The Old Vic by Terry Coleman

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Reviewed by Harriet 

I do enjoy a bit of theatre history from time to time, and I must admit to a bit of a vested interest in this one. Both my theatrical parents had associations with the famous Old Vic Theatre in London back in the day, and I can just about remember being taken to the theatre when it was still recovering from the damage inflicted by the bombing of the Second World War. So I knew quite a bit about the theatre’s history and was looking forward to filling in the gaps through this new book.

Terry Coleman has taken on quite an ambitious task in covering the entire history of a theatre that first opened its doors in 1818. It is is fact one of the oldest theatre buildings in London, and though it has been extensively altered and rebuilt over the centuries, parts of the original structure still remain. That it continues to flourish, admittedly after many ups and downs, is even more remarkable considering where it is – not in the West End, London’s theatreland, but on the other side of the Thames, not far from Waterloo Bridge. This is still not a particularly fashionable area, but at the time of the theatre’s foundation, it was pretty much a den of thieves and ruffians. Even well into the twentieth century, the very working-class street market known as The Cut was right outside the doors, and the costermongers would queue for cheap seats in the gallery.

Nowadays, the Old Vic is a highly regarded and successful theatre, mostly associated with the revival of Shakespeare and more modern classics. It was not always so. The theatre opened with rowdy melodramas and epics with spectacular sets, and if Shakespeare ever got a look in, it was in heavily adapted versions. The audiences were used to making their reactions known, and when the great actor Edmund Kean played Othello in 1831 he was howled down and driven to stop the play and address the hecklers: ‘In my life I have never acted to such a set of ignorant, unmitigated brutes as I see before me’.

Things continued in pretty much the same way throughout the nineteenth century, with manager after manager taking the theatre on and then going bankrupt. Its fortunes began to change dramatically in 1880, when the lease was bought by a committee of benevolent gentleman, who handed over the running of it to their Hon. Secretary, a Miss Emma Cons, who set about turning it into a music hall. Not just any old music hall, though – these were Temperance gentleman, and under Miss Cons the theatre was to dispense wholesome food, non-alcoholic drinks, and ‘innocent’ entertainment to amuse and morally uplift the lower classes.  The venture was remarkably successful, and in the 1890s Miss Cons handed it over to her niece Lilian Bayliss, who continued to run it until her death in 1937. Bayliss, was an extraordinary eccentric, famed for her combination of stinginess and religion (‘Sorry, dear, God says no’, she is supposed to have said to an actor asking for a raise). But she was able to reintroduce serious drama, and in the 1920s and 30s managed to persuade a great many famous actors – John Gielgud, Charles Laughton, Laurence Olivier and Peggy Ashcroft among others — to forgo large movie salaries and work there for a pittance. By the end of the 1930s, the Vic was considered to be a national theatre in all but name.

Everything more or less ground to a halt during World War Two. The theatre building was badly damaged by bombs, and the company moved into the West End. But by the end of the 1940s, repairs were underway, and after an unhappy few years of much political wrangling, the theatre found its feet again and the 1950s and early 60s saw some well-remembered and celebrated Shakespeare productions. Finally, in 1962, Laurence Olivier was appointed the director of the National Theatre, which, until a building could be designed and built, found its home at the Old Vic. He stayed until 1976. This is a period that Terry Coleman knows well, having written Olivier’s biography, and, with all its ups and downs, it is covered in detail. After that, the theatre was once again threatened with closure, from which it was rescued by ‘Honest Ed’ Mirvish, a Canadian businessman with bold ideas who nevertheless lost many millions on his venture, and it finally fell into the capable hands of Kevin Spacey, where it will remain until 2015.

I doubt if there can be many, if any, theatres anywhere in the world that have been open continuously for two hundred years with such a chequered history. Terry Coleman has brought this long period to life, and the book is extremely informative about all aspects of theatre history, from artistic to financial. There’s more to running a theatre than just putting on plays, obviously, and it’s interesting to read about the various decisions about where to put the bar, how to arrange the auditorium, and, of course, how to raise the money to do all that in the first place.  The book is also full of illustrations, many in colour, showing the theatre both inside and out in its various incarnations from 1818 to the present day, plus photos of many of the important figures who played a part in its history, whether on stage or off.

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Harriet Devine is one of the editors of Shiny New Books

Terry Coleman, The Old Vic: The Story of a Great Theatre from Kean to Olivier to Spacey (Faber: London, 2014). 978-0571311255, 288pp., hardback.

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