Third time lucky at the theatre

DURING JULY AND early August (2022), we visited theatres three times. First was a performance of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” at the Shakespeare Globe Theatre by the Thames near Southwark Bridge. The seats were far from comfortable, and the production was not among the best I have seen. Next, we watched a play (in comfortable seats) at the Young Vic in Waterloo. Neither the play, “Chasing Hares”, nor the acting was up to the usual high standard that we have enjoyed in the past at that theatre. After these two disappointments, it was with some trepidation that we made our way to the Bridge Theatre, which is next to Tower Bridge and faces the Tower of London across the Thames.

At the Bridge Theatre

The Bridge Theatre, housed in a 21st century building, was opened in October 2017. It was developed by Nick Starr and Nicholas Hytner, who is both a theatre and film director. His productions at the National Theatre, where he was artistic director for several years, were wonderful. With comfortable seats and good sightlines from every seat (even those designated as ‘restricted view’), the Bridge is an excellently designed theatre. Not only are its stage and auditorium optimal, but also is the spacious foyer, from which there are good views across the Thames towards the Tower and the new skyscrapers in the City of London.

The play we saw at the Bridge on the 4th of August was “The Southbury Child” by Alex Jennings. Filled with humour, this work raises several serious questions. One of them is whether the Church of England should be authoritarian or whether it should be a democratic organisation responsive to the needs and wishes of its congregation. To avoid giving away its excellent plot, all I will say is that the play is highly enjoyable.

We have now seen 5 plays at the Bridge and not one of them was disappointing. In fact, they were all above average in quality. So maybe it was not a case of ‘third time lucky’ when after two poor performances elsewhere recently, we went to the Bridge.

Preventing burning in Burnham

MUSEUMS OFTEN CONTAIN interesting surprises for visitors. The small museum in Burnham on Crouch (in Essex) is no exception. It amused me to see that amongst the exhibits there were several early examples of so-called pocket calculators – too large to fit most pockets. I was given one of these (made by Casio) in about 1974, and at the time this was a wonderful gift as well as being a useful tool. I was able to replace my slide-rule with my Casio. These calculators, along with other things that were regarded as being ‘the latest thing’ in the 1960’s and ‘70s, were not what surprised me most at the museum. Hanging on the wall of one side of a staircase, there was a huge piece of cloth with advertisements printed on it. It is part of the fire safety curtain that was used in the local cinema, The Rio (see: https://adam-yamey-writes.com/2021/11/13/a-small-cinematic-survivor/) , in the 1930s.

Fire curtains are usually made of metal or heavy materials containing asbestos (or some other fire retardant). They are designed to be lowered (often automatically) should a fire break out on the stage of a theatre or cinema in order to prevent the fire spreading to the auditorium. In 1613, a cannon misfired on the stage of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, causing the thatch on the building’s roof to catch fire; the theatre was destroyed. There were no fire curtains in those days.

The first fire curtain (it was made of iron) to be installed in the UK was in 1794 at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in London. A large fire at the Theatre Royal in Exeter in 1887 led to the wider use fire curtains in British theatres, and later in cinemas. However, these safety devices were not infallible. A fire that began on the stage of the Iroquois Theatre in Chicago (USA) led to the deaths of about 575 people when the fire safety curtain snagged and could not be fully lowered. This led to the invention of an improved automatic fire curtain by John Clancy a year later in 1904.

Fire curtains, which must be lowered at least once during every performance in the UK can be plain or decorated. Plain fire curtains, when lowered, can serve as screens on to which advertisements are projected. The example at the museum in Burnham has advertisements printed or painted on it. Local businesses paid the cinema to have their adverts printed on the curtain that hung in the Rio during the 1930s.  The Treasurer of the museum explained that of the many Burnham firms, who placed adverts on the fire curtain, only one of them is still in business. Thus, the old fire curtain (or at least the half of it that is in the museum) not only protected Burnham’s cinemagoers from burning but also serves as a valuable record of the town as it was almost 100 years ago.

Burgers on the Strand

THE BYRON RESTAURANT chain, which specialises in serving burgers, has a branch next to the Adelphi Theatre on London’s Strand. I have not eaten there but I did peer through its street door. What I saw is quite amazing. The ground floor dining room’s walls have giant mirrors separated by marble pilasters. The ceiling beams look like marble , although it is unlikely that they are made of that material. The grand dining room has a decadent fin-de-siècle appearance, providing your eyes are averted from the banquettes upholstered with red leather, or perhaps plastic, which are quite appropriate for a burger joint.

