Watch Now: The Young Vic’s A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE

Gillian Anderson (All About EveThe X-FilesThe FallSex Education) plays Blanche DuBois with Ben Foster (Lone SurvivorKill Your Darlings) as Stanley and Vanessa Kirby (JulieThe CrownMission Impossible) as Stella.

As Blanche’s fragile world crumbles, she turns to her sister Stella for solace – but her downward spiral brings her face to face with the brutal, unforgiving Stanley Kowalski. 

This critically acclaimed production was filmed live on stage at the Young Vic in 2014 by National Theatre Live. 

The show is available until Thursday 28th May at 7pm

GUIDANCE: BBFC rating 15 when released in cinema. Contains scenes featuring sexual violence and domestic abuse.

Although this production is free to watch, please strongly consider making a donation to the National Theatre – or text NTATHOME 10 to 70085 to donate £10 – to enable it to keep its doors open after this crisis has passed.

To Watch STREETCAR, click here


J B Priestley’s LOST EMPIRES radio adaptation now playing

BBC Radio4 Extra is making available their dramatization of J.B. Priestley’s  wonderful book about music hall, LOST EMPIRES (first broadcast in 1994), in three one-hour episodes on Monday 18th May, Tuesday 19th May and Wednesday 20th May.

The play tells the story of Richard Herncastle who decides to join his Uncle Nick’s magic act on ‘the halls’ in 1913 just before World War One, and stars Tom Baker, Bryan Pringle, Richard Hollick, Brigit Forsyth and Deborah McAndrew.

The episodes will be available for a limited time afterwards – usually a month- either on the BBC Sounds app, which is free (but you do need to register), or directly below.

Find the programme link here

Please note that those living outside the UK may not be able to receive this service – but it’s worth a try!


Time to Remember: From Music Hall to Variety – a personal tribute

The Metropolitan Edgware Road, demolished 1963.

My love of Music Hall stems from childhood, when my father was given a beautiful three double-album set of vinyl records by a friend. The albums intrigued me – on the front were old photographs of a very ornate theatre façade (later I found it to be the Metropolitan Edgware Road, one of the most beloved of Music Halls and known as “The Met”). Inside the gatefold sleeves of these three albums were black and white photographs of unfamiliar (to me) faces, and for each of them one track was given as an example of their work. And on the back of the albums, beautiful images of the programmes for these halls, with exciting artwork of glamorous showgirls and lovely typography. What was not to like? At that age, knowing nothing of the hundred-year legacy of music hall and variety which had come before, I slipped one of the discs out and put it on the turntable, curious to find out what this all was.

Some of it had aged pretty badly, it seemed. Certainly to my ten-year old ears this was hard to understand, at first. And then I came across a chap called Horace Kenney, who I had never heard of before. His act was “A Music Hall Trial Turn”, based on an audition if you will, of someone not very good, played straight, and all the better for it. Then I could connect with it- this was someone pretending to be bad and doing it so skilfully that it made me squeak with laughter. The pitiful photo of Mr Kenney confirmed what a dead loss he was, and then the connections started forming – Les Dawson and his off-key piano playing, the song-mangling of Jonathan and Darlene Edwards (she mangled the vocals, he wrestled with the piano- and lost)- this was where it had all emanated from. As I played more and more of the discs, sometimes better-known names sprung out- Will Hay, for example – and although this was only audio, as most of these performances had been captured for release on 78rpm discs many years before – a flavour of the acts still came through.

The triple album set was obviously a labour of love – each album of the set was nicely titled Matinee, First House and Second House, reflecting the type of acts you might expect to see at each different performance. The British Music Hall Society contributed much to this set, and the sleeve notes were useful too. Released by World Records, a subscription arm of EMI (I believe), this set may not have been for general consumption, but to me it was something that fired up an interest in Music Hall that has lasted ever since.

Programme from the Alhambra, Leicester Square, demolished 1937 and replaced by the Odeon Leicester Square.

