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Theatres and Cinemas of Stourbridge, 1752 - 1952

1 - Days when theatres flourished

The first mention of a theatre at Stourbridge was a report in the Birmingham Gazette during 1752 which announced that a theatre was shortly to be opened in the town by a Mr. Ward. Briefly named “The Theatre”, it was opened that year on a site situated near the Bell Hotel yard in Bell Street, probably between the hotel and the Drill Hall. This may have been the property which at the beginning of the century was used as a skin and hide warehouse, for there is evidence that a similar theatre in Worcester of this period was described as little more than a barn, with a stage little more than six feet square, and there was obviously a tie-up during the next fifty years between management of both Worcester and Stourbridge theatres.

The Kembles
Around 1766 there is evidence in a letter written by a local worthy named Parkes, that the Kemble family were performing at the place for some time, for he stated in this letter that the Kemble’s daughter was at school with him. Sarah was later to become the famed tragedienne, Sarah Siddons. No doubt during this time both she and her brother, John, played juvenile parts in the company in which their parents worked, as was the custom of actors’ children. Having been brought up in the profession, it was only natural that she should follow in her parents’ footsteps and after an early marriage to an actor in one of the local companies she soon made her mark.
In 1775 she was playing at Worcester, Gloucester and Cheltenham, and probably some member of the “quality” enjoying the air of the latter place, spoke of her ability to David Garrick at Drury Lane. In preparation for his autumn season he sent one of his actors up to Cheltenham to see her acting. She did not impress him, and he reported unfavourably to Garrick upon his return.

Second opinion
However, the personage who had first recommended her to Garrick must have been of some importance, for he later sent a trusted friend, a Dr Bate, to Worcester for a second opinion. Like Tom King, the actor, Bate was also not very impressed with her action, deportment or her speech, which incidentally makes one wonder whether, perhaps, she had picked up our local dialect during her stay at Stourbridge at an impressionable age.
However, Bate was enthusiastic about her beauty and her figure, despite the fact that at the time she was pregnant, and in consequence Garrick offered her a London engagement. Unfortunately she was unable to join him at the beginning of his season and not until her son was born, but she opened at the “Lane” on December 29th of that year in “The Merchant of Venice”, playing Portla.

Flop in London
No doubt the more exacting London audience was too much for her. She was a flop, and play followed play with the same result. Only once during the season did she get a line from the critic, and that merely to dismiss her performance as lamentable.
She was in the cast for “Richard III” during the week of June 5th but was not included in the following week, which was Garrick’s final performance upon retirement from Drury Lane. No doubt bitterly disappointed, she turned her back on London, and returned to her familiar stamping ground where at least she was held in some esteem. Who knows, she may even have returned to Stourbridge on occasions. Spurred on by her unfortunate experience in the Metropolis, she spent the next few years building up a reputation as a tragedian, and by 1782 was holding forth at the Theatre Royal, Bath, at that time a favourite watering place of the “Fashion”.
No doubt the young “bucks” of the day flocked to the theatre, and soon she was once again being recommended to the holder of the patent at Drury Lane. Richard Sheridan had taken over the theatre from Garrick, and being impressed with the recommendations, engaged Sarah for a season. This time she came with some acclaim and opened in a play of her own choosing. Her husband, a poor actor, was by now her manager and publicity agent, and he rather went to town on selling her.

Her triumph
She had taken the family along with her, and father Kemble from his long experience had considerable doubts about over-selling her, and was an extremely worried man. However, he need not have troubled himself, for after a few shaky moments, Sarah completely absorbed herself in her favourite role, “Isabella” in “The Fatal Marriage”. Before long she had the audience eating out of her hand, and long before the final curtain the house was rising to her. At the climax in her dying scene she not only had the audience in tears, but her fellow artists too, and we are told that her son, Henry, then in his seventh year and playing her son in the play, was so convinced that his mother was dead that he yelled the house down. From that night on October 10th 1782, there was no doubt that Sarah would have no need to return to the Stourbridge theatre.
Many of the performances at this time were during daylight and in the warmer months, although in 1792, when a new theatre was built in the town, advertisements featured fires and heating as a prominent amenity.

