing dogs.”

Given that Irene was a tragedy, and a big old heavy tragedy at that – one that would have gone down an absolute storm with Shakespeare’s crowd, who loved blood and guts – the idea of ‘dancing dogs’ poking fun at his work, Johnson probably had a point. He was particularly bothered about his leading lady, Hannah Pritchard, who he described as ‘a vulgar idiot.’

Of course, he might have disliked the concept of actors, but that didn’t stop him being mates with them – one of his good friends was David Garrick, whom he’d taught and who now was taking quite a risk in putting on Johnson’s play – it had already been rejected by its 18th Century equivalent of beta-readers. Garrick had insisted on a few changes that would appeal to the lighter moods of modern theatre, that Johnson didn’t approve of, but had to suck up if he wanted his show to see the light of day.

I find myself wondering whether Johnson, as he stood in the wings, awkwardly trussed up in scarlet waistcoat, gold lace and and fancy hat specially acquired for his first night as a luvvie, was rather wishing he was still in Greenwich Park, looking out over the river, sucking the end of his quill, trying to find the exact right words for the big death scene at the end. Whether he rather longed for that special time when the work is in progress, when everything can be changed and all will be fabulous.

We’re not really sure where Johnson lived while he stayed at Greenwich. He says it was at the Golden Hart in Church Street. Julian Watson suggests it could have been in the delightful weatherboarded row on the front cover of his (excellent) book (available at the Visitor Centre, last time I looked)

These houses are long-gone, not least because of the remodelling of Garden Stairs when the foot tunnel was built, but I’m guessing they’d have been approximately opposite the Cutty Sark.

If only his play had been any good. I recently went to a lecture at Johnson’s House where they were re evaluating the work, but although they come to the conclusion that it was not the utter flop History tells us it is, even the ex-curator (whose name escapes me and which I can’t look up because they annoyingly keep their website up to date…) had to admit it wasn’t a play she either recommended reading or ever putting on again.

It just wasn’t what the modern play-going public wanted. Johnson’s prose was dated, his plot clunky and his action heavy. But the thing the audiences hated most was the very thing that 150 years ago they’d have actually queued up for.

Johnson had poor Mrs Pritchard ‘strangled’ on stage, in front of the audience. Instead of lapping up the violence, though, they started hissing whistling and making cat calls that went on so long that in subsequent performances she had to exit and be murdered offstage.

Thing is, the play didn’t do as badly as many modern scholars think it did. True, it only ran for 9 performances between 6th and 20th Feb (there weren’t any shows on Wednesdays, Fridays or Sundays) but that was about average for new plays in those days. There actually weren’t many new plays as everything had to be read and passed by the Lord Chamberlain, so most shows were old classics that actors played in repertory, with the odd modern play squeezed in.

And Johnson made money. The whole idea of putting on plays in those days was to attempt to put them on in batches of three. The first two nights the profits went to the promoter; if the show lasted to a third night it became a benefit performance to pay the author, and after that every third night was the author’s night – another reason to put on plays by dead playwrights.  Johnson made £236 after the house fee, which was pretty decent cash.

Nevertheless, Garrick still needed to tweak the show in order to keep the audiences coming, not least so his mate Sam could make a few more quid. Johnson’s tragedy lasted to the sixth night before Garrick slipped in a nice cheery farce at the end and there is mention of a ‘Scotch Dance’ that would have also been a splendid crowd-pleaser to get people to come so Johnson’s play limped to its ninth performance.

Nowadays Irene is often described as ‘a poem’ and it’s quite hard to come by. It’s not a classic (though some (who haven’t read it; I confess I haven’t either, so I rely on the ex-curator’s opinion) assume it must be because Johnson wrote it, but neither was it the total turkey that other scholars have claimed. And hell, it if is a total turkey, it’s our total turkey.

Green-Gowned in Greenwich Park

Friday, September 7th, 2012

At Greenwich lies the Scene, where many a Lass

Has been Green-gown’d upon the tender Grass

If Flamstead’s Stars would make a true Report

Our City’s Breeds much mended by the Court 

& etc.

