Hampton Hill Playhouse: Theatre Tour

Hampton Hill Theatre

It’s not very often that amateur theatres offer behind the scenes tours, but the Hampton Hill Theatre in Teddington holds an open morning once a month giving visitors the chance to look around backstage. I went along on Saturday morning.

The theatre was built in the 90s, and is remarkably well-equipped. It is owned and operated by Teddington Theatre Club, but other groups also use the space. The theatre has two theatre spaces, the smaller of which doubles as rehearsal space for the drama groups that meet here. The main theatre has an impressive set of equipment and a lighting rig: I got to go above the stage and see the walkways and the scenery waiting to be lowered.

There is a hugely impressive range of props, and a workshop where volunteers work to create the scenery for the theatre’s many productions. In fact the entire thing is run by volunteers, which is testament to the skill and commitment shown by all involved. Upstairs is the costume store, where costumes are sorted by period; there is even a special section for pantomime costumes.

I really enjoyed having a look around this theatre. I’ve seen a few productions here and they’ve all been of a really high standard. I definitely recommend the theatre if you’re anywhere in the area.

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National Theatre: After Hours Tour

I’m a sucker for anything Halloween-related, so the After Hours Tour at the National Theatre was a must-do for me, especially as I wanted to go last year but it was sold out. I’ve already done a backstage tour at the National, but even though the tour went over old ground at times, there was plenty new to see.

Me holding a skull

Alas, poor Yorick

We were taken backstage via the Dorfman Theatre (which I didn’t get to see on my last tour) and into the workshop areas where the sets are built. Some of these were ones I hadn’t been in before – one advantage of going on a late tour is that there’s no one around doing work that you need to stay out of the way of. It was looking a bit spooky in one of the rooms thanks to the giant puppets under construction for the forthcoming production of Pinocchio.

Creepy mask

Creepy mask (from Common)

In a rehearsal room we were greeted with the sight of a (prop) dog lying in the middle of the floor – a ‘curious incident of the dog in the night time’! Fake hands were dotted about as we ventured on our way, and at one point we ran into a rather frightening gory mannequin. We learned about theatrical superstitions – the thirteen dressing rooms on each floor, for instance, have been numbered 0-12 so that no one has the dressing room with the unlucky number.

The best bit was getting to look at the props table and learn about theatrical special effects – how they get the blood to flow when someone on stage is stabbed. Some of the props were a bit gory – I passed on my chance to hold a model of a severed head, thoughtfully designed to weigh as much as an actual head.

Filling the knife with blood

Filling the knife with blood

Demonstration

Demonstration

Finally we ended up backstage at the Dorfman, where we got to see the coat worn by the ghost of Hamlet’s father during the infamous Daniel Day Lewis production. A hugely enjoyable tour – I’m glad I managed to catch it.

Royal Academy of Dramatic Art: Tour

RADA's Gower Street entrance

RADA’s Gower Street entrance

The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art has its headquarters fairly near where I work, and I’ve attended several student and other theatre productions over the last few years. I’ve been meaning to go on a tour for a while, and finally registered for one taking place on Saturday.

RADA Theatre entrance on Malet Street

RADA Theatre entrance on Malet Street

I attended a tour of the RADA Library a couple of years ago, as part of my professional development. That tour took place in the building on Chenies Street, where the library is located, along with the Club Theatre, RADA Studios and some rehearsal and technical rooms. This tour, however, covered the Gower Street/Malet Street building. I entered via the Gower Street entrance, flanked by a distinctive doorway. This sculpture was designed by Alan Durst, and the figures hold the masks of Tragedy and Comedy.

Royal Charter

Royal Charter

Our guide, Molly, was a friendly RADA graduate who gave us a brief introduction to the history of RADA. It was established in 1904, when the gloriously-named actor Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree started an Academy of Dramatic Art in the dome atop His (now Her) Majesty’s Theatre in the Haymarket. The Academy moved to Gower Street the following year and gained its Royal Charter in 1920.

Quotation

In the Gower Street reception

Over the years RADA has trained a number of great British actors, including John Gielgud, Alan Rickman, Imelda Staunton, Vivien Leigh, Ralph Fiennes, Mark Rylance… I could name more, but I’d be here all day. Several names are visible on the awards boards displayed throughout the building. Though much of the décor is modern, and the building has been constructed out of two back-to-back Georgian houses in a rather impressive and modern way, the signposts and directions on the wall have been painted to resemble Shakespearean theatrical scripts, which I really liked, and often, appropriate quotations are added.

RADA on Chenies Street

RADA on Chenies Street

We were taken to all three theatres in the building, in which the students perform (final year student productions are open to the general public). There’s the Jerwood Vanbrugh Theatre, which can be a traditional proscenium arch, a theatre-in-the-round, or a thrust stage; the small, intimate Gielgud Theatre; and the atmospheric, versatile GBS (George Bernard Shaw) Theatre in the basement. During our exploration we learned about the rigorous audition process for RADA (four rounds, two of them workshops) and the three-year structure of the course. Only around 30 students are admitted each year, with a similar number admitted onto the technical courses.

