How many people does it take to put on a West End musical? Saluting all the talented people who are unable to work right now…..

“How many people does it take to put on a West End musical?” That was the question posed by one of the national daily newspapers back in 1988.

The cast and crew – and everyone who worked on BRIGADOON, 1988/9 Victoria Palace Theatre, London *For anyone wondering, I am on the front row, last on the right.

At the time, I was at the Victoria Palace Theatre, where the delightful Lerner and Loewe musical BRIGADOON was settling into what would be year-long run. As a useful bit of publicity for the show the producer, Ronnie Lee organised for a photocall for every person working in the theatre to be captured in an onstage photo which would be taken after the midweek matinee.

The count in the photo isn’t entirely accurate – for evening performances there would be more front of house staff working, and I felt sorry that those with other nine-to-five jobs didn’t get a chance to participate. It is a very rare photo, and so I wanted to share it with you not only to recall a very happy production and excellent team, but also to remind us all of the many hundreds of thousands of hugely gifted theatre practitioners who are unable to work right now. Thank you for all your talent and I hope that we all get back to doing what we love again very soon.

So let’s just remind ourselves of all the brilliant people it takes to run a show.

FOR THE PRODUCTION (On and Off Stage)

Producer (and Assistant Producer(s))

Actors (stars, featured performers, chorus and supporting company)

Understudies, swings and covers

Musicians (Musical Director, musicians, fixer)

Script writer /Book writer (for musicals)

Composer

Arranger

Choreographer

Director

Company Manager

Stage Management team – Stage Manager, Assistant Stage Manager, Deputy Stage Manager

Casting Director

Agents

Accountants

Insurers

Legal advisors

Wardrobe Master/Mistress, wardrobe team

Hair and wigs team

Sound technician

Effects/visual consultant

Production team (Production Manager, Production Assistants, office team)

Set designers

Set construction studios

Costume designer

Costume production team

Lighting designer

Lighting hire companies

Sound designer

Sound hire companies

Production Manager

Rehearsal room hire companies

Pyrotechnics adviser

Fight/ stunt coordinators

Dialect coaches

Marketing team

Publicity/PR company

Photographer

Graphic Designer

Copyright holders / rights handlers

FOR THE THEATRE

Theatre owners

Theatre Manager

House Manager

Deputy Manager

Assistant Manager

Front of House staff (Chiefs of Staff, Assistants, bar staff, attendants, sales team, catering staff)

Box Office (Manager, deputy Manager, team of booking clerks)

Chief Electrician, Electrics stage team, follow spot operators, lighting board operative

Master Carpenter, stage hands team

Stage Door Keper

Fireman

Cleaners

AND NOT FORGETTING….

Programme designers, writers, contributors, printers and distributors

Brochure designers, writers, contributors, printers and distributors

Show-related merchandise designers, manufacturers and suppliers

Event catering companies (Press Night, Gala Performances, Charity Events, etc)

Drinks suppliers and distributors

Office stationery suppliers

Ticketing supplies companies

Ice cream manufacturers

Ice suppliers to the bars

Telecoms companies

IT support teams

Security staff

AND MOST IMPORTANTLY OF ALL

Investors!


READERS! Do let me know if I’ve forgotten anyone. If I have, my sincere apologies and I shall update this entry accordingly every so often.

Frank Matcham – the greatest theatre architect

London Coliseum
Frank Matcham c.1900
Buxton Opera House

Frank Matcham, the greatest British theatre architect, died 100 years ago on Sunday, 17th May.

If you’re not familiar with his name, you will probably be familiar with his work – if I mention the London Palladium, The London Coliseum, The Victoria Palace, as well as many theatres up and down the country (including Buxton Opera House and Richmond Theatre) and most notably a string of Empire variety theatres for the Moss circuit. Frank Matcham was the doyen of theatre architects of his time, creating theatres across the land, during the golden age of theatre construction from 1890 to around 1912.

London Palladium
London Palladium

Astonishingly, at the time his work was rather looked down upon, with theatre and music hall being “mere” entertainment, but thankfully the passage of time has fully underlined his pre-eminence as one of the greatest architects of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods.

