Camden has a long and honourable history of radical theatre, from social and political issues of the day in the 19th century to the first on-stage nudity in a public performance in the so-called swinging sixties.
For more than 230 years, plays were all subject to the blue pencil of the official censor; a role held by the Lord Chamberlain. Any play to be licensed for public performance had to be submitted to his office where they were often subject to some strange decisions. Membership clubs were one way to avoid censorship. Camden playwright George Bernard Shaw had several of his plays produced by the Stage Society, which put on private Sunday performances of new and experimental work. Mrs Warren’s Profession, banned as “immoral and improper” because of its frank discussion of prostitution, was premiered by the Stage Society in January 1902 but the first public performance had to wait until 1925. It took place in the now demolished Regent Theatre opposite St. Pancras Station on Euston Road, where the Standard Hotel is now.
Nearly 60 years later the Shaftesbury Theatre made history with the London premiere of Hair just hours after censorship was finally abolished. Describing it as dangerously permissive, the Lord Chamberlain had objected to references to drugs, sex, bad language, and its anti-Vietnam War stance; but most of all to its 20-second scene of full-frontal nudity. The opening night was delayed for two months until the Theatres Act 1968 finally abolished censorship and impressionable teenagers like me and Princess Anne could enjoy the show!
The Unity Theatre in Goldington Street was overtly political. Established in 1936 by the Rebel Players, and organised on Communist principles, it pioneered new theatrical forms such as devised documentary pieces and satirical pantomimes. The 1938 panto Babes in the Wood attacked Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement with the Nazi regime, satirised Hitler and Mussolini, and (shock, horror!) impersonated the Prime Minister himself. In the same year, the Black American actor, singer and activist, Paul Robeson not only turned down a starring West End role, to appear for free in Unity’s production of Plant in the Sun, but also took his turn on the cleaning rota as a sweeper. Other well-known Unity actors include Lionel Bart, Michael Gambon and Bob Hoskins. The theatre suffered a serious fire in 1975 and the site was subsequently sold for social housing, where there are two references to its theatrical past (one is shown as the featured image above).
For 30 years, until 2012, the former Drill Hall of the Bloomsbury Rifles in Chenies St (now RADA studios) was a creative hub for lesbian, gay and queer artists and for artists of colour. The Drill Hall’s much-missed Christmas pantomimes were a must for London lesbians in the 1980s and 90s but they sometimes puzzled the critics.
“At the Drill Hall’s Sleeping Beauty, the audience is the first eye-opener. Hardly any children [I counted three], and a preponderance of university lecturers, teacher- types, and amorous couples, mostly female.” (Independent 1993)
Only last year actor Adjoa Andoh described the Drill Hall as her touchstone. In an article in the Guardian she recalled being in the Snow Queen with playwright Bryony Lavery, wearing fur coat, high heels and antlers. More seriously, she recalled one of her “favourite roles ever”, playing the bereaved teenager in Jackie Kay’s play Twice Over, the first play by a Black writer to be produced by Gay Sweatshop Theatre Group.
Sisterhood on the Stage
In June 1889, a small theatre at 8 Great Queen Street in Holborn, then called the Novelty, staged the English première of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. A couple of years later Elizabeth Robins co-produced and played the lead role in the first British staging of Hedda Gabler. A novelist and playwright as well as actress and producer, Robins wrote several suffrage and other feminist plays and was a leading member of the Actresses’ Franchise League (AFL). Formed in 1908, the AFL was the first feminist political theatre group of the 20th century; members included Ellen Terry, Sybil Thorndike, and Marie Lloyd.
The AFL had strong Camden links. Its President, the actress Gertrude Elliott, lived in Bedford Square with her husband the actor-manager Johnson Forbes-Robertson, also an active and outspoken supporter of women’s suffrage. Another AFL member, actress-manager Lena Ashwell, had taken on the lease of the Novelty Theatre in 1907 and renamed it the Kingsway. The Kingsway staged many suffrage and other feminist plays by Lena Ashwell’s own company and other companies including Edith Craig’s Pioneer Players.
During WW1, AFL members were involved in two Camden projects supporting British and allied military personnel. One, handy for Gertrude Elliott in Bedford Square, was the YMCA Shakespeare Hut in Bloomsbury, that provided rest and recuperation for Australian and New Zealand soldiers on leave in London. The other was the female-run Endell Street Military Hospital (as described in the linked Camden Guides blog). Entertainments included short plays by suffrage playwrights. There was change backstage too. Johnson Forbes-Robertson employed a female business manager and a female stage manager. At the Kingsway Lena Ashwell decided to employ an all-women backstage staff: pragmatic, as men were in short supply, but also a feminist action. The Kingsway was gutted by incendiary bombs in 1941 and demolished in 1959.
Sadly, if unsurprisingly, the plaque on their Bedford Square home makes no mention of Gertrude Elliott, only her husband. So still a way to go on the equality front.
Naomi Paxton, Stage Rights! – Manchester UP (2018)
Image at top of the page is of the Unity Theatre Plaque © Sue McCarthy, 2021