In the early 1950s television was the new thing. Post-war austerity was slowly lifting and families bought their own black and white sets for home entertainment. Estimates put the total number installed in homes by the time of the late Queen’s Coronation at 2.5 million. In the UK more sets were bought in the two months prior to Coronation Day- 2 June 1953- than in any other previous two month period in the twentieth century.
Theatre and film audiences began to dwindle as the popularity of television grew and grew. Stephen Joseph was a young theatre director working in Yorkshire and he felt that performing in the round would re-invigorate theatre-going by being more immediate and more involving for new, young audiences. In 1955, Stephen Joseph formed the Studio Theatre Company, the first in the country to work in-the-round. Based in the Library Theatre in Scarborough, they presented summer seasons of drama. In the winter months, the company toured to towns without theatres, one of which was Newcastle-under-Lyme where a temporary theatre-in-the-round was operated in the town’s Civic Hall.
The local council was eager to find them a permanent home in the town but plans never came to fruition. Nonetheless, on 9 October 1962, a converted cinema opened in nearby Hartshill, Stoke-on-Trent as the Victoria Theatre.
The first resident Director was Peter Cheeseman. Over many years Peter helped the theatre to develop an international reputation for verbatim theatre. This involved plays being created from word for word accounts of events or methods of working developed from the recollections of ordinary people from the local area. Many tackled local topics to do with mining, steel making and the pottery industry. The company quickly gained a reputation for innovative productions of both new and classic works. As well as drama, the venue was also used for classical and other forms of music.
By 1985, almost 300 productions had been staged but the need for a new home was strongly felt. After a period of fundraising the new theatre in Basford opened its doors in 1986. Seating capacity was almost doubled but the strong local flavour and the prominence given to dramas about local topics and musical documentary continued.
The new venue took the name The New Victoria Theatre.
In 1998, Peter Cheeseman retired as Artistic Director, and was succeeded by Gwenda Hughes. In 2007, she was succeeded by current Artistic Director, Theresa Heskins.
The Victoria Theatre building, situated on the corner of Victoria Street in Hartshill, Stoke-on-Trent, first opened its doors to the public as a cinema in 1914, where it continued to provide entertainment for the next 70 years.
For the first three decades it presented films with variety acts in the intervals, and every year staged a full-length variety show. After 1945, however, the weekly programme became solely cinema, including Saturday showings for children, until the popularity of TV caused its demise in 1959. It then briefly re-opened as a nightclub, hosting cabaret, bingo and even wrestling. However, due to illegal after-hours drinking, the club soon lost its licence, and the venue closed its doors once again.
Image shows the Victoria Theatre Cinema c. 1936. Canopy advertises Jack Buchanan in This Makes You Whistle
Interior of Victoria Theatre Nightclub 1961 prior to conversion
The early history of theatre-in-the-round in North Staffordshire begins with Stephen Joseph: director, designer, teacher and writer. In the early 1950s Joseph was greatly disturbed by a British Theatre which he felt was not only dull but apparently dying. He saw the need for new plays and new ways of performing them. He had been inspired by his time studying in the United States, where he experienced the dynamic contact between audiences and actors during theatre-in-the-round performances at various university campuses.
In 1955, with funding from friends and supporters, Stephen Joseph launched the Studio Theatre Company in the Yorkshire town of Scarborough, to perform plays in the round. As well as producing summer seasons in Scarborough, and with additional financial support from the Arts Council, the company began touring to towns in England that had no civic theatre of their own. One of the towns on their touring circuit was Newcastle-under-Lyme in North Staffordshire.
Following four successful seasons at Newcastle’s Municipal Hall in the late 1950s, the Borough Council were keen to provide the company with a permanent base in a new civic theatre, but a government squeeze on financial loans put paid to that bold plan. However, still hoping to build on the interest shown by local audiences, a ‘temporary’ base was found over the border in Stoke-on-Trent, in a former cinema known as the Victoria Theatre. The Studio Theatre Company eventually obtained the lease and during the summer of 1962 Stephen Joseph and his touring manager, Peter Cheeseman, set about converting the interior of the building into a theatre in-the-round at a cost of £5,000. The company’s first production at the Victoria Theatre, The Birds and The Wellwishers by William Norfolk, opened on 9th October 1962. The Vic (as it became known) was to serve as the company’s professional home for the next 23 years, led by its artistic director Peter Cheeseman.