Back in 1959, while he was still waiting to come up with Oliver! Lionel Bart wrote a musical that is very rarely performed these days. Lock Up Your Daughters! is a parody of Restoration comedy. Ludicrous plotline? Check. Over the top characters whose names give away their roles, such as the romantic Captain Constant or the lascivious Mrs Squeezum? Check. Saucy one-liners and single entendres? Check.

It also had a couple of cracking songs. I particularly remember the splendid – and limpidly insipid - Lovely Lover, the outrageously unsubtle When Does the Ravishing Begin? and the sultry Gentle Art of Seduction, which, if memory serves, bore a remarkable musical similarity to and was probably recycled later as You Got to Pick a Pocket or Two.

But Bart’s piss-take was nothing on the real thing, which, by the time I’m talking about, had already become a parody of itself.

If someone had asked me to write a pastiche of a jaunty Restoration comedy, I don’t think I could have come up with anything as stereotyped, hackneyed or downright fatuous as William Mountfort’s Greenwich Park. When I first heard about it, my ears pricked as a possible suggestion for a revival at Greenwich Theatre. Having read the thing, I’m much less certain, but it’s certainly fun – and pretty rowdy stuff. And let’s face it – that was what 17th century comedy was all about.

It clearly demonstrates what the general population of Britain thought of Greenwich at the time (btw ‘green-gowning, if you hadn’t worked it out already, refers to the side-effects of outdoor ‘entertainment’, something one could – in the popular imagination, at least – get plenty of in Greenwich Park…) See Greenwich Bird for further proof of what people thought of the town…

Let’s take a look at the Dramatis Personae:


Sir Thomas Reveller, an old wicked lewd knight.

Mr Raison, a Grocer

Mr Sassafras, a Drugster, both jolly citizens and companions with Sir Thos.

Lt. Worthy, a Young Nobleman, newly returned from Travel

Young Reveller*, Son to Sir Thomas,  a wild young fellow, kept by Mrs Raison and Courts Florella for a wife

Sir William Thoughtless, a foolish knight

A Beaux

Bully Bounce



Dorinda, a private Mistress, kept by Lord Worthy and in Love with Young Reveller


Violante, daughters to my Lady Hazard. Florella in love with Young Reveller. Violante in love with the Lt. Worthy.

Mrs Raison, in love with Y. Reveller

Lady Hazard, Aunt to Dorinda.

Constable, Watch, Masqueraders &etc

*If you’re thinking that perhaps this ‘Young Reveller’ character was rather popular with the ladies, I should perhaps say that, to save arguments, the role was taken by Mr Moutjoy himself.


All clear? Subtle it ain’t, but it was always meant to be comedy; always supposed to be knockabout, so fair enough.

It took me ages to track down a copy online, but I finally did, and present you the link here but in case you value your time, here’s what I made of it:

The first scene does, admittedly, crackle with good lines . It takes place in a Greenwich Grocer’s shop and consists of the chap’s wife trying to persuade her husband to buy her a carriage, promising not to be extravagant any more if only he gives into this one teeny request. When he refuses she rails against him with a fantastic exit speech:

Well, think on it, Bungler. I long for a Coach, and I will have a Coach, and you may spare it out of Clarret, you Sot, since you can’t get no children to inherit what you have, I’ll spend it and thou shalt never live an easy hour ’til I have a Coach and so Think on’t thou Associate of Drunkards, eternal Tobacco Funker; must I be contented with a Beast that stinks perpetually, sits up till two or three a-Clock in the Morning and knows nothing but his Bottle sometimes a week together? The World shall know what a Bedfellow thou art, that Snores all Night and art Sick in the Morning; thou debilitated Booby, thou Sapless Trunk.  (exit).


It’s a bit of a relief when the scene shifts to Tower Hill and Lt. Worthy, who having just returned from abroad, is thinking of rustling up a few mates and going to Greenwich, nudge, nudge, wink, wink.

Meanwhile Sir Thomas Reveller has a hangover:

I must leave off this Drinking, it will kill me else; for the Heat of my Body’s so violent it will set the Clarret within me a boiling and will make a hash of my bowels for Satan; yet I look pretty for my age; too. What a Pox, but I’m eight and forty and have lungs as shrill as a Eunuch, fa, la, la, la.