Researching more, the performers were fascinating – most burned bright and then disappeared into oblivion, others had long-standing and affectionately remembered catalogues. Even into the 1950s tours with titles such as “Music Hall Golden Memories” gathered together the remaining huge stars of earlier times such as GH Elliott and Hetty King, and more recently Max Miller – all of whom were touring the UK in a kind of “best of Music Hall”, to nostalgic receptions. But this was the time after Music Hall, when even its successor, Variety, was falling out of popular favour as the newer mediums of television and cinema took precedence; increasingly seen as belonging to the past, audiences simply fell out of the habit of “a night on the halls”.

Prompted by the Last Night of the Met, Edgware Road in April 1963 (which turned hundreds away and surviving variety stars vied to be on the bill) Gerald Glover and Ray Mackender set up the British Music Hall Society in 1963 as the last gasps of that era drifted away. The Society, which is now 57 years old, is organising the Music Hall and Variety Day on 16th May, what would have been long-standing Society President Roy Hudd’s birthday. Sadly, Roy died in March this year, so now the tribute includes Roy himself.

So thank you to all the amazing acts, writers, musicians who gave Music Hall its joie de vivre and Variety its spice. Sadly, we shall never see their like again. In the words of the great Max Miller, “there’ll never be another!”.


AFTERWORD The two photos above are of one of my favourite variety acts, Wilson, Keppel and Betty, and here is some film of them doing the sand dance from their most famous routine, “Cleopatra’s Nightmare”. Enjoy!


Time to Remember: From Music Hall to Variety – a brief history

In the early 1800s, UK theatre was in a bit of a state. Poor quality productions had alienated middle class audiences, and in general theatre’s reputation was on the decline. A turning point came with the Theatres Act of 1843, when the Lord Chamberlain announced a double-edged piece of legislation. Licenses to run theatres, previously highly-restricted, were now to be made available to anyone of “good character”. This sparked a boom in the building of places of entertainment.

However, there was a catch in that the sale of alcohol was forbidden in the auditoria of these places. But, in an interesting counterpoint, the same legislation also granted magistrates the power to issue licenses to public houses to provide a range of entertainment to their customers. Publicans rushed to build halls adjoining their pubs where drink and meals could be served at large tables while a series of musical acts performed on a simple stage against one of the walls. This was the beginning of music hall. As these venues developed, the large tables gradually moved back from the stage as more bench seats filled the front, to get more people in. Eventually the style and shape of these “rooms” evolved into rows of seating and curved balconies, with more and more opulent, purpose-built music halls appearing right across the land.

The people who sang the songs became stars, household names, fondly remembered; and the songs they sang were mostly one of these types – saucy, comic, sentimental or patriotic – and those who sang them were often associated with one particular song for many years, if not life..

Very gradually, more middle-class people frequented the music halls, in true British fashion- by class -with the middle-classes in the more expensive, plush (reserved) seats in the best parts of the house, and the cheaper seats reserved for the rear stalls Pit or the high Gallery.

Collins’s Music Hall, Islington Green, a long-standing favourite hall.

Around the beginning of the 20th century, music hall evolved into variety, and the buildings which housed them became known as variety theatres, in respect to the variety of types of acts that one could see on a bill. Buildings themselves had evolved too, with substantial bar areas outside the auditorium able to sell alcohol, a very important part of any venue’s income. To attract a wider range of clientele, alcohol had been banned from the auditorium itself and could now only be drunk before, after or during the interval of a show, instead of continuously (and inside the auditorium) as previously. In this way, the buildings became much more like traditional theatres in their management.

The evolution from music hall, where an unconnected string of acts, usually singers or comedians, performed, through to variety, which was a much more structured and balanced programme, including singers, comedians, acrobats, jugglers, contortionists, dancers, musicians, conjurers, mind-readers, impressionists, and the much missed speciality acts (or “spesh” acts as they were known) meant that audiences enjoyed the widest range of different types of act.

