Rogues & Vagabonds

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Archive Lecture • FINGS AIN’T WHAT THEY USED T’BE • Theatre Royal Stratford East • 2003

Joan Littlewood

Joan Littlewood

Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’ Be. They certainly aren’t at the Theatre Royal Stratford East! This theatre will be 120 years old next year [2004] and a retrospective of its history and the story of its recent redevelopment, together with an opportunity to tour the reopened building, was the form of this year’s Pat Forster Memorial Lecture. This was presented last Saturday by the Save London’s Theatres Campaign with Theatre Royal artistic director Philip Hedley, architect Axel Burrough and actor Murray Melvin all contributing.

The Pat Forster Memorial Lecture commemorates the first Secretary of the Save London’s Theatres Campaign who was its mainspring during its early years. Sheila Collings, the present Secretary, opened the proceedings by paying tribute not only to Pat Forster but to Joan Littlewood, the legendary director and founder of Theatre Workshop who made this theatre famous. But first she recalled her own association with the Theatre Royal. Sheila was born in a hospital just up the road and remembers the theatre as her local flea pit, then reduced to a number three touring date. She recalled seeing C. Denier Warren in It’s a Boy and a terrible production of Pick-Up Girl but also Freda Jackson as Anna Christie. She somehow missed Littlewood’s company’s first shows and another Anna Christie was the first Theatre Workshop production that she saw. It was ‘electrifying’ but played to only a handful of people. Joan came out afterwards and asked if people would like to come up and look backstage. Young Sheila was not very impressed with the dressing-rooms: to save spending money on digs half the company were sleeping in them, with a secret code arranged to give time to hide beds away if a fire inspector turned up.

When Joan began an evening drama school, Sheila joined at ten bob a week: movement Mondays, production class Thursdays and voice on Fridays; then Tuesdays and Wednesdays were added to rehearse a student production and after Joan saw how dreadful they were in a movement class she offered an extra one on Saturday afternoons! Much to the annoyance of Equity rep Howard Goorney, when the main company took The Good Soldier Schwejk to the Embassy at Swiss Cottage, Joan used some 2nd year students in an adaptation of Dickens’ The Chimes put on with a scratch company that included Michael Caine in the juvenile lead playing opposite Thelma Barlow and Sheila walking-on. Needing a reference from Joan to clinch a job offer, she burst in on a slanging match about Equity contracts between the director, her partner Gerry Raffles and Howard Goorney. Joan’s jaw dropped when Sheila was offered the Equity minimum of £4.10s. a week. ‘You’re a very lucky girl,’ she said — Workshop actors were on profit shares and that would have been wealth to them!

Pat Forster had been an actress with Unity Theatre but Sheila met her when both were temporary typists. Like Joan, she was an old school socialist who didn’t mind rolling up her sleeves and had a passionate love of theatre but looked very different: very neatly dressed and a very ‘churchy’ lady. She supported all the ‘right’ causes with badges for Save London’s Theatres, Support the Miners, Americans Out of …. wherever they were in. Despite increasing pain from arthritis, she gave her life to the SLT campaign. She was the salt of the earth and anyone who knew her never forgot her.

In introducing Philip Hedley, Artistic Director of the Theatre Royal, Sheila declared that he had made this theatre what Joan had wanted it to be: a people’s theatre with an audience from every ethnic background and of every age. ‘This place is alive, there is a tingle when you walk through the door,’ she said.

Hedley, now into his 25th year at Stratford, began by paying tribute to his immediate predecessor, the recently deceased Clare Venables, before introducing architect Axel Burrough and actor Murray Melvin who had his first big successes here in The Hostage, A Taste of Honey and other Theatre Workshop shows, and for the past 13 years has been closely associated with the theatre and its history as its voluntary archivist. Between them, director, architect and actor then traced the development of the building from 1884 up to the present day.

Erected in only three months between submitting the application to build and the opening of Richelieu, the first production, the theatre cost £3,600. Architect J.G. Buckle saved time and money by utilising the front wall of the factory that was on the site and punching holes in it. In those days there was a dairy farm next door and agricultural land beyond but also the biggest railway goods yard in Europe, workers from which probably provided much of the audience for whom the most popular playwrights until the end of the century were Shakespeare and Boucicault: a visiting company would present 8 different Shakespeares in a week with about 12 from the canon appearing regularly. Strangely, Shakespeare then disappeared from the bills until Workshop put on Twelfth Night in the 1950s.