He’s fed up with his son George, (the Reveller, if you recall, played by Mr Moutjoy) for not letting him in on the female action:

“but what a cursed Rogue as keeps all his Whores to himself, he won’t let his none Dad come in for a Snack; I’m forced to lay on my own Maids.”

And so on. Thing is, it’s all roaring stuff, but after several pages of it, it starts to get a bit wearisome. I’d like a bit of actual plot to turn up. As it is, it plods on, slowly, slowly,  eventually unfolding a basic caper story that must have been pretty hackneyed even then, full of double and single entendres which must have been side-splitting in the 1670s but actually rather tedious after a while for me, at least  as is the interchangeability of the words ‘whore’ and ‘woman’ (and I speak as someone who actually seeks out Restoration Comedy when it’s on – I particularly enjoyed the Nash’s She Stoops to Conquer recently). Mountfort was writing at the fag end of the genre, and it feels like it.

I found my eyes glazing over after about four scenes, though every so often there was an entertaining turn of phrase; I particularly liked the answer to the question (of Greenwich Park) ‘what do we do here?’

‘Let’s have some Wine and Cold Chicken, go upon Flamstead’s leads and huzza to the Neighbouring Counties!

I love the idea of a load of mattressed 17th Century toffs climbing on the poor astronomer’s roof and shouting at Kent in the middle of the night. No wonder he was always in a bad mood if that’s what went on all the time…

I was also curious about the scene that takes place in a garden in Debtford-Wells – I don’t recall any wells round there, though naturally I’m no Deptford expert – puts me in mind a little of Peckham Spring…

Ultimately, this is an interesting curiosity, but not something I suspect ever needs to see the light of day again, though you never know, Greenwich Theatre might like (one hell of) a challenge. If they do, frankly, I’d suggest a revival of Lock Up Your Daughters, even if only for a reprise of the rabble-rousing When Does the Ravishing Begin?

The Clarence Music Hall

Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

Yup folks, I’m still enjoying the Greenwich Theatre Book – an incredibly slim volume that punches above its weight and provides a really excellent base for further digging. It’s made all the more mysterious by the fact that I can hardly open the thing for fear of it falling apart (it’s not mine or I would be far less careful…), so I can only dip in occasionally.

Today’s post isn’t really about Greenwich Theatre – or not the building, at least. But a brief mention in the book made me look again at another Greenwich venue. Over the years there have been a fair few places of entertainment, ranging from the highbrow (not many of them, ‘fraid) to the rather less salubrious establishments (plenty to see there…) From trestle-stages to purpose-built palaces, serious legit-stuff to – well, a few things the Lord Chamberlain would have got a bit hot under the ermine collar about. But by far the most popular of all were the music halls of Victorian Greenwich.

I’ll come to a big one that only died about forty years ago another day, because today, I want to concentrate on one that survives – in fact I understand it’s the oldest surviving purpose-built music hall there is – though it’s a mere shadow of its former self.

Where is it? Well – it’s here:

Still can’t see it? Look up – at the rooms spanning the bridge between the Admiral Hardy and – well, the other side. The Clarence Music Hall was incorporated into the original design of Greenwich Market by Joseph Kay when Greenwich was being gentrified in the 1830s, presumably as a sop to the working classes whose houses were being bulldozed to make way for it.

Admittedly the market had got a bit out of hand, with pushcarts and market stalls all over the place – up alleyways, blocking roads, stuffing every courtyard with stinking vegetables, animals being slaughtered any-old-where and generally annoying the toffs.

Joseph Kay was put in charge of making the new market pretty – and, from what’s left of it, he did a good job. There was a designated slaughterhouse area, room for stables for the stallholders’ horses and, of course a good, large central bit for the stalls themsleves.

The Admiral Hardy was one of the first pubs up and running in the complex and they decided to use the upstairs room spanning the market’s trendy new entrance as a music hall. The Royal Clarence Theatre opened in 1839. I’m assuming it was named for William IV (the erstwhile Duke of Clarence) who was popular in Greenwich, ostensibly because of his life as a sailor before becoming king, but probably as much, if not more so, because of his saucy former life and his openly living with a mistress. Greenwich has always liked characters.