Of the approximately 120 buildings that he either designed or remodelled, tragically only 26 remain today. Many were destroyed by wartime bombing, but even more (such as the Metropolitan Edgware Road) were wilfully bulldozed during the changing entertainment scene of the 1950s and 60s when theatregoing traditions faded away. Variety died, and TV was the box they buried it in.

Matcham was renowned for his professional punctuality, bringing jobs in on time and to schedule. His richly-detailed designs were opulent, with a grandeur and elegance, fully-flourished and embellished with all manner of decorative plasterwork that made his theatres a feast for the eyes before the curtain had even gone up. He was also a pioneer in the use of steel frameworks for his theatres, which gave his auditoria the strength to eliminate the need for pillars, allowing unobstructed views from every seat in the house and excellent sightlines, another Matcham trademark. Often larger-scale designs, often seating over 2,000, his auditoria were also known for their remarkable feeling of intimacy which was vital for variety shows – the medium for which he built so many of his theatres – and one of the many reasons they are still so rewarding to visit today.

Better informed and more scholarly writers than me have written many biographies of Matcham, so I shan’t add to the already sizeable pile*. Much has been written about the man and his designs too, but I would like to take a rather different tack.

As someone who has been privileged to manage a Matcham Theatre, I would like to discuss his skill as an engineer of flow in the spaces he created.

Victoria Palace

I was fortunate enough to spend some years managing the Victoria Palace, built by Matcham in 1911 on the site of the old Royal Standard Music Hall. This was built was a variety house, for twice nightly variety (three shows Wednesday and Saturday – in total, sixteen a shows a week!), and the front of house areas were opulent and gilded as any other Matcham beauty. After just a few days there, what impressed me so much was how the theatre actually worked. Regular readers may recall that I have already written about there being a dome in the ceiling of the auditorium which was on runners and effectively “rolled off” to allow the hot air to escape after each matinee or first house. Remember, this was before any type of air-conditioning had been imagined, and with twice nightly variety, the ingenious Matcham gave us a way to regulate the auditorium temperature – vital in those long hot summers that we occasionally got! (and believe me, the Upper Circle in summer could feel like sitting in a microwave!). You can find my earlier article here.

Victoria Palace

Matcham’s skill as an engineer was undoubted; what dawned on me quickly was how smart he was as an engineer of flow. Getting 1500 people in and out of a theatre is not a quick and easy job, and the Victoria Palace’s creative design was a gift to those times when a swift turnaround was needed.

Here’s an example – I was managing the show BUDDY, which had back to back shows on Friday at 5.30 and 8.30, As the show ran 2 hours 45 (give or take a few minutes) I was intrigued to see how fast we would manage taking 1500 people out of the theatre and immediately bringing in another house of 1500 at top speed. Thankfully Matcham had already provided for this in his design, and of course this is what the V-P was built for, twice nightly with a 20-minute turnaround, and it’s certainly where it came into its own!

Here’s how it worked – with a full house of 1500 in watching the first performance, patrons would start arriving for the second house while the first one was still running. Thanks to the way the theatre was designed, we could open the main stalls bar directly from the street to take a few hundred stalls patrons, check their tickets and get them buying drinks (and using the bar toilets as needed). We could do the same for the Dress Circle patrons, checking tickets and getting them into the Dress Circle bar. We could then fill the foyer areas, and in this way we could probably accommodate about half of our full house capacity within the theatre, with the remainder thronging on the street outside.

At 8.20 the first house would come down and that audience (from all levels) would then be channelled out of the left hand side of the building through a large bank of exit doors just off the auditorium which took the crowds onto a side street. Staircases brought the upper levels down to their own exits on the same side. By keeping certain doors closed we could regulate the flow of patrons like a heart valve pumps blood – in one way, out the other. So with the first house exited left, we could then check, clear, reset and reopen the house within minutes.  It was one of those all-hands-on-deck moments that are so exhilarating in theatre – 1500 gone, 1500 waiting, and the clock ticking. Thankfully, audiences were usually keen to be seated which meant that an 8.35 start was often achieved, at the latest 8.40.

Its only when you see the clarity of design thinking in action with a full house that you really appreciate the brilliance of an architect like Matcham. I know that so many theatres are not half as well thought-through, which can occasionally make them a nightmare to manage.

