Newest Review: ... Opera of the 1980s and 1990s. The first one immediately caught my attention – a small but colourful display celebrating the ... more
The stage from every age
Theatre Museum (London)
Member Name: JOHNDMR
Theatre Museum (London)
Date: 05/08/02, updated on 05/08/02 (146 review reads)
Advantages: Lively, compact collection
The Theatre Museum in London, or National Museum of the Performing Arts, to give it its full title, is part of the Victoria & Albert Museum. It was created in 1974 from three major collections; one of programmes and playbills given to the V & A in 1924, one of Diaghilev Ballets Russes costumes, and the British Theatre Museum Association’s collections, including the Henry Irving archive, and opened in 1987.
A core collection tracing 400 years of theatrical heritage from Shakespeare to the present day, a rolling programme of temporary exhibitions, plus various activities and workshops in which you can participate or merely watch, all create a lively look at the world of the stage. And the best news of all is that for some years there was an admission charge, but now it’s free to all.
As you enter, pick up a four-page ‘Welcome’ leaflet from the reception, which summarises selected highlights of what there is to see from the permanent collection.
Walk down a slightly sloping ramp, The Wall of Fame, where you will see (and are allowed to touch) hand prints in coloured paint left by famous celebrities past and present, among them Dame Peggy Ashcroft, Sir John Gielgud, Barbara Windsor, Bonnie Langford, Ken Dodd and Felicity Kendal – to name but a few of hundreds.
Enter the main galleries, which take you along a few corridors with illuminated display cases featuring various facets of theatrical history in more or less chronological order, from the Tudor age to English National Opera of the 1980s and 1990s. The first one immediately caught my attention – a small but colourful display celebrating the restoration of the Savoy Theatre after its destruction in the mid-1920s, to its art deco form of 1929. The Savoy was where most of the Gilbert & Sullivan operas were given their premier performances, and included are a small three-dimensional model of the theatre, a first-night programme for the operetta
‘Iolanthe’ of 25 November 1882, and if you listen carefully, selections from G & S playing softly in the background. In another case, I was fascinated to see a poster for the British premiere of ‘The Pirates of Penzance’ in December 1879 – not in London, but at a theatre in Paignton, not far from where I live. (Excuse the detail, but some of you will know of my passion for the Savoy operas).
Other cases are devoted to particular London theatres, famous actors and families, such as the Kemble family, Edmund Kean, David Garrick, and the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, including a model of how it looked before major alterations in 1921. One includes Victorian marionettes, with one of the backcloths painted for their original performances, around 1870. Another features memorabilia from a pantomime dressing room, full of panto wigs, headdresses, and make-up. Another has a revolving display of popular songs from the Music Hall at the end of the 19th century. Yet another shows costumes designed by Leon Bakst for the Diaghilev Ballets Russes early in the 20th century.
A few large contemporary paintings illustrate such performances as a masquerade at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket, c.1724, and renaissance theatre plays at unspecified locations in the capital. There are also a few 19th and 20th century portraits, one of the most impressive being one of Richard Burton as Henry V (1956).
There are also reconstructions of several theatres throughout the ages, including Shakespeare’s second Globe Theatre, and a Restoration playhouse designed by Sir Christopher Wren around 1675. It’s interesting to recall that theatres were initially built outside the walls of the City of London, to avoid the jurisdiction of the city Fathers who disapproved of plays as ‘rest of the devil and the sink of sin’.
After the main galleries you will see the recording performance exhibition, which includes an
audio-visual display about the national Video Archive of Stage Performance, established to keep a permanent record of important theatre productions throughout the country.
I also saw two of the exhibitions, both of which are due to continue there until early 2003. One is for the Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre, consisting of huge mechanical sculptures which come alive to re-enact tales from folklore, accompanied by music, shadows and light. The other, ‘Let Paul Robeson Sing!’, celebrates the extraordinary life and career of Robeson, singer and actor, ostracized by the US government in the 1950s partly for racial reasons and partly because he spoke out in favour of communism during the McCarthy era. This brings together a wealth of memorabilia about his performances on stage and screen (including videos) as well as photos and press cuttings about him and the astonishing persecution to which he was subjected in his homeland.
Finally, spare a few minutes if you can to watch one of the theatrical costume or make-up sessions. These programmes take place five times per day, lasting 30 minutes, with a maximum of 25 per session. Even if you don’t want to be transformed into a villain or Widow Twankey, you can watch somebody else undergoing the ordeal in public! There is always an extensive range of activities and workshops for adults and children, plus research facilities, and by prior arrangement an opportunity to see videos of contemporary productions from the archive. Visit the website [link above] or pick up a leaflet at reception for further details.
If you’ve ever been spellbound by the world of theatre or pantomime – and who hasn’t at one time or another – then this wonderful museum will captivate you. Not only is it free, but it is also compact enough to see in its entirety within a reasonable visit. When I went I saw the permanent collection, both exhibitions mentioned above, and watched a cos
tume session for about five minutes, all in about an hour.
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