Thursday 11 May 2017

Some Theatrical Entertainments in Chester in the18th and 19th Centuries

Here in Chester, in 2017, a new theatre opens its doors on Northgate Street.  The first production on the Storyhouse stage is a new adaptation of ‘The Beggar’s Opera’.  Go back nearly 250 years, to a time when ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ was a very popular hit show, and the New Theatre on Northgate Street is welcoming the Venetian’s Company of Performers, from Sadler’s Wells, London.  The Chester Courant of October 1768 carries an advertisement for the show, highlighting the entertaining delights of ‘Stiff Rope Dancing’, ‘Lofty Tumbling’, the ‘diverting tricks’ of Monsieur de Monkeyro, Miss Wilkinson and Signior Georgi on the ‘Musical Glasses’ and a Pantomime.

What was then known as the New Theatre started life as the Chapel of St Nicholas in 1280 and had a variety of uses over the years before becoming a theatre.  In 1777 an Act to Licence a Theatre (ref. acts/b/51) saw it converted into the Theatre Royal.  With the premises now being officially licensed, the players could perform without the risk of being raided by the city magistrates, halting the performance.  In the mid-19th century it became a concert hall and its last incarnation as an entertainment venue was as a cinema, which closed its doors in 1961.  Nowadays it is better known to residents and visitors as Superdrug.
I was interested to see what other theatrical entertainments were on offer years ago, and though we don’t have an extensive theatrical collection, it does have its moments!  For example, looking at the 19th century playbills we hold, you can see that the touring companies that visited the city set up their shows in a range of places, not just the Theatre Royal.  ‘Thiodon’s Mechanical & Picturesque Theatre of the Arts’ was playing in the Royal Hotel Assembly Room, offering the eager public the delights of mechanical figures depicting the ‘Birth of Venus’ and ‘Buonaparte Crossing The Alps’ with his army of 30,000 men, ‘announced by an extraordinary instrument consisting of sixteen trumpets’.  The evening’s entertainment concluding with a ’Storm at Sea’ complete with ‘agitation of the waves … Lightning, Thunder etc’!  Other companies performed at the Royal Britannia Theatre near the Bowling Green Inn, the Pantheon on Grosvenor Street and at Latimer’s Theatre, where you could see ‘The Bohemian Girl! Or the Deformed of Notre Dame!’  The venues and performances may have varied greatly in quality, but all seemed to finish off the evening’s entertainment with, at the very least, a dance and a comic song but more often, a Farce - ‘How To Settle Accounts With Your Laundress’ being a notable example.

The posters not only outlined tempting teasers for the unfolding drama, but were full of spoilers.  The audiences for ‘Ambrose Gwinett or A Seaside Story’ could be lured into the theatre with the prospect of a ‘Press Gang’, a ‘Bloody Handkerchief’, an ‘Ugly Postman’ (always suspect!) and an ‘Unwelcome Guest’!  With the promised peril of an accusation of ‘Murder’ and our hero sentenced to be ‘Hung In Chains’, you might think the audience felt they simply had to attend to discover the outcome, but no such thing!  The poster reassures us that we will see ‘Innocence Triumphant’ and the play will culminate with the ‘Death of the Guilty’!  Hurrah!  Presumably, 19th century audiences preferred to know exactly what they were committing to on a night out.

Over on Northgate Street, the Theatre Royal was playing host to Signor Stanislaus, ‘The Wonderful and Unrivalled Fire King!’  During the first half of the evening he showed off his strength - raising a table with his teeth, on which stood a soldier, lifting a variety of heavy weights - backwards, and having a stone weighing 300lbs broken over his head with a sledge hammer!  The second half of the show saw him perform even more amazing feats – holding red hot iron in his hands and mouth, even biting off several pieces (!?) swallowing blazing pitch and finally, the ‘Polish Salamander Will Stand Bare-footed in a Large Fire of Blazing Charcoal!!!’  To bring the audience back to its senses and send them home happy, the evening ended with the usual Farce.

However, not all theatrical events ended happily. One performance, in a building on Watergate Street in 1772, ended in tragedy. Our Local Studies collection has a poem which was ‘Occasioned by the late dreadful Explosion of Gunpowder, on the Fifth Day of November, 1772 … whereby a Company assembled at a Puppet-Show … were blown up, and many killed and wounded.’ (ref. 014203) After describing the event, the poem continues with prolonged moral ‘Reflections, Expostulations and Exhortations …The whole designed as a Terror to evil doers, and an Alarm to those that are asleep.’ There is an article in the November 1979 edition of Cheshire Life, written by John Bridge, which tells the story of the night’s events. The Puppet Theatre was held in Eaton’s Room, part of a multi-storied building on Watergate Street. The room below it was a warehouse where 800lbs of gunpowder were stored! The building was almost completely destroyed and, given the date and the contents of the warehouse, it would be a very funny Bonfire Night story, if it were not for the great loss of life. Nineteen died in the explosion and fifty-seven people were admitted to hospital, four of whom subsequently died, and a further thirty had minor injuries.

But to end with something jollier – no, not a Farce, but a Circus! Pablo Fanque’s Circus Royal!

On seeing these posters, one of our volunteers remarked ‘Like in Sgt Pepper? Mr Kite?’ and indeed he was.  A quick search of the internet revealed that the song ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite’ was inspired by an old poster for a performance of Pablo Fanque’s circus as a fund raiser for a fellow artiste, Mr Kite.  Pablo Fanque was an English equestrian performer and circus proprietor and the first non-white British circus owner in Britain.  Circuses  were extremely popular in Victorian Britain, and his topped the list for nearly thirty years.  He was famed for his dancing horses, most likely what we would now call dressage, and the London Illustrated News reported that ‘…the steed dances to the air, and the band has not to accommodate itself to the action of the horse, as in previous performances of this kind.’  However extraordinary the dressage skills of his horses may have been, the poster illustration of waltzing horses does seem a little generous!  Alas, the only Cheshire connection, apart from his Circus performances in Chester, is that he died in Stockport on 4th May 1871.  He was buried with his wife, in Leeds.

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