“THE PRE-WORLD WAR II YEARS”
Today I have read the most amazing book, ‘Great Moments in the Theatre’ written by the famous theatrical critic Benedict Nightingale. The detail, research and history from 458 BC through to 2009 that he has put into this wonderful book makes it a fantastic history of Great Moments in the Theatre.
Well, it started me thinking and, in my own very small way, of remembering moments that, whether they were great or funny, terrible or otherwise, I recall and have seen in the Theatre.
The Alexandra Theatre, Stoke Newington, London
As you may have read elsewhere in my blog, my theatre experience began at a very early age, when my mother used to take me to the Alexandra Theatre in Stoke Newington, London. N.16. It had opened on the 27 December 1897 and this was around 1937.
Every Thursday, direct from school, she would collect me and we would either go to the cinema or the theatre. If it was the theatre, we would go home first so I could have my tea and wash and brush up. The cinema was a different matter and she would bring sandwiches and fruit, a flask of tea and a wet flannel for my hands, and we would picnic in the cinema whilst the film was on. Remember, they had double features in those days and sometimes also variety acts, so it could be a good three hours, and we enjoyed every moment of it. She would also bring a torch so I could see that the bananas didn’t have any bruises on them. I wouldn’t eat a banana if there was a blemish on it. Talk about being bloody difficult! I must have been a real right pain in the arse! But she loved me. I was her only child.
Well, to get back to the point, The Alexandra Theatre was the first theatre that I really got to know and certain moments have stayed with me over the years. I must have seen quite a few plays there because they usually had a repertory season there quite frequently, but the one play that stays in my mind is “Private Lives” by Noel Coward. The balcony scene in particular will stay in my mind forever. I have no idea who the actors were, they must have been part of a repertory company who were changing plays every week, but that wonderful scene with the music ‘Someday I’ll Find You’ playing in the background somehow became magic. Yes, the music, the mood, the comedy, it was magical! This wonderful comedy has continued to play continuously over the years. The latest I think stars that wonderfully talented Kim Cattrall and Paul Cross.
The balcony scene in particular will stay in my mind forever
Sometimes they had plays that were for “Adults Only.” That was a no, no for me as I was underage, so then it would be off to the cinema for a week or two. At Christmas time at the Alexandra Theatre there was always a pantomime, but I don’t really remember them very much.
Going from the sublime to the ridiculous, from a magical moment to an awful moment, I saw Mr. Tod Slaughter, the last of the Actor Theatre Managers. He was known as the “Barnstormer’s Barnstormer”. He must have invented the word ‘camp,’ with all his eye rolling, hand wringing, his evil gleeful looks and raised eyebrows, giggling maniacally and grunting and groaning, which he did continuously. He was so bad and for all the wrong reasons, but the audiences loved him and joined in with the booing and hissing. There was no one like him! He was bursting with ‘over the top’ melodrama!.
Mr. Tod Slaughter drawing you into his web
He was known for his “Maria Martin or Murder in the Red Barn” and “Sweeney Tod the Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” but this time at the Alexandra Theatre he was appearing in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” played in the manner of a Victorian Stage Play. Truthfully, he really was at the very end of his career and it really is unfair to criticize, but the whole production was very, very tatty. The backcloths shook every time somebody walked behind them backstage and everything that was onstage was on its last legs or falling apart. When, as Dr. Jekyll, he took the chemical potion that changed him, he would drop behind a settee that was centre stage and gurgle and scream and finally arise looking no different at all except his hair was all standing up as if he’d put his hand in a light plug. All the time there were titters and giggles from the small audience that was there. It was just impossible to keep a straight face. He thundered around the stage shouting and killing the cast left right and centre. In one street scene, Mr. Hyde is accosted by a street walker played by his wife, a very old Jenny Lynn who looked like she was the oldest prostitute in the business. Her line was, “Hello duckie, fancy a little bit of fun?” That brought the house down. I think someone in the audience yelled out, “Not with you luv! You must be joking?” The laughter seemed to go on forever. Mr.Tod Slaughter was not amused.
The sets were not like in the shot above and neither was the “young” lady. The show I saw was tatty and falling apart, but it was unintentionally very funny.
Sometime there would be variety shows, but the only acts I remember were the magic ones, and those I don’t recall too clearly. The magic bug hadn’t really got hold of me at that time.
During the war years the Alexandra Theatre opened and closed spasmodically, according to how bad the Air Raids were, They would open with either repertory theatre or variety shows.
In October 1950, it closed its doors for the final time and after lying derelict and unused for many years was demolished in 1960. A tower block of council flats named Alexandra Court was built on the site.
P.S. I made my first professional appearance as an actor at the Alexandra Theatre in the late 40s in a play called “Street Scene” by Elmer Rice. ‘I was terrible!’ “What goes around comes around!” Tod Slaughter must have laughed himself hoarse!
(To be continued.)