The entrance was at Number 7a and you had to climb the stairs to get to it, adding to the back-room salaciousness of it all. If it had started out as trying to be a legitimate theatre (which I can’t see that it ever did) it definitely wasn’t after 1845, when it gave up even trying to sound posh and just called itself the Clarence Music Hall.

It was run by the Mitchell family, who also owned the pub, until 1860, but it carried on after they gave it up, until it was forcibly closed by the authorities for being too popular. It used to cram 250 people in to a 46ft x 24ft room and even the Victorians, not known for being particularly obsessed with safety, thought that might be a few too many.

However the room still existed, and continues to exist, despite two remodellings of the market – 1908 and 1958.

Each time, whatever happened to the inside of the market, Joseph Kay’s exterior stayed, and, thanks to its being part of the very fabric of the outside, the music hall has stayed too, an airy, high-roofed affair with windows both sides, onto the street and the market below. Its raison d’etre now gone, it became a bit of everything, as such places tend to be, including an engineering workshop. In 1964 it was converted to a TV/Film studio. I don’t know for whom. It’s far too early for Greenwich Cablevision.

A 1991 book by Darrell Spurgeon says it was, at the time he was writing, mooted to be a museum, but it would seem that that money started talking. It became the Time Bar and then of course, INC with those Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen designs and the erotic wallpaper. At least I assume the erotic wallpaper’s still there – haven’t been in ages, since it’s now not open except as ‘Clarence Hall,’ a space for hire. At least it’s kept the name…

There’ s much more music hall to be had around these parts, but for now, if you fancy finding out at least a flavour of what the old halls would have been like, I note there’s going to be an evening of music hall at Greenwich Theatre on 11th March.

The Sorrows of Satan

Monday, November 21st, 2011

I 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 the rebuild today, though, my eye was drawn to an illustration in the back pages. I have no idea where it’s from – whether it’s a playbill in a private collection, whether it’s one of the framed bills from the stairs at the theatre itself (if memory serves, they were recovered during the building work in the 60s and make fascinating reading) or from somewhere like the Heritage Centre. I’m probably hugely offending someone by reproducing it here – but it is a wonderful document and I just can’t resist it this morning.

It opens a world almost totally lost to us now.  What did Alf Davis, the descriptive vocalist, actually do? Who lost their trousers in the ‘screaming farce’ Checkmated? What did Carl Minto, the ‘eccentric musician’, play? And whatever happened to Maude Distin, ‘the only female baritone extant?’

Even the year of this old playbill, which promises four hours of amusement for a thru’penny bit, is uncertain. We know it’s for the week beginning Monday Jan 5th but which year? We know the theatre was called Barnard’s Palace at that time – which narrows it down a bit – it underwent a spruce-up in 1895 and from then, for a few years at least it was known first as Barnard’s Palace (after the promoter, Sam Barnard), then the Greenwich Hippodrome. If I was particularly nerdy and had more time that I do on a Monday morning I’d find some website dedicated to telling us which years in the late 1890s had the 5th January on a Monday. But although I’m definitely nerdy enough, time presses.

I am, of course, delighted to see that even well over a hundred years ago, they were still doing Aladdin – this year’s panto – which gives it all a wonderful symmetry, though despite the fact that we’re promised some pretty fab special effects over the coming weeks, I’m willing to bet that there won’t be any scenes containing ‘an entirely fresh series of animated subjects’ on the amazing EraScope (about which I can find nothing other than it might have been invented by a chap named Lacey, presumably a rival of Greenwich’s own Incredible Noakesoscope ).

But the entry that really caught my eye was the finale – the fabulously-titled Sorrows of Satan. What on earth could it be about, I wondered. Of course my images of Lucifer wracked in existential guilt were way off mark. This was the naughty nineties, not the angst-ridden twenty-first century.

It was actually a dramatisation of the novel by the Dan Brown of her day, Maria Corelli. Corelli, apparently, despite being snubbed by critics across the land, outsold H.G.Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling whenever she released her latest blockbuster. I somehow suspect none of the three chaps would be troubled by the relative sales figures today.

