The real story behind Liverpool Playhouse

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As the curtain hovers ready to fall on The Star at the Liverpool Playhouse, this play – or an entertainment as writer Michael Wynne prefers to call it – which wonderfully celebrates the 150th anniversary of the site of what was once then a music hall called The Star, compelled me to wonder about its origins: what is the history of the site and where did the music hall come from when sadly only the beautiful star-shaped mosaic in the current building’s disused box-office area serves as one of the few reminders of the Playhouse’s earliest history.

The association between a public house and a music room dates as far back as the sixteenth century. It is known that a concert room was originally opened on Williamson Square by Jem Ward, a local publican, painter and pugilist, which in reality was probably a dwelling-house with its two parlours knocked into one to provide a concert room and with admission obtained by purchasing liquid refreshment. This was the colloquial Star Concert Hall, licensed by local magistrates for dancing and singing as opposed to drama.

As Liverpool took off as a city in the nineteenth century and the population rapidly grew, there was an increased need for places of public entertainment and so it came that in 1866 three individuals – David Lazarus, Isaac Fineberg and Noah Lees – purchased the site and commissioned Liverpool architect Edward Davies to design a music hall – Star Music Hall – and newspaper records of the time give us a glimpse as to what it looked like:

‘The interior presents a very warm and comfortable appearance. The hall appears semi-circular in form, and consists of the body, a centre and two side galleries. The seats throughout are lined in red velvet and the hall is so constructed that every visitor has a clear view of the stage.’

‘Running round the building, and supported on light iron columns, are capacious galleries, the fronts of which are tastefully decorated. These are divided into reserved stalls and side balconies, all being richly upholstered en suite in crimson velvet. The seats in the body of the hall are covered with red American leather, and all the partitions, tables &c., have a polished surface of mahogany.’

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Records from 1876 show that there were some thirteen recognised music halls active in the city alongside undoubtedly some less salubrious ventures. Drama was also well-represented with one of the more famous venues, Theatre Royal, also in Williamson Square, being one of the few venues outside of London to be granted a royal patent.

The decline of the music hall came in deference to the new large ‘Empire Theatres’ constructed towards the end of the nineteenth century and many of the smaller more intimate music hall venues could not compete. From the profusion of music halls that once littered the towns, cities and even villages of Britain, today there are only five surviving mid-Victorian music halls.

Minor ownership changes eventually led to Star Music Hall being sold to the Liverpool Palace of Varieties Ltd in 1895 and it was renamed in 1896 as Star Theatre of Varieties and managed by Harris Fineberg, son of Isaac. Its reopening was only temporary however as it was closed for major reconstruction as a theatre, in response one must assume to the threat of the new Empire Theatre just around the corner on Lime Street. The plans were drawn up by architect Harry Percival of whom not too much is known but details of his work on other theatre projects suggest that he was a highly competent architect who understood the critical relationship between tier, box and proscenium which was reflected in the complete remodelling of the interior whilst a large proportion of the 1866 external shell was retained. The budget was somewhere between £14,000 and £20,000.

One of the reasons we know so little of Percival’s work is that a further re-modelling exercise was undertaken in 1911 by architect Stanley D. Adshead in response to a desire to create a home for a resident repertory company, a concept that at the time was both visionary and old-fashioned. The provincial repertory company – ‘stock company’- of the nineteenth century had fallen out of favour and its reimagining in the early twentieth century was little more than a vision of a number of people in Liverpool. Adshead’s budget was only £4,000 and given his lack of theatre design experience – his background was in town planning – whilst his radical though generally superficial interventions within the auditorium represented the fashion of the day, they are considered somewhat forced and heavy-handed and lack the understanding and assurance of refurbishment works at other theatres by his more experienced contemporaries. Look around the interior of the Playhouse today and you can still see a mish-mash of detailing that on closer inspection makes no sense at all.

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The building survived in this form until the 1960’s when several additions were built to improve both the technical and front of house facilities although the 1911 auditorium and front of house facilities survived largely untouched. The glass and concrete extension that was added by architects Hall, O’Donahue and Wilson in 1968 reflected the ‘brave new world’ that was so popular at the time and that stood in contrast to the traditional theatre architecture of the nineteenth century. The work was undertaken during extended summer closures over a three-year period with completion dates for aspects of the work geared around opening nights. The budget of £275,000 also addressed key technical modifications including enlarging both wings; installing a counterweight system to the stage; a new paint frame; upgrading and extending dressing rooms, wardrobes and offices; a rehearsal space; and redecorating auditorium and façade.

So, what does the twenty-first century bring for the Playhouse now that its sister theatre, Everyman, has been successfully re-built and relaunched and with most recently a repertory company (what goes around comes around) being announced? Whatever it may be, it will have to tread a delicate line between conservation management, the needs of modern theatre production, and the demands and expectations of an audience. What will hopefully continue as well is the wonderful story that the Liverpool Playhouse tells of the social history of a growing city during the Industrial Revolution and its evolution from public house to its reconstruction as a music hall in 1866, the change to theatre in 1896 and the subsequent adaptations in response to technical demand and changing fashions in the twentieth century and beyond.

So, if you get a moment, why not go and stand in the original foyer, take a look at that mosaic and, as it sparkles, dream and wonder at what went before – long may the show go on.

 

The Star performs at Liverpool Playhouse through to Saturday 14th January 2017 with some tickets still available for the remaining performances. Tickets can be booked here.

 

My review for North West End can be read here.

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