RADA Studios

RADA Studios

Following this we were taken into a workshop where students on technical RADA courses build sets. We also got to see inside a sound studio and had a peek into the wardrobe department, where costumes are made.

I really enjoyed my tour of RADA. I can’t say that I’ve developed any desire to attend as a student, but I will continue to watch productions here with interest.

London Palladium: Tour

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London Palladium tours are pretty rare and only occur during the week in daytime, so I had to take a day off work to be able to attend one. I turned up in plenty of time and joined the group milling about the box office.

The tour started promptly at 11.30, and was led by Mark Fox, the Advertising Manager for Really Useful Theatres, the group which currently owns the Palladium as well as several other theatres in London. During the tour, we learned a lot about the history of the theatre and the site, as well as some of the stars who have graced the stage here.

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Celebrating the Palladium’s 100th anniversary

The site used to belong to the Duke of Argyll, whose house and grounds occupied an area of London that at the time was practically countryside. By the time the site was sold, the area was much more built up, as London had expanded considerably in the intervening centuries. One of the reasons for the high concentration of Victorian and Edwardian-era theatres in the West End is the frequency with which land became available to buy owing to attempts to rebuild London as a healthier, more hygienic city, along the lines of Paris. This particular site was used as a circus before Walter Gibbons bought it with the intention of capitalising on the growing appetite for music hall: Argyll Street was a prime spot owing to the recent opening of Oxford Circus underground station very close by. The name Palladium comes from the classical world: these kinds of names were particularly fashionable at the time (e.g. the Hippodrome and the Coliseum). Gibbons hired Frank Matcham, the famous theatre architect, to build his new music hall. Like many others of the period, it was not particularly designed to be a lasting building, but like many others, it has lasted to this day.

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Central staircase

Matcham ensured in his building that, in common with the mores of the day, the different classes of theatregoer were divided from one another, with the dress circle ticket holders entering via the beautiful central staircase, front stalls audience members being escorted to their seats and offered an at-seat service, those in the rear stalls being sent down a lower corridor, and those in the cheapest upper circle seats entering round the side of the building. The foyer still retains its grandeur, with stained glass windows, a marble staircase, and ashtrays by the doors to accommodate the smokers (there also used to be ashtrays on the back of the seats in the auditorium itself). Dress circle ticket holders still enter this way, but those in the stalls can enter through what was once the ticket hall and has now been transformed into an entrance area and bar. In the old days, theatregoers would queue up inside to buy tickets from a booth along the side, and there were ticket carousels to ensure the correct tickets were given out and accurate records could be kept. Just before a show, tickets could be taken down to small booths at each entrance of the theatre and sold to last-minute audience members.

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New foyer for the stalls

These days, people tend to buy their tickets online (and there’s a different box office, anyway), so this area was converted for the theatre’s 100th anniversary in 2010. Through the skylight it’s possible to see the back of 8 Argyll Street, a Georgian house incorporated into the theatre and used as offices. It is still the official address for the theatre, and has its own interesting history, as US author Washington Irving stayed there during his sojourn in London.

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Ticket sales booth for the rear stalls

The auditorium itself is really beautiful, a triumph of theatre engineering on the part of Frank Matcham. I don’t think I ever properly appreciated it until today. Though it seats over 2000, it does have a more intimate feel than many other large venues. The dress circle and upper circle balconies were constructed with single strips of steel, so that no view-restricting columns were needed. Standing on the stage, you realise what a good connection the performers have with their audience members, as you can see right to the back of the upper circle.

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View from the Palladium stage

I was very surprised at how small the stage is. Yes, it is wide, but it is also fairly shallow, with very limited space in the wings, and only a small on-stage area for quick changes or prop storage. This is largely down to its history as a music hall: large storage areas were simply not needed. Moving large pieces of scenery in and out therefore becomes pretty tricky.

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The Palladium stage

Over the years, the theatre has played host to music hall, variety performances (it was the first place in which slides from Captain Scott’s ill-fated Antarctic exhibition were shown to the public), cinema, comedy and concerts. Sunday Night at the London Palladium is pretty famous, of course, and many Hollywood stars such as Judy Garland and Bing Crosby have played here. Pantomimes were a regular fixture for many years, and the tradition was revived last year. Musicals have also featured, including Oliver, My Fair Lady and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and most recently The Wizard of Oz and the revival of Cats.

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Safety curtain

Underneath the stage, it’s possible to see where the old wooden stage ends and the steel flooring begins: this can be removed and replaced with whatever a set designer wants. We also saw where the old revolving stage used to be, removed a few years ago.