The large façade of the restaurant has pink granite pillars on both sides. On one of these, there is a commemorative plaque that reads:

“Site of the Adelphi Theatre Restaurant owned by the Swiss-Italian Gatti family, restaurateurs, music hall, theatre and electricity supply entrepreneurs. Sir John Gatti served as Lord Mayor of Westminster, 1911-12.”

The Adelphi Theatre is still in business, but its neighbour, the Adelphi Theatre Restaurant, is now the Byron outlet.  Carlo Agostino Gatti (1841-1897) and his brother Stefano Gatti (1844-1906), father of Sir John, ran the Adelphi Theatre, the Adelphi Theatre Restaurant and the Vaudeville Theatre all in the Strand (www.londonremembers.com/subjects/gatti-family). Carlo and Stefano came from Ticino Canton in Switzerland. Another Gatti, Gaspare Antonio Pietro Gatti, known as ‘Luigi’, came to London from Montalto Pavese in Italy, where he was born in 1875. He is supposed to have managed the restaurant at The Ritz Hotel, as well its concessions on two ships, one of which was the ill-fated Titanic. Whether Luigi was related to the brothers is uncertain.

What is also uncertain in my mind is whether the dining room that now serves as home to Byron and its burgers is the original that existed when the Gatti family owned the restaurant or whether it is from a later era. The upper storeys of the building were recently converted into luxury flats, whose interiors can be viewed on websites such as https://www.businessinsider.com/pictures-london-gatti-house-millionaire-flats-on-the-strand-with-pizza-lift-2015-10?r=US&IR=T .

So, next time you are wandering along the Strand, take a peek into Byron’s and, maybe, if you are feeling peckish …

A pottery and a prison

HAMPSTEAD IN NORTH London is full of interesting nooks and crannies.

At the west end of Well Walk in Hampstead, near the lower end of Flask Walk, there is a corner building with a Georgian shop front. It is now a small theatre but was once the Well Walk Pottery, which occupied this place for many years. The pottery was started by the potter Christopher Magarshack in 1959. According to Bohm and Norrie, writing in their “Hampstead: London Hill Town”, published in 1980, Elsie, the widow of the Russian Jewish translator and writer David Magarshack (1899-1977), lived there. She bought this corner building, which had formerly been Sidney Spall’s grocery shop in 1957, for Christopher to use as his pottery. His father, David, left his birthplace Riga, then in Russia in 1918 and later lived above the shop. Elsie died in 1999, aged 100. In addition to selling pottery there, the pottery also held classes for ceramicists, some of whom now have good reputations. David’s daughter Stella, a fine artist, was the Head Art Teacher at King Alfred’s, a ‘progressive’ school situated between Hampstead and Golders Green. In 2016, aged 87, she was brutally attacked in the street close to her home. Now, the premises is to be home to a theatrical enterprise, The Wells Theatre. Its present owners have decorated one of its windows has been  decorated with a pictorial history of the premises.

Before returning uphill along Flask Walk towards the pub, you will pass a pair of doors covered in metal studs arranged neatly in geometric patterns. According to an article in the January 2018 issue of “Heath and Hampstead Society Newsletter”, this pair of studded doors:

“…is supposed to have come from Newgate Prison,”

The prison closed in 1902.

Leopoldstadt by Tom Stoppard

Wyndhams Theatre, London

I HAVE WATCHED AND GREATLY enjoyed many plays by Tom Stoppard. So, it was with high expectations and great excitement that I booked good tickets for his latest play, “Leopoldstadt”, which is about a tragic period during Austria’s history, a time that interests me greatly. The play follows the history of a Jewish family living in Vienna between the late 19th century and about 1955. Like many Jewish families living in Germany and Austria, they were determined to appear increaslingly less Jewish and ever more like their gentile neighbours, a process known as ‘assimilation’. As Amos Elon demonstrates in his wonderful book, “The Pity of it All”, the more assimilated the Jewish people became, the less they were tolerated by their mostly anti-Semitic neighbours. Stoppard’s play attempts to portray this sad state of affairs in “Leopoldstadt”. His play was more like a history lesson than a compelling work of drama.

