I would like to thank everyone involved with the show. I had a great night and thought the cast and the play were outstanding.
Councillor Charlie Smith, Mayor of Southwark
I just wanted to say how brilliant last night’s performance was. It was so poignant, and well-put together and felt like you really captured the audience’s sentiment about the space and the developments in the area.
Elizabeth Morrow, Communications & Volunteer Officer, CoolTan Arts
Thanks for the moving show and memorable evening, you are a dedicated bunch of people who are doing a lot for the community!
Thank you so much for the brilliant play last night - it really was so cool, visual and diverse.
Lucy Wright, great-great granddaughter of Victorian actress, Marie Henderson
It's been an empowering and innovative process for director, artists, cast and crew of The Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle. We all shared ideas, images and emotions that came together in the creation of a significant work of art. The project was researched and developed over a period of years, but it was that final stage of intensive work, supported by an Arts Council England grant, that took us to another level. The success of our project was based on a deep understanding of Victorian melodrama and its conventions.
Working with archive text and drawings, John Whelan and Constantine Gras produced a play that was acted by the People's Company of Southwark Playhouse. It had its premiere on Wednesday 8 November. Clocking in at an ambitious one hour forty minutes, the play illuminates the history of the Coronet through the ghostly eyes of Marie Henderson, the Victorian actress of melodrama, who ran the theatre from 1875-1880. The play was performed at the Coronet and will be the last free community event for the venue which is earmarked for closure and demolition.
The actress, Shelagh Farren gave a wonderful performance as the central character, vividly evoking Marie Henderson's powerful stage presence and her decline into "madness". This was precipitated by a double tragedy: fire razing the theatre to the ground with the actress losing all her theatrical costumes; and the unknown and untreatable effects of syphilis. Shelagh was supported by a strong cast of amateur and professional actors and actresses.
As mentioned, the play evoked the high tradition of melodrama. This was the staple diet of entertainment throughout the 19th century. Lady Audley's Secret was a best selling novel turned into a play during this period. It was our play within the play, including a "reduced Shakespeare" version, with stylised tableaux poses from the actors that elicited laughs and a raptutuous around of applause from the audience.
The sensation scene in the Melodramatic Elephant was the burning down of the theatre in 1878 and this was performed in the round with actors running in from all sides of the seated audience; it was great to see the Mayor of Southwark, Cllr Charlie Smith, enter into the spirit of the proceedings and when handed a fire bucket, he promptly stood up and threw the imaginary water onto the flames. Priceless!
A hypnotic choreographed sequence followed showing Marie in Beldam and was set to a newly commissioned electronic score by Laurence-Eliot (aka DJ Lysergide who has a connection with the Coronet, having played his first live gigs here in 2010). The digital artist, Sandra Crisp, produced an animated short film showing the inter-related architectonic forces of building and actress. This kicked off Act 2 of the play.
A succession of narrators were guiding us through the story of Marie and the building. A rousing Run, Rabbit, Run got the audience onto their feet in good sing-a-long fashion. Later sections of the play showed Marie as a ghost in her theatre as it was being converted into a cinema. This were accompanied by two striking short film homages to silent cinema and 1970s Hammer horror based on original screenplays by new members of People's Company, Aubrey Ayoade and Euan Vincent.
Contemporary issues of regeneration and social change were given a unique historical twist. In a memorable scene based on a true life incident, Michael Caine bumped into Charlie Chaplin outside the ABC cinema in the early 1970s. In the play we see them talking about the building of the Heygate Estate (which has just recently been demolished to make way for new housing) and Britain joining the Common Market set against the volatile rise of right wing groups. In a parallel scene, set in the present day, we see ravers at the last night of the Coronet questioning why the Coronet is being demolished to make way for more flats that nobody can really afford to live in.
The final image of the play is of a wrecking ball destroying the various manifestations of the building as theatre, cinema and music venue. The narrators put the ghost of Marie Henderson to sleep for the last time. This is a poignant and fitting end to the wonderful 147 year history of the Coronet. At the end of the play, Shelagh Farren gave a speech and talked about the hundred plus years of entertainment this building has given to the local area. She invited the audience to then raise the roof off with a tumultuous round of applause.
Given the emotion of the occasion, we were also graced by having two of Marie Henderson's descendants, Sam Henderson and Lucy Wright. They came onto the stage to share the limelight. They had recently been reunited with their long forgotten and once famous Victorian family member as a result of this art project. Sam Porter, the current manager of the Coronet, was in reflective mood as she thanked the audience for attending and hoped a new building would one day replace the Coronet. The final words were left to the Mayor of Southwark, Cllr Charlie Smith. He talked about how his father must have visited the theatre and how meldorama still existed in today's soap operas.
But as the curtain falls, let us rightfully pay tribute to the cast of the People's Company for their fine ensemble acting which brought to life the fascinating story of the Coronet and the melodramatic actress who will now forever be associated with it. Learn more about the cast, crew and collaborative artists here. The Company's thrilling theatrical exploits were documented on film. This will be a fitting legacy as future generations will have the means to reconnect with the cultural glories of their past.
The Melodramatic Elephant isn't quite over!
We have a two week art exhibition exploring all the themes of the play and project.
This is from 9-20 December at The Art Academy Gallery, 155 Walworth Road, London SE17 1RS.
The exhibition will include the following:
A projected film programme (50 minutes in duration) will include:
It should be a fascinating and visually diverse exhibition showcasing all aspects of The Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle. We look forward to seeing you!
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.
Past present future
Music and animation
Euan Vincent on Horror
Tiberius Chis on Chaplin
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
Interview with Sam Porter
Blood and Thunder
Culture and Capital