The Players Theatre
A golden jubilee
It is always a rather sad, yet inevitable fact that, throughout the years, many nota- ble art-forms have been forced to give way to newer and more popular techniques. As silent films were to bow out to the `talkies', which in turn lost audiences to television, so music-halls and the old-style variety shows have long been replaced by lavish, full-scale musicals, often incorpor- ating strong story-lines.
All the more reason, then, why the Players Theatre, 50 years old on 18 Octo- ber, should be celebrating, for since its foundation in 1936 above a fruit and veg. merchant in Covent Garden, to its present home 'underneath the arches' in Charing Cross, this 'celebrated establishment of the most British jocosity' has opened its doors to aristocrats, politicians, intellectuals and many famous artistes. For a music-hall house to materialise several decades after the genre appeared to have outlived its popularity, and to survive, is an achieve- ment which must be shared initially by its two actor co-founders, the late Peter Ridgeway and the indefatigable Leonard Sachs. But maybe it also has a little to do with the original premises, 43 King Street, which Ridgeway acquired from a Mr W. C. Evans, for it has been said that the building contributed much in the way of the Players' fame through its own colourful history. In 1660, its rooms witnessed a notable date in British constitutional history — the meet- ing of the first Cabinet council ever to be held. Other meetings of less significance, but of equal personal interest, were inces- sant and among those who quipped and conversed and criticised in its chairs were Dr Johnson, Samuel Butler, Grinling Gib- bons, Addison, Dryden, Pope, Garrick, Sheridan and Hogarth, not forgetting the inevitable Pepys, who was always on hand for coffee and a gossip.
Eventually No 43 came into the hands of Henry Joy, landlord of the newly designed Supper Club and Music Hall, and whose name is immortalised to this day as descrip- tive of the Players' performances — 'Late Joy's'. After Joy's death it passed to W. C. Evans, of the Covent Garden Theatre, and became famous in catering and entertain- ment annals as 'Evans Hotel, Supper Rooms and Music Hall'. As such, it was the pioneer of modern clubs, it being no unusual occurrence, if the chronicles are to he believed, for nine dukes to dine there in one evening.
To define music-hall in terms of an art-form is not a particularly easy task for, at its best, the songs have an imprecise use of the language and a certain crudeness of style and structure. However, for all that, 43 King Street (c. 1910) it has managed to attract some of the most literary names of our time. At the Players in the Thirties and Forties, members in- cluded Louis MacNeice, J. B. Priestley and Kingsley Martin, then editor of the New Statesman. And while Dylan Thomas knocked back a glass or two, Terence Rattigan enjoyed nothing better than a public verbal sparring match with chairman Leonard Sachs. Of course, over the years Sachs has created a style of chairmanship far removed from the often coarse and belching Victorian original. His loqua- ciousness and exaggerated delivery is what many of us have come to accept as being part of the tradition, whereas, in fact, it is peculiar to the Players Theatre and its tele- vision counterpart, The Good Old Days.
Jonathan Miller describes what he re- members of the early years as having 'an effervescent sense of novelty', for it seemed that everyone mucked in as unpaid volunteers. In Miller's day it was not unusual to see actresses of such calibre as Jean Anderson and Patricia Hayes making soup and sandwiches, but even prior to that, Winston's daughter, Mary Churchill, took pleasure in selling programmes and Rex Whistler happily painted backcloths and scenery.
Leonard Sachs refers to those days more prosaically: 'The artists worked for nothing and a sandwich and when I told a young Peter Ustinov that he would soon be earning the princely sum of two pounds, he was so over the moon that he rushed off to get married.' Ustinov is just one of the many whom the Players Theatre claims to have set off on the road to success. Bernard Miles and Hattie Jacques, Clive Dunn, Ian Carmichael and Bill Owen all first trod the boards there, giving spirited renditions of tried and true favourites made famous by the likes of George Robey, Vesta Victoria and Harry Cham- pion. And in later years Maggie Smith and Julie Andrews were also to add their names to an already prestigious list.
Just after the war broke out, the Players moved from its third floor premises in King Street to the basement of 13 Albemarle Street, which proved to be an ideal venue in the circumstances. Handbills were issued suggesting that members bring a rug and a cushion if they wished to stay the night, while camp-beds and mattresses were also in attendance. As Leonard Sachs was serving king and country in north Africa, his place was ably filled by Don Gemmell and Jean Anderson, and the Players company for the first time, as part of the war effort, went on the road, entertaining in hospitals, dance halls and service clubs.
But the biggest artistic surprise in the Players' history was yet to come, and it had nothing whatsoever to do with music-hall. In the autumn of 1952 a composer named Sandy Wilson was approached by the Theatre Club and asked if he would be interested in writing a musical scena for one of their programmes. They suggested that it should be a pastiche of the musical shows of the 1920s; it was to be included in the bill for three weeks as a change from their usual Victorian songs. After a suc- cessful run Wilson was asked to expand it into a full length show, which was pre- sented in October, with invitations ex- tended to all the top London manage- ments. Without exception, they turned it down as being uncommerical, and initially it was only Marjorie Hawtrey, the owner of the suburban Embassy Theatre, who consi- dered The Boy Friend a paying pro- position.
The Players today is in the capable hands of Denis Martin and Reggie Woolley. The latter, now in his late seventies, still de- signs and paints the scenery, a job for which he was taken on at 43 King Street. Young performers are given their first chance to be seen there alongside experi- enced regulars like Sheila Bernette and John Rutland, and members come from all over the world to sit in its red plushness and to sip a drink, whilst singing along to anthems like 'Covent Garden in the Morn- ing' accompanied by the rumble of the `London, Chatham and Dover Railway'.
The Players, to be broadcast on 14 October (Radio 2, 9 p.m.), will, no doubt, quite properly indulge in anecdotes and memories connected with the past 50 years. One of my own particular favourites concerns Feliks Topolski, an esteemed member in the Albemarle Street days. He decided that he would paint a mural at the theatre, to be titled 'Apotheosis to Queen Victoria'. In dedicated fashion, it took him just over a week to sketch the masterpiece in charcoal and he was set to return after the weekend to apply the varnish. Sadly for posterity and Topolski, an over-zealous cleaner, armed with a cloth and bottle of borax, wiped away the entire work of art, but although the glorification of the monarch was not to be endorsed on that occasion, at every Players Theatre per- formance she is certainly remembered with reverence as the audience is asked to be upstanding and to drink the health of `Queen Victoria, God Bless Her!'