May 2016: In this month’s Theatres Magazine by the Theatres Trust, Tim Foster reviews ‘Variety at Night is Good for You’ by J.O. Blake:
This hefty volume is predominantly the work of Nicholas Charlesworth, although it is based on the recollections of the late J.O. Blake, is edited by the late David Cheshire and has a foreword by John Earl. It represents a remarkable repository of drawings and oral history of London’s Victorian and Edwardian theatres and is captured in the nick of time, before the generation that still remembers them is lost.
The book is a gazetteer of 92 London theatres, each illustrated with the line drawings of Nicholas Charlesworth, and documented with a brief history recording their owners, architects, artists who played there and their changing fortunes, which in the majority of cases ends badly in demolition or destruction. It does include some survivors, mostly in the West End, but what is most striking is the sheer quantity of theatres built in London around the turn of the 19th and early 20th century. It is hardly surprising that so many have disappeared as a result of the combined onslaught of the movies, the blitz and the post war reconstruction of the capital.
While many were built as variety theatres, including such venerable old ladies as the Coliseum, to our eyes today they are simply theatres, which could equally well be used for plays or musical theatre. In most cases they had large seating capacities and good-sized stages. I was amazed to discover that Sir Oswald Stoll, who built and ran the Coliseum, put on a mixture of variety and plays. You would be hard pressed to find an actor today who could fill that great space without amplification!
Clearly during this short period theatre was a boom industry and there was serious money to be made, judging by the sheer volume of buildings put up. For example, in a small area of north London there were three theatres in Hoxton, three in Shoreditch and four in nearby Islington! Even the south London suburb of Penge had a 1,500 seat Empire, designed by none other than the distinguished W.G.R. Sprague, where Val Parnell threatened to send Flanagan & Allen if they did not behave. The equivalent of an entertainment Siberia.
This book is self-published and perhaps lacks the finesse of a professional publication but is still an invaluable historical record, which reminds us of how many great theatres we have lost. We should be very grateful for the dedication of those who have produced it and every lover of old theatres should have one.