Last year, through Endeavour Press’ weekly e-newsletter, I got a free copy of their republication of Theatre Royal by Michael Coren. Never having heard of the author before, I was spurred on to try it after absolutely loving another theatre history, Seven Stages by Geoffrey Trease, from this publisher, so I had high hopes for this one too.
First published in 1981, this history chronicles a hundred years of The Theatre Royal, Stratford East. From its opening night, with Lord Lytton’s popular drama Richelieu, in 1884. To its glory days, in the 1960s, under the enigmatic and controversial Joan Littlewood, with Gerry Raffles and their ground-breaking ensemble Theatre Workshop; who are perhaps best known for their wacky, hard-hitting musical, Oh, What a Lovely War! Finally, to how in the 1970s, it sadly struggled to move on and forge a new identity once Littlewood left, and how it was holding on in the 1980s with hope for the future.
I have to admit I went into this not really knowing what to expect – what with me knowing nothing about The Theatre Royal, Stratford East. What I found was a straightforward and detailed history that charts the origins and ups and downs of this out-of-town theatre. It most certainly must have been a hardy place and had some staunch supporters, because it managed to survive two world wars, a dearth of funds, many failed projects and many more failed plays. All of which was brought starkly to life with quotes from glaring critics, bitter directors, as well as faithful actors.
Earlier, I said I didn’t know anything about this theatre or so I thought, because actually when I read more I realised I did know of Joan Littlewood and Theatre Workshop. I presume I must have studied them at some point at university, but I didn’t recall them or this theatre before. Otherwise though, everything in this book was new to me. My only reservation with the book was that its sole focus is on the productions and logistics of keeping the theatre going. Impersonally listing production after production and the critics opinions of them. Which is fine for a theatre student, but could be dry and hard going for regular readers.
Overall, I thought the Theatre Royal was an excellent, comprehensive history of the highs and lows of this famous theatre – which is still going now, even if this history stops in the ’80s – however this wasn’t as entertaining a read as my previous theatre book from this publisher. Good read.
Have you read this? Or any other histories of famous theatres?