Our tour ended in the Cinderella Bar, after taking a peek at the Royal Box. The tour lasted over two hours and its a testament to how good it was that I never once felt bored or fatigued. It was definitely worth taking a day off work for.

Bush Theatre: Tour

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The Bush Theatre

The Bush Theatre in Shepherd’s Bush reopened this week after a refit. I took a tour of the building, which used to be a public library, back in 2015, and wanted to go back and see what has changed.

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New glass doors and outdoor area

The bar and the library look very similar. The main change is to the side of the building, where windows open onto an outdoor area, allowing passers-by to see into this light, airy space. The location of the ticket desk has also changed.

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Ticket desk

Another key change is that the theatre now has a studio!

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Entrance to studio

I’m happy to report that ticket prices will remain low, with prices starting at £10. This is brilliant news for the local community and theatre lovers in general.

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The Bush is back – check it out!

London’s Hidden Gem – a talk and tour at the Little Angel Theatre

Little Angel Theatre

Since I moved to London I’ve enjoyed all kinds of theatre, and I’ve discovered a love for puppetry, which most certainly is not just for children. One of the major proponents of puppetry in the UK is the Little Angel Theatre in Islington, founded 55 years ago and still thriving.

Plaque

I discovered that the theatre were holding an evening event called London’s Hidden Gem, involving a talk and a tour of the theatre, so I booked a ticket (drawn in also by the prospect of wine). The theatre foyer is warm and inviting, decorated with puppets from previous productions, I had fun sipping my wine, trying to work out where the puppets were from, and chatting to the friendly staff.

Foyer

The auditorium is still the same one that was used all those years ago, and the seats are original, albeit reupholstered. The talk was delivered by Ronnie le Drew, one of the earliest apprentices at the theatre, who has been here since 1963, and who has also enjoyed a film and TV career. When he said he worked on Labyrinth, I had to suppress a fangirl squeal of delight, as this 1986 classic is one of my favourite films.

Theatre

He talked about the history of the theatre, which was founded by John Wright, as well as showing us some fascinating archive footage of the theatre being built on the site of a derelict temperance hall. There were also clips of a 1960s BBC show demonstrating the theatre in action, with laughing schoolchildren enjoying a show, and the construction of puppets (which can take around three weeks to make).

Puppet

Ronnie told us about the different kinds of puppets, including marionettes, shadow puppets and glove puppets, illustrating his descriptions with examples of those selfsame puppets, bringing them to life in front of our eyes. My favourite was the Dodo, with his warm pink blanket.

Workshop

Afterwards we got to go backstage, past the original proscenium arch to where the dressing rooms, lighting, scenery and puppets are located. Puppets might be smaller than humans, but you still need enough space for the puppeteers, particularly when they are operating marionettes and need to be able to get past one another on the bridge. Assorted puppets hang from the ceiling: I imagine this might be quite spooky at night. I recognised a couple from Jabberwocky, a production I saw.

Dog puppet

The final part of the tour was also the most hands on: we got to go into the workshop and have a go with various puppets ourselves, including an adorable little dog. The theatre runs courses for adults on puppetry, and it’s something that is on my bucket list to do one day.

Theatre logo

The theatre hopes to run these events again in the future. I had a lovely time and would definitely encourage going. They are designed for adults, but there was one little girl in our group accompanying her parents who seemed to be having just as much fun as the rest of us. I hope the theatre runs events like this again – they are really worthwhile.

Royal Shakespeare Company: Front of House Tour

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As part of my quest to do pretty much every tour the Royal Shakespeare Company offer, I signed up for the Front of House Tour. I’d already done the Backstage Tour and the After Dark Tour, but the Front of House Tour offered even more history.

My tour guide was very knowledgeable and informative, full of fascinating snippets of history. We got to pop into the Swan Theatre auditorium, where the crew were changing the set ready for the evening’s performance of The Rover. I was fascinated to see that the first two rows of seats directly in front of the stage had been raised up: they form part of a lift, and I was amazed that in all the times I’ve been to this theatre, I never realised it was there.

The tour took in the front of house areas and the history behind them. The Swan Theatre, the first part built in the Victorian era, sadly burnt down and the auditorium became a conference hall, a WWII canteen and a dance hall before finally becoming a theatre again in the 1980s. During the recent building refurbishment not many changes were made, but a high desk was installed that can be lowered down to stalls level to allow the technical team to watch the performance.

The 1930s theatre was designed by a woman, Elisabeth Scott. The original foyer is now the Scott Bar in her honour. The original clock is still there, and the ticket sales desks now adorn the back wall. There is a hollow in the floor at the place where everyone stood to buy tickets.

When the theatre was refurbished in 2010, the original stage boards were installed just outside the theatre on each floor, so it’s impossible to enter the new auditorium without treading on them. I love the way the new theatre incorporates aspects of the building’s history.