As someone who has had the privilege to manage a Matcham, I can safely say it was like driving a Rolls Royce.

It is at this point that I must “come out” to you all. I am a member of the Frank Matcham Society, a large group of admirers of the man’s work, who regularly visit, enjoy and write about the craft, skill and panache of this master architect.

Richmond Theatre “To Wake The Soul By Tender Strokes of Art”

In recognition of the Centenary anniversary, The Matcham Society have produced an excellent, comprehensively detailed 110-page book by Michael Sell, covering all of his theatres, and is well worth reading. You can find details of the book (ISBN 978-1-9163618-0-5) through the Society.

And you can find details of the Frank Matcham Society here

Frank Matcham’s surviving theatres are listed and rightly so – they will never be equalled for engineering, decoration, design, intimacy, elegance and comfort. For those of us who have served the theatregoing public, we have daily cause to be grateful for the skill and planning of – to my mind- the greatest theatre architect of all time.

*For those interested in reading more, a very comprehensive article about Frank Matcham and his work can be found here


NO DANCING!

Let’s face it, we all love a good dance. Chatting with some fellow audience members at the Gloria Estefan musical ON YOUR FEET! recently, they wondered why people were discouraged from dancing in West End theatres.

Having had some theatre management experience, I mentioned that as theatres need to have a license to operate, those licenses do not include dancing. Seems a bit crazy to some folks I am sure, but let me tell you a little more about why this is so.

Firstly, most of London’s theatre stock was built over a hundred years ago. Theatre then was a place where you sat and watched a performance.

Nowadays we are all used to going to a purpose-built arena or big music venue to see bands play and at those events it is acceptable- even obligatory- to stand, although it may block the views of others around you if they are sitting, or indeed have difficulty standing. Dancing comes quite naturally when you are on your feet.

Musical theatre is of course an incredibly popular artform. As the number of “jukebox” musicals have grown, audiences are responding to music which they first heard in a non-theatre setting and so it feels right to get up and have a dance. However, theatres were not built for this kind of use and therefore dancing is not licensed by the local authority, mostly Westminster for the West End. So when you see the staff holding up signs that say please, no dancing – or the management asking people to sit down, it’s because the theatre itself wasn’t built for this. It is simply not known whether the buildings could withstand this kind of treatment on a regular basis.

I remember one occasion back in the 1980s when we had a Sunday pop concert at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. To satisfy the licensing requirements for health and safety we had to fill the dress circle with passersby, friends and colleagues and get them to jump up and down! We got the license, but for one night only.

At the Victoria Palace, on another long-running show called BUDDY which a lot of you will remember, the signs were out on each level at every show, and generally people were very understanding. And on the outgoing for the show, I did have an occasional twirl with one of the many elated lady audience members on their way out.

So next time you feel the urge to leap up and dance in a West End theatre, please don’t think the theatre staff are deliberately being spoilsports. They are just doing their jobs, trying to keep you as safe as possible. So, dancing in theatres, please, no. Dancing in the streets…….hell, yes!


London Open House, 21/22 September – bookings now open!

The largest festival of architecture and building design in the world, London Open House 2019 is coming in September, and the full programme has now gone live on their website.

Every September since 1992, London Open House has enabled public access to 800+ buildings, many of which are inaccessible at any other time of the year, with associated walks, talks and tours over one very busy weekend, now attracting over a quarter of a million people annually.

Run by a small team supported by volunteers, the astonishing breadth of London’s building design is celebrated by gaining rare access to private and restricted buildings.

Happily, entertainment buildings such as theatres and cinemas are also enthusiastically taking part, and it is this category which I want to tell you about.

22 theatres and 5 cinemas are listed in this year’s offerings, ranging from the grandeur of Sir Cameron Mackintosh’s freshly-refurbished Victoria Palace Theatre to the Victorian charms of Hoxton Hall and Wilton’s Music Hall, to more modern offerings such as the National Theatre. All will be open for exploration via tours and/or talks on-site. Tucked away in the “entertainment” category is the first cinema to be Grade-I listed, the incredible Tooting Granada (now rather cheesily-titled Buzz Bingo, but inside still an awe-inspiring and richly-detailed movie palace)

Please note that some sites require advance booking while others do not. Do check with the Open House website on each venue’s individual listing page for full details. Also, a lot of venues will open on just one day of the weekend, not both, so do please check before you travel.