“Leopoldstadt” was being performed in London’s magnificent Wyndhams Theatre. Frankly, although there were a few wonderful scenes in the play, I was mostly disappointed. Although it was clearly a heartfelt and moving exploration of part of his family’s history, Stoppard has written far better and subtler plays in the past.

Unveiled at last

THE CORONET CINEMA in London’s Notting Hill Gate was renamed The Print Room a few years ago. Once a cinema, it is now a theatre. Like other theatres, it was closed for a long time during 2020 and early 2021 because of the covid19 lockdowns. During this prolonged period of closures, a statue was placed upon the dome that stands above the theatre’s main entrance. In my book “Walking West London” (freely available as a pdf file from https://adamyamey.co.uk/walking-west-london/), I wrote about the Coronet/Print Room as follows:

“… the former ‘Coronet Cinema’. This was designed as a theatre by WGR Sprague (1863-1933) who designed many of London’s theatres. It opened in 1908. By 1923, the Coronet had become a cinema, and remained so for many years. Apart from the screen, the fittings inside the auditorium were those of an unmodernised Edwardian theatre. Until smoking was banned in all public places, the Coronet was one of the last cinemas in London which permitted smoking (but only in the balcony seating). Between 2004 and 2014, the Coronet doubled up as both a branch of the Kensington Temple Church and, also, as a cinema. And, in 2015 the Coronet reverted to being used as a theatre, now called ‘The Print Room’. This sensitively restored theatre puts on interesting plays, which are well-produced. The bar, which is located beneath the stage in what was once the stalls area of the cinema, is worth visiting to see its ever changing, tastefully quirky décor. In 2020, the theatre was redecorated and a statue by the British sculptor Gavin Turk (born 1967) has been placed upon the dome above the building’s main entrance. The new artwork replaces one that was removed many decades ago.”

When I wrote this, the sculpture was enshrouded in a tarpaulin. Only recently, the covering has been removed and the sculpture can be seen in all its glory. The artwork depicts the artist Gavin Turk posing as the famous artist Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) just as he appears his sculptural in the Annenberg Courtyard of Burlington House in the grounds of the Royal Academy. When seen from the east, the new sculpture looks like a painter holding a palette and his brush. However, when seen from the west, the viewer might be led to believe that the statue is of a man holding a gun. I feel that the sculpture is a great addition to the landscape of Notting Hill Gate, but a bit too high above ground level to be able to see it easily with the unaided eye.

Back to the theatre

BACK TO THE NATIONAL THEATRE

THE DORFMAN IS one of the three auditoria that make up the National Theatre complex on London’s South Bank. The Dorfman, which opened in 2014, is a completely redesigned version of The Cottesloe that used to stand in the same place. On our first ever visit to The Dorfman, today, the 6th of October 2021, we noted that it was a great improvement over its predecessor: better seating and sight lines than at the former Cottesloe.

Stage at the Dorfman

The play that we watched, “Rockets and Blue Lights” by Winsome Pinnock (born 1961), was inspired by a painting by JMW Turner. Originally named “Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhon coming on”, it is now named “The Slave Ship”. Painted in 1840, it now hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, USA. Close examination of this wonderful painting reveals the wild sea near a sailing ship is full of hands reaching out from the waves, the hands of Africans sinking after being tossed overboard. Turner, a sympathiser of slave trade abolitionists, might have painted this in response to the tragic story of British slave ship “Zong” on which about 130 enslaved Africans were killed in 1781 when drinking water supplies on-board ran low.

The play explores the possible back stories of those tossed overboard from the ship depicted in Turner’s painting. The drama alternates between the present and the dark past when slavery was still flourishing in the Americas. At first a little confusing, it does not take long before the constant changes in period begin to make sense. The scenes set in the present relate to the making of a film about Turner and those set in the past try to recreate the story that led to the disaster painted by Turner. The ideas behind this play are not without great interest but at times I felt that a bit of editing (i.e., abbreviating) would have made the drama punchier. Understandably, the playwright wanted to make the horrors and inhumanities of slavery abundantly clear to the audience, which she did very well. I am glad to have seen this play, but do not rate it amongst the best I have seen during many decades of watching drama on the stages of the National Theatre.

