The year is 1881 in London. A blacksmith and a fish curer are having a conversation in a busy square in District 11, just north of the New Kent Road.
Blacksmith: Alright George, ye go to the theatre last night?
Fish Curer: I did indeed, mate. Me and the missus went to that "String of Pearls or The Barber Friend of Fleet Street."
Blacksmith: Oh right, that was on at the Britannia. Didn't stay for that show, left just after "Idolators"... the ale and steak pies went to me head! So I went to bed!
Fish Curer: Ah you missed a good'un. Well, back to work now, mate. Need to smoke them trout to earn a few bob...
Now, anyone reading this conversation in 2017 would take it to be quite a mundane exchange between two tradesmen. However, this particular dialogue offers the reader clues to discovering about a formative period of 19th century London theatre. First, the topic in conversation is the Britannia theatre in Hoxton, which was arguably one of the most popular buildings around London in the late 1800s. Secondly, theatres in those days offered multiple shows per night, in addition to providing heaps of steak pies and gallons of ale to feed hungry hordes hackling in the audience. Thirdly, a consensus had indeed been recorded in 1881, documenting the origins and professions of all the inhabitants in District 11 near the New Kent Road. According to our guest speaker this week, Dr Janice Norwood from the School of Humanities at the University of Hertfordshire, thousands of spectators from all walks of life would crowd into the theatre halls to feast on the finest food and mull over the moving melodrama in 19th century London.
Dr Norwood, who was awarded her PhD studying the Britannia theatre, shared her knowledge on how the world of 19th century theatre was more complex and fascinating than we could ever imagine. The shows would often showcase a monumental, man-made, mechanical set, which moved with the help of the backstage crew in what was a masterpiece of theatrical engineering. For example, one show at the Britannia had a gigantic wooden ship which moved from side to side, accompanied by oars which rotated into the synthetic blue waves, but splashing the audience with real water! On the other hand, real fires were not an unusual experience in theatrical shows, to the terror of the jam-packed audience in the stalls. Notable performers at the Britannia in the 1800s included the famous Sara Lane (aka the "Queen of Hoxton"), acrobatic cross-dressing men, and a little boy who repeatedly walked in a circle on stage (covering over a mile in distance)! Later in the session, Dr Norwood provided us with A4 posters of theatrical leaflets of Britannia shows from 1869 (evidence that multiple fonts, word sizes and random punctation on posters didn't stop the stampede of theatregoers at that time, but rather encouraged it), which fuelled our imagination further.
Given such rich facts and interesting stories shared in our session, the People's Company re-enacted possible conversations amongst the local theatregoers of 19th century London. Within groups, we devised our own improvisations using local dialects, juxtapositioning of unlikely characters and melodramatic plays within plays. We were proud to introduce three new talented actors to our group, including Adriana from Italy, Tamir from Mongolia and Euan from England. The creative efforts of all performers collectively constructed a solid bridge of understanding and infused inspiration amongst the group.
In conclusion, the session this week combined academic lectures, historical document studies, group discussions and melodramatic improvisations to break new ground for the People's Company. The fact that there were similarities between the Queen of Hoxton and our melodrama muse, Marie Henderson, as well as linking the Britannia theatre with our beloved Coronet Theatre, has only strengthened our historical understanding and biographical interpretation of the period. Thus, we will be able to build truly relevant characters to allow an accurate retelling of this unique history of melodrama.
Blog post by Tiberius, actor of the People's Company Ensemble.
Photography by Janice Norwood.
Reflecting the views of artists, actors, residents
and participants in
The Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle.
An art project about the Coronet from 1872-2017.
Final Curtain Call
Directing and acting
Jacko at the Coronet?
Ale and steak pies
This Is Where I Came In
Pollock's Toy Museum
Adventure with the Mayor
Reach for the stars
Ghost of Marie Henderson
Shop till the zombie drops
Faith, Hope and Charity
Singing and sketching
History and legacy
Dark Side of Metropolis
Walworth Street Festival
Interview with Sam Porter
Blood and Thunder
Culture and Capital