She sounds brilliant though. I mean – who couldn’t love a woman who was born into poverty (as the slightly more prosaic Mary Mackay)  but, when her novels sold by the shedload, spent the cash on a real Venetian gondola and attendant gondolier to punt her up and down the river Avon – and on campaigns trying to save the 17th Century buildings in Stratford? My kind of woman…

She wrote the smash-hit Sorrows of Satan in 1895 and, far short of the devil himself being upset, it’s a straight-ahead faustian-pact of a story.

The critics hated it but it had its admirers – not least of whom was Oscar Wilde (though he may have felt a kindred spirit in Corelli who was openly living with a woman at the time) and it was one of the first bestsellers (some churls reckon that was due to a change in the way libraries logged and bought books).

Basically, a penniless author called Geoffrey Tempest one day receives three letters. One is from a friend in Australia, inviting him to join him and start a new life, one telling him a relative has died and left him a fortune, and one a letter of introduction from mysterious fellow called Lucio…

I don’t really need to go into much more of the plot. I’m sure you can work it out. But it was a sure-solid hit with the public and it was not only made into a play but, in the 1920s, a film – by D W Griffith.

The only other thing worth mentioning about the story, BTW, is that the name Mavis was invented for the novel and was, I suspect, rather more glamorous at the time.

I have no idea what would have gone on in the theatrical version, but I’m guessing lots of saucy scenes of wretched excess followed by some lurid punishment (looks like there might have been a particularly juicy shipwreck scene) ending with a moralistic coda – but who can tell. It was bottom of the bill at Greenwich, which makes me think that it’s later rather than earlier – that it had probably already done the rounds once or twice. Maybe that can help date the bill itself.

More fun from The Greenwich Theatre Book another day…


Okay – so the Monday 5th-thing was like red rag to a bull for The Phantom Webmaster P.I..

TPW writes:

1895: 5th Jan was a Saturday
1896: 5th Jan was a Sunday
1897: 5th Jan was a Tuesday
1898: 5th Jan was a Wednesday
1899: 5th Jan was a Thursday
1900: 5th Jan was a Friday
1901: 5th Jan was a Saturday (1900 not being a leap year)
1902: 5th Jan was a Sunday
1903: 5th Jan was a Monday

So – given that 1903 is the first year since The Sorrows of Satan was written, and that it wasn’t longe before Barnard’s Palace turned into the Hippodrome, I’m guessing that’s the year this bill’s from…

Another case closed for The Phantom Webmaster…

Mander & Mitchenson

Thursday, August 13th, 2009

Sounds like an old Music Hall act, doesn’t it. And you wouldn’t be far off at that.

Raymond Mander and Joe Mitchenson were a pair of young actors who, when they met in the London Docklands Settlement in the late 1930s, knew they were soulmates. Passionate about theatre, they bonded both professionally and personally, and between them amassed a huge collection of theatrical memorabilia – from programmes and scripts to costumes and props.

It was useful for them that they counted among their friends some of the great luvvies of their day – Dame Sybil Thorndyke, Noel Coward and Sir John Gielgud just some of the luminaries that gave them stuff for posterity.

They kept it all in their place in Sydenham. My imagination sees Number 5, Venner Road as a delightfully bohemian jumble of the banal and the beautiful, the worthless and the priceless, all muddled together with a louche, Kenneth Williams-esque post-war Britishness.

It all became scarily full, and a compulsory-order purchase on the house by Lewisham Council in the 1970s provided the catalyst to turn the collection, which by now included books and papers by Mander & Mitchenson themselves, into something a bit more official.

A trust was formed, headed by Lord Olivier, and the collection moved to Beckenham Place Park for 15 years – until Lewisham Council decided to sell the grade II listed building…

After a brief stint at the Sally Army headquarters, the Mander & Mitchenson Collection was given a grant by the Jerwood Foundation and is now yet another of Greenwich’s ‘secret museums’ about which no one seems to know. In case you’re wondering, it’s in the Jerwood Library at Trinity College.

It’s not really a ‘public’ museum, but it can be visited, generally if you’re a researcher – you have to arrange to go – details here.

There’s an online catalogue – which is where I found out about the museum in the first place, (trying to google historic son et lumieres, as one does…) But the more I find out about Greenwich’s ‘secret’ museums, the more I realise that there are quite a few of them. I daresay there are collections yet to be discovered…