Our visit to the Dorfman was the first to the National Theatre since the day before the first covid 19 ‘lockdown’ commenced in March 2020. On that day before everything closed down for months, we sat for seven hours in the National Theatre’s Littleton auditorium to watch a truly excellent play, “The Seven Streams of the River Ota” by Robert Lepage, the National Theatre at its very best. Even though the play we have just seen at The Dorfman was not nearly as good as the play by Lepage, it was lovely to return to the National Theatre. That said, the South Bank felt eerily underpopulated compared to before the pandemic, probably because of the paucity of tourists from abroad. Walking in the sunshine along what used to be a crowded, joyful recreation area, I wondered whether we will ever experience the ‘normal’ we enjoyed before covid19 changed the world.

Drama in the Peak District

WE DROVE TO BUXTON from Macclesfield, crossing part of the Peak District, which was shrouded in dense morning mist despite it being mid-September. The town, once an important spa, is delightful. Its centre is rich in Victorian buildings, as well as some 18th century edifices, such as The Crescent, now a hotel. In appearance, the Crescent, which was built for the 5th Duke of Devonshire between 1780 and 1789, rivals the fine crescents found in Bath. Another notable structure in Buxton is The Dome, now a part of the University of Derby. This huge dome was built to cover a stable block for the horses of the 5th Duke, which was constructed between 1780 and 1789 to the design of John Carr (1723-1807). The dome itself, which is 145 feet in diameter and larger than those covering Rome’s Pantheon and St Peters, was added between 1880 and 1881, by which time the building it covered was being used as a hospital. It is the second largest unsupported dome in the world.

In common with great cities such as Vienna, Milan, Paris, Manaus, London, New York, and Sydney, tiny Buxton also can boast of having an opera house. Located next to a complex of Victorian glass and iron structures including a plant conservatory and the Pavilion with its attached octagonal hall, the Opera House was designed by the prolific theatre architect Frank Matcham (1854-1920) and first opened its doors to an audience in 1903. Live theatrical performances, not confined to opera, were held there regularly until 1927, when it became a cinema. Between 1936 and 1942, the Opera House, although then primarily a cinema, hosted annual summer theatre festivals, two of which were in collaboration with Lillian Baylis (1874-1937) and London’s Old Vic Theatre company (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buxton_Opera_House). In 1979, the theatre was restored, and an orchestra pit added. Since then, the Opera House puts on a programme of live performances, which include a little bit of opera.  Unfortunately, during our visit to Buxton, the auditorium was closed, but we did manage to enter the lovely foyer with its mosaic-bordered floor and its ceiling painted with a scene evoking the style of 17th and 18th century painters.

The Opera House, the Crescent and the Pump Room opposite it, and The Dome, all add to the charm of Buxton. They are all close to a lovely park, through which the River Wye (not to be confused with the river with the same name in Wales) runs through. Buxton’s Wye flows into the North Sea via the River Humber. High above the park, runs the High Street, where we stumbled across a fabulous bookshop, Scrivener’s, which boasts five floors packed with books, many of them second-hand or antiquarian. So, if it is literature (fiction and non-fiction) rather than drama that appeals to you, this shop is a place that must be visited. 

It was well worth winding our way across the hills to Buxton through the low clouds, which made visibility very poor. The town is filled with interesting things to see, some of which I have described above. However, it was the Opera House that intrigued me most. Had it been given a name other than Opera House it might not have fascinated me quite as much. That a town or city can boast an opera house, gives the place a certain ‘caché’ that places, which do not possess one, lack.

Take me to the Tivoli

WIMBORNE IS A CHARMING small town in Dorset, a little north of Poole and Bournemouth. Famed for its Minster church with its mediaeval chained library, the place is rich in old buildings. One of these, looking less old than many of its neighbours, houses the Tivoli Theatre. It attracted my attention because of its (heavily restored) art deco features.

Housed in what was originally the 18th century Borough House, the theatre-cum-cinema was created in 1936 to the designs of Edward de Wilde-Holding, a prolific architect. The cinema was closed in 1980 and was threatened with demolition for a road scheme, which fortunately was abandoned. It was restored by a group called ‘Voluntary Friends of the Tivoli’ and reopened in 1993. In addition to showing films, the theatre is used for live events on its stage.

The Tivoli was not the only art deco cinema we spotted on our recent trip to the area around Winchester. 28 miles northeast of Wimborne, there is another one, The Plaza in Romsey, which was built in 1931 as a cinema but is now used as a theatre. Unlike the Tivoli in Wimborne, which occupies an old building, the Plaza in Romsey was purpose-built as a cinema.