A personal essay

Being one prompted by my reading a copy of The Actor Managers (Frances Donaldson 1970, SBN 297 00154 X) in which I was fascinated to learn of the resurgence of intimate theatre after the decline of vast theatres and their equally vast and top-heavy productions towards the end of the nineteenth century. To my surprise and gratification I realised our insignificant little Grange Theatre had followed in such honourable footsteps. I gratefully acknowledge the opportunity to abstract some phrases from Donaldson’s book, which appear in the text below.

The great years of the actor-managers spanned from 1865 to 1914. Prior to then, theatres were owned by greedy business cartels who managed them simply to generate profit for themselves: in both London and the country actors were excessively badly paid and often starving, and the quality of production suffered accordingly. Indeed, the play was not the thing; the extensive bills were frequently changed and theatregoers went to the theatre not so much to see a new play as to see a new actor in an old one. Affairs were shambolic to say the least.

In 1843 an Act for Regulating the Theatres came into force but by now the theatre had fallen very low; the twenty years that followed have been described as “the winter solstice” of the British drama. Slowly though, the tide began to turn and the main reason for this was that a few actors – with wealthy patrons – began buying redundant and run down theatres to manage themselves rather than being held in thrall by unscrupulous owners.

Two such actors were Sidney “Squire” Bancroft (1841-1926) who married Marie Wilson (1839-1921) in 1867 after both had endured much hard and lowly employment in provincial theatre. By hard work and some fortunate luck Marie had, in 1865, obtained the lease on a little theatre called The Queen’s which had descended into a minor house in a bad part of town just off the Tottenham Court Road in London. It was frequented by a low kind of audience and nicknamed the Dusthole! Marie went into partnership with H.J. Byron (a very popular and successful writer of the day), redecorated the place entirely and renamed it The Prince of Wales’s Theatre. In November 1865 they opened with Society, an original comedy by T.W. Robertson, was a prolific actor/writer. It proved an astonishing success, running for an unheard-of 150 nights. When Byron retired from the partnership, his place was taken by the young Sidney Bancroft who immediately began falling in love with the young lessee.

In 1867 Sidney and Marie were wed; thereafter the meeting of like minds was an unstoppable force. They produced and themselves acted in six most successful comedies by Robertson, whose skill lay in writing small, neat plays which went against the tide of the depressingly common heavy declamation, melodrama and spectacle acted by demoralised and underpaid staff in large and gloomy theatres and whose jobs were simply to underpin the principal star of the performance.

Everything the Bancrofts did ran counter to the spirit of the times. Whereas established actor-managers chose plays for their value as a vehicle for their own talents, casting only minor actors in support of the main role, the Bancrofts chose and commissioned plays with a wide range of parts, casting them with the best actors they could find – often playing minor roles themselves in order to share in the fun. At a time when actors and actresses were underpaid and harshly treated, they were known for their wise and benevolent management and for the introduction of a number of long-overdue reforms; they even introduced the custom of matinĂ©e.

To their audiences’ fascination the Bancrofts placed real rugs on the stage floor, real furniture on the sets; the rooms on stage in which the action took place had real ceilings and – which caused at the time the greatest sensation of all – real knobs on the doors! Before then it was customary in a conversation scene merely to bring down two or three chairs to the middle of the stage for the actors to sit upon whilst talking, and afterwards to take them away. The Bancrofts earned theatrical fame for these innovations but it was Tom Robertson’s plays which provided the vehicle for the ground-breaking changes. W.S. Gilbert himself said that Robertson ‘invented’ stage management, and the appearance of the artistic director responsible for the appearance of the set and who was neither actor nor prompter had marked a definite moment in the evolution of the modern producer or director.

The friendly little Prince of Wales’s Theatre, with its carpeted auditorium and freshly decorated blue and white stalls, provided something new in London – an evening’s cosy entertainment suitable for the families of the middle and upper classes . . .

. . . and here, if I may, this writer will draw a comparison however tenuous between those events of one hundred and sixty-odd years ago and the establishment of The Grange Theatre by Fred and Val Temlett in 1971 which, for all its tiny size, lacked for nothing in enthusiasm, bonhomie, esprit de corps and a willingness to unconsciously provide the same atmosphere as the Bancroft’s so successfully did. There never was a Grange Theatre company – Val, with her unerring eye for personality – raised the art of type-casting to a new level amongst amateur dramatics and chose cast members from a wide number of local actors eager to be associated with the Grange. Each individual simply had to be utterly believable to the audience; no amount of stagecraft could make up for a lack of character, and this determination to produce the very best of any play was something with which both cast and crew were proud to be associated.

Our front row was located by virtue of the auditorium’s dimensions just four feet from the stage’s apron thus bringing not only the actors and their costumes but also the sets and furnishings under close inspection. We, too, had a carpet – a permanent neutral coloured one to muffle the boards beneath and this sufficed for any imagined location. Fred’s sets were in the main solidly built and Val’s painting of them was often remarked upon, especially when perspective was needed to give the appearance of depth down the tiny stage. The costumes had to be well-finished and made of such material that would stand critical gaze; the same went for the make-up.

Indeed all-in-all it may be fairly claimed that our standards could be the same as, or perhaps a little higher than the Bancroft’s and if that sounds presumptuous then I make no apology, for it should be borne in mind that our theatre was located within a living home, not a commercial premises; a fact which endeared the enterprise to all our audiences. They felt honoured to be included so intimately in such a unique experience and the memories linger still amongst those who supported us for the forty years of our existence.

Keith Bennett, July 2020