Buckle added dressing rooms in 1887 (previously actors changed under the stage) and an extension in 1891. In 1902 Frank Matcham inserted boxes at circle and gallery levels — a stalls box being added by Burrough when he found a reference to three boxes being originally planned. Matcham inserted pit and stalls instead of just a standing pit. Closed less than a month to complete the alterations, it opened to reviews that described it as ‘the cosiest theatre in the United Kingdom.’ This theatre housed 1000 (capacity now is 450) and with a full house bringing in only £60, prices must have been low. The 1902 review referred to tiles below the dado rail in the stalls and when some seats and flooring had to be taken up in 1993, yellow and blue tiles with an Adam-like shell design were found; that design has been incorporated in the stencilling of the new decorations.

In Workshop days it was impossible to cross backstage except beneath or via the gallery but in more recent years the stage has been extended backwards into former shop premises and there have been various changes to the bar, extending onto the site of a shop which sold industrial clothing. Now, there is a larger and more comfortable bar and foyer and entirely new dressing rooms and the stage depth from proscenium to back wall is greater than that to the back of the auditorium, with extended wing space stage right. However, there is still almost none stage left. Consideration was given to removing a brick buttress that limits width stage right and to raising the beam which marks the old back wall position but when designers were consulted on redevelopment, seven out of eight wanted to keep them as they were. As the late designer John Bury (one of Theatre Workshops earliest members) told Hedley, ‘Philip. The joy of working at that theatre is its problems. Keep them. We have enough metal boxes that don’t inspire us.’

The stage and its new extension preserve the rake and it allows for piercings for traps. The orchestra pit has also been enlarged, although basement flooding problems from an underground river still exist. The theatre remains a hemp house, scenery flying out on ropes. Again designers rebelled against the idea of a powered system because it would interfere with opening up the stage, but the house tabs have been powered (Murray remembers rushing round to lower them at the end of Act One in A Taste of Honey because there was no-one else to do it) and it would be possible to install counterweights if required and funds were available. Hedley regrets the loss of some stone steps leading from stage to green room, but in compensation, there are new entrances further up and a high opening from the green room if required. Sadly, a bridge planned between the theatre and the Stratford Circus building next door, which would have formed part of a large rehearsal room, had to be abandoned when the budget had to be trimmed. What they are left with means pantos and other big shows will have to be rehearsed elsewhere making it harder to develop an integrated company.

The auditorium is essentially Buckle’s original design, apart from more comfortable seating, and is his only theatre still standing. The architects have aimed to avoid over-restoration and to retain the patina of age. It is decidedly a red and gold house, its wooden surfaces making for an excellent acoustic. It was probably the last example built of a pre-cantilever auditorium: fire regulations soon came in which would not have allowed the elegant pillars that support its tiers. The ceiling decoration has been simplified: initially English Heritage objected but gave way when they discovered that much of it was polystyrene stapled to the surface! And the theatre still boasts its glittering chandelier. Not original for this one was bought by Bronson Albery for Wyndham’s and languished, still packed in its box, for years until his son, Sir Donald, was presenting a Workshop production and offered it on loan to Littlewood. Later, when they fell out for a time, he asked for it back. ‘You come and get it,’ she said — and it is still there today.

Before Hedley and Melvin led tours all around the building, enabling old supporters and past Workshop members such as Frances Cuka, and those who’ve come to know this beautiful theatre more recently, to see all the new improvements. Murray Melvin took the opportunity to remind us of another important figure in its history: ‘Gerry Raffles, who saved this theatre personally when Newham would have knocked it down!’

Howard Loxton © November 2003

Originally published on R&V 08-11-03


2 comments on “Archive Lecture • FINGS AIN’T WHAT THEY USED T’BE • Theatre Royal Stratford East • 2003

  1. beetleypete

    Nice to read about that wonderful theatre project in London. Also mention of Murray Melvin, one of the actors that I grew up watching.
    Best wishes, Pete. x

    Liked by 1 person

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