By the beginning of the 20th century, these halls had become very grand indeed, and the most famous circuit of them all was the Moss Empires. Formalising not only the bill construction but also timings meant that twice nightly variety ruled for the first half of the twentieth century, with shows at 6.15 and 8.30, or 6.30 and 8.45. A standard variety bill lasted a little under two hours including interval.

The fondly-remembered Finsbury Park Empire

In the aftermath of World War Two, bomb damage had closed a number of theatres of all types, including the variety houses. Most of these were lost to demolition, as due to the severe shortages of building materials persisting several years after the war, they could not be rebuilt. Changing audience tastes and the arrival of television in the early 1950s caused audiences to dwindle as the variety theatres struggled to keep going. Slowly the halls began to close, as others were converted to cinemas or bingo which helped to keep them going, but others simply closed and fell into disrepair, awaiting their date with the wrecker’s ball, as a forward-looking country viewed them with indifference as relics of the past.

Around this time, societies began to form which valued their architecture and contribution to the social fabric of our history, and with the advent of listing for entertainment buildings, some at least found the protection they needed to survive, revive and thrive again.

Although we shall never see their like again, some of the great variety theatres and music halls live on as miraculous survivors of another time of gaiety and song, which remind us, in the words of a famous music hall song, that “a little of what you fancy does you good”.

A full house raring to go at the Canterbury Music Hall, Westminster Bridge Road, SE1. (undated, uncredited photo)

Theatre news – buildings in the spotlight

Palace Theatre, London, Stage Door
London Coliseum, architect Frank Matcham.

I’d guess that we’re all missing visits to our favourite theatres by now. As most will agree, online theatre – while most enjoyable – isn’t the same as “the real thing”. Part of that is the atmosphere created – which is to do with going out and congregating with others to form a unique, never to be repeated audience in a specially built environment that heightens our sense of occasion.

Part of this unfathomable equation is down to the venues themselves, and if you, like me, particularly miss venturing inside our great London theatres, then I have some comforting news for you.

For those of you who have Amazon Prime, may I point you to a lovely series called Great West End Theatres, dating from 2012, in which Sir Donald Sinden pours his caramelised voice all over ten of London’s most prestigious playhouses, giving us a nice potted history along the way. (By a funny coincidence, I remember bumping into Sir Donald as I was coming out of the Noel Coward Theatre, as he was filming this show – and I ruined his take. I must say he was as gracious as always – a lovely man.). There were two series made, I believe, but currently only series one is available.

For those who may prefer a more avant-garde alternative, the Royal Court Theatre- in a very Royal Court type of thing- is real-time livestreaming their auditorium, still with its set up for its interrupted show, SHOE LADY. There’s nothing actually going on there, so if you stay too long it might feel like the world’s longest incoming. However, it serves rather poignantly as a reminder that the glorious spaces, usually hidden away from public gaze, are still there, patiently waiting for our return, as we will.

On a sadder note, NST – Nuffield Southampton Theatres – collapsed into administration last week and is at risk of being sold off to developers, demolished, who knows what may become of it. A petition has been started (gaining 10,000 signatures in just 4 days already), to which I would encourage you to add your names to demonstrate the strength of feeling that every one of our theatres- big or small, local or national, wherever in the world- they all make a difference to people’s lives, and as such, we should stand up for theatres now. It is certain that more theatres will face this fate unless we speak up loudly and quickly, and do whatever we can to help them- even if that’s just signing a petition. Please, do it Now. You can find the petition here

Tomorrow, Saturday 16th May, is the very first Music Hall and Variety Day, celebrating not only the stars and songs that made these forms of entertainment so enduringly popular but also the great buildings that were created for this hugely popular style of entertainment. You can read more about the celebration by visiting the British Music Hall Society website here.

And there’s more – this coming Sunday (17th May) will mark the centenary of master theatre architect Frank Matcham’s death. So expect a good read next week from me – an inside view of how his theatres actually worked.