Opposition
The opposition theatre was built on a plot of land situated near the Talbot Hotel gates not so very far from the old one.
Obviously the near proximity of two hotels was an advantage. The “New Theatre” (for so it was called) had a varied existence under a number of managements during its lifetime, and on more than one occasion was up for sale. After sixty years as a playhouse, the premises were finally taken over as a school of design. This, in turn, ceased to function, and became what we know today as the Music Rooms. Possibly the large glass panels in the roof were a means of lighting the stage, although more probably they were put in for the school of design. During the last war it became a dance hall, well-known locally and to many American soldiers as “The Sweat Box” due to the many dancers crammed upon the floor.
At present (1980 approx) the property belongs to the Old Edwardian Club and is in use as a factory. It seems a pity that the place could not have reverted to its original use as a town’s “Little Theatre”. An approach was made on these lines by the Theatre Society some years ago, but the project fell through.

A third theatre
Around 1840, references are made to a third theatre being established in Barlow’s Yard. Off high Street at the rear of the “Coach and Horse” inn, the site of the old post office in course of erection at the time. Again, so handy to a pub; and I remember when I was a boy that there was a clubroom at the rear of the nearby “Eagle”where concerts and plays were performed.
The 1840 playhouse was called the Theatre Royal, and Mr Harry Palfrey has a number of interesting playbills of this time. For instance, the one of September 15th 1843, advertising “The Hunchback of a Woman’s Love” performed for the benefit of Mr Nantz, a member of the Birmingham Company. This was the form of payment for a visiting star. The play was to be followed by an interesting drama, in two acts (as acted in the London Theatre about 200 nights) entitled “The Fair Maid of Stourbridge” or “The Maniac Lover of Hagley Park”. Every play of that period seems to have a subsidiary title.

Melodrama
Characters in the play were: Philip d’Arville, the Lord of Hagley Hall; Miles Melville, an arrow maker of Stourbridge; Andrew Adze, the amorous carpenter of Oldswinford; Michael Earle, the Maniac Lover (played by Mr Nantz); Dame Stapleton, of Church Street; Mary, the Fair Maid.
Act 1, Scene 1: The Old Market Place, Stourbridge. Market Day. Lots of Custom; meeting of Miles and the Amorous Carpenter. “I must have a wife – will you have one”. Treachery of d’Arville; Interview of the Fair Maid with the seducer; fickleness of woman.
Scene 2: Dame Stapleton’s house. Lament of the lovers; the Cockney arrival; London fashions and country hospitality; Andrew’s wooing.
Scene 3: A Wild Glen in Hagley Park. Night. The approaching storm; the maniac lover’s story of his suffering; a tale of woe; the schemes of d’Arville for the ruin of the hapless maid. The struggle; The Scream; The Crime.
Act 2, scene 1: Chamber in Dame Stapleton’s House. The loss of the Maid – where is she? The perjured vow; the murder of the Maniac; London manners and London fashions.
Scene 2: Gardens of the Old Hall at Hagley. More mystery: Remorse of the Fair Maid; Mary’s Interview with the gardener; “Is there no escape?”
Scene 3: view near Oldswinford Church. Flight of the maniac (I thought he had been killed in the previous scene – C.L.G.); The meeting of the lovers, the dagger; the mystery unravelling.
Scene 4: Chamber in Dame Stapleton’s House. The return of the deceived, tho’ not betrayed; a lover’s vengeance; no friend for the distressed; arrival of the vllain d’Arville; perilous situation of the Fair Maid of Stourbridge, who is saved from treachery by the death of the Maniac Lover.
(Acted 200 nights in London). (We wonder? – C.L.G.)

In Dire Straits
When the play was produced three years later at the Theatre Royal it was billed as “Decidedly the greatest attraction of the season”. First and only night of new drama entitled “The Fair Maid of Stourbridge”, a drama of intense interest founded on facts! The gardener had by now become Andrew Cauliflower, and the amorous carpenter, David Plane.
Apparently the manager of the company playing the theatre that week was in dire straits, and with poor takings at the first two nights, called the company together on the Wednesday morning, paid them five shillings each from the £20 takings, and caught the coach to Gloucester telling the players to “Do your best and get out of the town”.
The actors being stranded, appealed to the local inhabitants for help and a special performance of “The Fair Maid” was put on for their benefit, followed by a new farce entitled, “Boots at the Talbot”, or the adventures of being a Policeman. First and only night of this new farce. Tickets obtainable at the Woolpack, Red Lion, White Lion and the printers, T. Mellard, Upper High Street.
No doubt this “New Farce” was an old one hashed up with a few local names to make it topical – an old dodge in the theatre.