At the website you can check buildings by category and also by location to help you find Open House buildings near to you. Don’t miss this once-a-year opportunity!

Find out more at the website which you can find here


Is it me, or is it HOT in here?

The recent heatwave in the UK prompted this recollection, which I hope you’ll enjoy.

Back in the 1980s, the onset of scorching summer weather meant two headaches for London’s West End theatres. Firstly, ticket sales would slump as people elected to stay outside. Secondly, those that were brave enough to venture inside on those baking hot days were very good purchasers of drinks- and everything came with ice! Inevitably, on two show days, the resources of the theatres’ own ice-making machines could not keep up and it was just a matter of time before the cry went up “time to call Acorn Ice”. Their little white vans could be seen beetling around Theatreland, supplying just about every large theatre with several large glaciers-worth of the cool stuff each and every summer Saturday night.

The majority of the West End’s theatre stock was built before the advent of air conditioning. From the late 1920s, new cinemas were built with various kinds of (often rudimentary) aircon which varied in effectiveness. Theatres had to wait for aircon until the early 1990s, mainly due to their highly decorated appearance and listed status making it practically impossible to make any kind of major adjustments without impacting the “look” of the auditorium. Another issue was that West End theatres’ original designs squeezed every ounce of space out of their footprints on the most expensive land in the country, which is why you will still come across tiny toilets stuck away in odd-shaped spaces. Installing aircon in these theatres was a tricky (and costly) proposition.

Victoria Palace Theatre after renovation and aircon. Photo by Philip Vile

The kind of modification that aircon required could only take place during scheduled refurbishments which came around very infrequently, and only after a show had concluded a run and “gone dark”. Further, theatre owners were reluctant to keep theatres dark for a moment more than necessary, as in this state they brought in no earnings.

However, some theatres were luckier than others. Whilst a theatre manager in the 1980s, I was very lucky to be at the Victoria Palace – where we had an advantage.

The Victoria Palace was built in 1911 as a variety theatre (dubbed “London’s last great variety house”) and as such demanded a large capacity (1500) and a fast turnaround (for many years giving two shows nightly and three on Saturdays). Built by the doyen of theatre architects, Frank Matcham, the theatre had a number of clever design signatures which made this theatre easier to manage. As a darkened, enclosed box the heat of the day was not an issue on most days as the theatre was kept cool by simply not allowing light and heat in. However, the heat of a 1500-strong audience, combined with lights, etc , on a two show day with the mercury rising outside was quite an issue.

The “dome” within a dome that rolled off – from a pre-refurbishment photo, uncredited (apologies to the photographer)

Frank Matcham understood this, and helped all who have populated his theatres to keep cool – audiences and management both! How? Well, in the centre of the auditorium ceiling is a dome, and within that a smaller dome. But the smaller dome was rather deceptive. It was much shallower than it appeared, and was actually separate from the rest of the ceiling design. It was mounted on a large framework which was on wheels, which sat in a pair of tracks, just like a train track. This meant that on a hot day, our excellent stage crew would know what to do. Had the last people to leave the auditorium looked up, they would have seen the smaller dome moving towards the stage end to reveal – the sky!

After the magnificent renovation – the “dome” that used to roll off, now beautifully lit in blue but sadly static. Photo courtesy BuroHappold Engineeering website.

As we all know, hot air rises, so Matcham created this device to expel the hottest air. When the auditorium doors were opened to exit the first house, that rush of fresh air coming into the auditorium would effectively push through and expel the old, hot air through the hole in the ceiling. Before the house opened again, the dome would be rolled back into its original position, and audiences were none the wiser – but a lot cooler. Air conditioning was finally fully installed in the 1990s. Now superseded by a brand new aircon system (courtesy of Sir Cameron Mackintosh’s sparkling renovation of 2017), Matcham’s innovation is a brilliant piece of past history, but all of us who ran the VP will recall his ingenuity with gratitude. And also consigned to history was the sort of phone call I got to my office one Saturday afternoon when the heat and humidity set off some sharp showers outside. “Can we close the dome please? It’s raining in the front stalls!”