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An article on Theatre Design - From the ERA, 5th of August 1899

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An article on Theatre Design - From the ERA, 5th of August 1899 The beautiful Duchess Theatre, Balham, of which we gave our readers an engraving last week, is a fine example of the immense improvement in the design and arrangement of our playhouses which has been effected within the last thirty or forty years, and has been most recently developed in the cases of our new suburban theatres. It is not surprising that buildings like that at Balham should excel the old-fashioned houses in beauty, luxury, and convenience. And they have one great advantage which hardly any West-end house can possibly possess, i.e., a clear site, unencroached upon by neighbouring houses, with sufficient space in front to enable their exterior beauties to be plainly seen.

The trouble with so many of our public buildings in London is that they are unavoidably "sandwiched" between other buildings, or placed in a street so narrow that it is impossible to get far enough back from them to appreciate their proportions. Many of our new suburban theatres, on the contrary, stand in wide thoroughfares with plenty of light and air around them. It only needs a glance at the picture we gave last week, to enable our readers to appreciate the advantage in the case of the new Duchess Theatre; and the same beneficial freedom adds to the exterior effect of establishments like the Shakespeare, Clapham, and the Princess of Wales's, Kennington.

Not all playgoers are aware of the extent to which the comfort and convenience of audiences have been studied at our new suburban theatres. The design usually includes wide and spacious corridors and a roomy foyer. Who can ascend, for instance, the splendid staircase at the Princess of Wales's, Kennington, without realising what can be done by an architect who is not hampered by considerations of site? This, indeed, may be the difficulty with many of our West-end playhouses. Land in the centre of London is so valuable that the would-be builders of theatres have often been obliged to content themselves with a plot of small dimensions and irregular shape. With this, the architect has been set to "cut and contrive." Of course, in such a case, freedom of design and symmetry of plan are out of the question. It is a case of ingenious dove-tailing, of fitting the theatre to the site, instead of choosing the site to suit the plan of the theatre. The spacious vestibules, the broad staircases, the roomy lounges, which every comfortable theatre should contain, have frequently had to be sacrificed to the imperious limitations of the precious plot of land on which the house has bad to be built. Another difficulty, in the case of many of the London theatres, was that they had to be erected on a slope; and though our ingenious architects have grappled with the difficulty cleverly, the effect, as a whole, has often been impaired.

In some of these new suburban theatres we have very nearly the ideal playhouse, neither too large nor too small, pretty without vulgar splendour, comfortable without encouraging effeminacy. And a noticeable detail in these excellent establishments is the good quality and cheapness of the "non-intoxicating " refreshments which are provided. Few things are more pleasant than to sip one's coffee on the balcony of one of our modern suburban playhouses, while electricity supplies a colourable imitation of the rays of the moon, and the strains of the orchestra come softly from the auditorium.

That the resources of theatrical architecture are by no means exhausted has been proved by the novelty which is going to be introduced into Mr CHARLES WYNDHAM'S new theatre. The Roof Garden on the top will be reached by a lift, and also by a staircase. In weather such as we are having at present, a place to which the audience can ascend to "cool off" between the acts will be highly acceptable. The success of the suburban theatres has shown that, as in the Continental nations, the middle class of the English has come to regard playgoing as a periodical recreation, not as an occasional dissipation. With such pretty, clean, and comfortable places of amusement at their very doors they are spared many of the "unpleasantness" of former visits to the theatre - the long journey by rail and cab, and the late, and often difficult, return home. The popularity of our suburban theatres, even for these reasons, is easily accounted for; but the success of these enterprises has been largely won by the taste and liberality which have inspired the erections. The great middle-class of the suburbs, educated by the esthetic movement, keenly susceptible to grace and beauty, and intolerant of dinginess and squalor, would not have been won over as quickly and thoroughly as it has been, had not its tastes been appealed to as powerfully as possible by the comfort, cleanliness, and grace of the modern suburban playhouse, which, with its handsome outlines and spacious surroundings, reminds the travelled beholder of the municipal theatres in the smaller towns of the Continent.

The credit for the triumph achieved must be divided between such eminent architects as Mr MATCHAM, Mr SPRAGUE, and others, and the gentlemen of energy and enterprise who have entrusted them with commissions. Should the history of the rise and progress of the drama in Suburbia ever come to be written, the names of Mr J. B. MULLHOLAND, Mr WILLIAM MORTON, Messrs ACTON PHILLIPS, Messrs BENNETT and BENNETT, Mr T. PHIPPS DORMAN, Mr ALBERT FREDERICKS, Miss CISSY GRAHAME, Messrs BODE and COMPTON, Mr E. G. SAUNDERS, and Mr F. W. PURCELL will be inscribed in large letters on the " scroll of fame."

If anything were wanting to expose the absurdity of the gloomy croakings which we have heard of late about the degeneracy of provincial travelling companies it would be found in the undeniable prosperity of our suburban theatres. For these houses are "kept going" from Christmas to Christmas by the very organisations which we have been foolishly told are so bad that they are driving the public away from the provincial theatres in disgust. The same companies which visit the country towns come in due course to the London suburbs. Surely the audiences at Clapham, Brixton, and Kennington are not less critical and intelligent than those in the agricultural and mining districts of the north? Yet the suburban Londoner does not seem to have been induced to abandon his habit of theatre-going on account of any want of artistic and dramatic merit in the attractions offered to him.

It really looks as if this clamour about the bad condition of theatrical business in the provinces were only the outcome of the personal dissatisfaction of a few old actors who demand salaries above the actual value of their services and a certain section of speculators whose methods, applied to any business, would soon bring them into the Bankruptcy Court.

But, even if business in the provinces were as bad as it is attempted to make out, we should never witness a return to the old stock company system, which is finally and permanently "played out."

Above text and image from the ERA, 5th of August 1899.

Archive newspaper reports on this page were collated and kindly sent in for inclusion by B.F.

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Theatre Architects - Concert Halls and Assembly Rooms by Ernest Woodrow, 1895 - Theatrical Architecture 1878 - The Victorian Era Exhibition 1897 - London's Lost Theatres - Article - London's Theatres and Music Halls Past and Present - London's Lost Theatres and Music Halls - London's Current West End Theatres - Britain's Provincial Theatres - London's Pre 1907 West End seating plans - London Theatreland Maps 1860 1882 1900 1951 2002 - Working Dimensions of London Theatre Stages 1960 - Stage Doors and their Keepers - The ERA Theatre Sketches

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