Bransby Williams
In April 1843 the town received its first “full London company” visit, for we read on the playbills of that time, “Theatre Royal, Stourbridge. Immense success! Crammed to the ceiling! The nobility, gentry, etc. are respectfully intimated that in consequence of the destruction by fire of the Royal Olympic Theatre, London, the ladies and gentlemen of that establishment are engaged to give ”ten dramatic representations”. Naturally, there is plenty of evidence of plays at this theatre, but not so much about its termination, or the beginning of the last theatre, which we knew as the Alhambra.
One can only assume that the Theatre Royal was merely re-named the “Alhambra” at a later date, for as you will see, managements had a habit of changing names to suit themselves. Bransby Williams, that fine old character actor, now past his 90th summer, mentioned that he had played the Alhambra when a youth of seventeen. He came as a young apprentice to join a stock company there in the 1880’s and of that period he recently told me, “It was terrible in those days”. Whether he was referring to the general conditions of the theatre itself I am not quite sure, but i was a certain fact that the theatre was no life for anyone but the hardiest.

A whip round
I recall that even as recently as 1921 when I went there for a dress rehearsal of the operatic society on a Sunday afternoon, we had a whip round to buy a birthday present for a child born in the dressing room the previous night. A dancer was taken ill during the second house on the Saturday night and her baby was born on the dressing room floor, after which they were both taken to the Corbett Hospital. An authentic occasion of being born amongst the grease paint!
Knowing the back stage of the Alhambra as I did, you would realise that an actor’s life is not all glamour! Behind the curtain were two small rooms for the “stars” and a partition made of light wood stretched the full width of the stage to make the general dressing rooms. This in turn was divided into two, with one section for the men and one for the girls. These were approximately sixteen feet by seven feet, and in the middle was a very small, smelly lavatory. There was no washing accommodation and a very narrow ledge which ran along the back wall served as property department, and makeup table. The latter, unless kept in a tin box, were liable to be eaten by the rats, even while the performance was on.
I regret that many theatre dressing rooms today are not very much better, and I have been in some almost as bad in London.

Two Characters
At the end of the 19th century the Alhambra was being managed by a Mrs Patch, who had taken over the theatre on the death of her husband, and who was, by all accounts, something of a character.
After the death of Mrs Patch the theatre came into the hands of an actor of considerable experience, Mr Douglas Phelps, who, tired of a wandering life and wishing to bring up his family in a little more comfort, had settled for a managerial state. He was a man of strong character with a missionary’s zeal for “clean theatre”, and on more than one occasion he sent a company packing after the first night or made them clean up their material. He gave the town the best his purse would allow. Occasionally he performed when old friends visited the theatre with their companies, and one recalls his performance in Hall Caine’s “The Manxmen”; also his Gaspard in the Operatic Society’s production of “Les Cloches de Corneville” which he also produced in 1914.

Halcyon Era
On a few occasions he would venture further afield, playing for friends, probably when the local was not doing very well. One tends to think of the 1900 – 1918 period as one of the halcyon eras in the theatre, before the cinema had become a serious rival. There were certainly plenty of travelling companies on the road at that time – opera, drama, musical comedy, variety and revue – but my search of the County Express files shows that often all was not well at the Alhambra. Particularly during the 1909 1912 period when the theatre appeared to close during the July – August months, and other periods when Phelp’s adverts had shrunk from his four inch double column to a two inch single column.
There was also opposition at the Town Hall, for in the winter of 1909 we find such attractions as “When Knights were Bold”, “The Private Secretary”, “The Dairy Maid” and variety shows following in weekly succession there.
Another form of entertainment was also beginning to attract – the Bioscope, which was first introduced to the town at Pat Collin’s fair, where for twopence you perched yourself on rows of wooden planks, and witnessed two or three one-reelers. These were interspersed with an act or two – conjurors, acrobats or jugglers. Next >>>

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