Stephen Joseph (1921 – 1967)
Founder and director of Studio Theatre Company (1955 – 1967)
Stephen Joseph was the son of the literary publisher, Michael Joseph and the entertainer, Hermione Gingold. Following an arts-based education he became a student at Central School of Speech and Drama in London. After National Service in the Royal Navy, he began an English degree at Cambridge University, writing and directing for the Footlights Drama Club. On leaving Cambridge, Stephen Joseph spent the next seven years working in English repertory theatres, studying in the USA and teaching and directing at Central School, until 1955 when he left to launch his own company, Studio Theatre, to explore the possibilities of theatre-in-the-round.
By the time the Studio Theatre Company moved into the Victoria Theatre in 1962, Stephen Joseph had accepted a teaching Fellowship in the new Drama Department at Manchester University, leaving the management of the Victoria to Peter Cheeseman, while Joseph continued as Managing Director and Chair of the Board of Directors.
Dying from cancer in 1967 at the young age of 46, Stephen Joseph sadly did not live to see the creation of a permanent, purpose-built, professional theatre-in-the-round. That ambition was eventually achieved through the determined efforts of Peter Cheeseman, who led the campaign to design, fund and build the New Victoria Theatre (known as the New Vic), where the Stephen Joseph Room is named in recognition of his seminal influence on its design and original artistic policy.
For an in-depth assessment of Stephen Joseph’s work, influence and legacy, see Paul Elsam’s book: Stephen Joseph: theatre pioneer and provocateur, published by Bloomsbury (2013) and available in the archive’s reference library
Find out more about Stephen Joseph
In early 1960s England, professional in-the-round staging was very rarely used. In fact, the form was hotly debated by leading actors and theatre critics of the time, Kenneth Tynan dismissing it as “theatre on the cheap.” For more information on this form of theatre, see Stephen Joseph’s book Theatre in the round published by Barrie and Rockliffe (1967) , available in the archive’s reference library.
“[It] is the most radically different form of theatre, in terms of acting style, from the enclosed stage; it presents the most extreme extent of audience embrace, i.e. the audience is all round the stage: it thus allows the maximum number of people in the audience to be close to the actors; it is the cheapest of all theatre forms; it breaks the greatest number of today’s conventions of presentation … it is as old as the hills … If you want to explore it, go to the United States (or stay in England and have patience with the Library Theatre at Scarborough and the Victoria Theatre at Stoke-on-Trent.)” Stephen Joseph, 1967.
A further advantage of in-the-round staging was the benefit of good sightlines for everyone in the audience, which Joseph counted as essential.
“We believe that this theatre will enrich the life and vitality of the Potteries, that it will provide good entertainment and stimulating ideas, and that it will fill a long felt demand, in an area where there is so much good amateur drama, for a permanent professional company with high standards … It will be a theatre for the Potteries and for North Staffordshire.”
[Publicity leaflet, 1962]
Following the Victoria’s Theatre’s conversion in 1962, made possible with various grants and private donations of £5,000, the backstage facilities remained basic and cramped, providing only two dressing rooms, with toilets shared between the audience and actors.
Storage facilities for props, costumes and stage furniture were scattered throughout the Potteries district in disused buildings rented from the local council. The search for a local site to build a purpose-built theatre-in-the-round continued for over two decades, into the mid-1980s.
Stephen Joseph believed that theatre-in-the-round would never be taken seriously in Britain until a purpose-built theatre existed. Sixty years on, it is interesting to note that the newest theatre to be built in London’s West End - Soho Place - has an adaptable auditorium. For the opening production in October 2022, the New Vic’s homegrown show, Marvellous, transferred from North Staffordshire to Soho Place and was performed in the round. Surely something to be celebrated in this 60th anniversary year of theatre-making at The Vic and New Vic theatres!
Exterior of the Victoria Theatre (1969)
Photo: Richard Smiles
Interior of the newly converted Victoria Theatre (1962), designed by Stephen Joseph, showing the rectangular stage area surrounded by four banks of raked seats, two of the three entrances and the technical control room above.
“The Victoria Theatre with its island stage, though only a conversion, will make a unique contribution to the nation’s drama.”
[Publicity leaflet, August 1962]
This oil painting of the Victoria Theatre features a poster for a production of The Card, an adaptation by Joyce Cheeseman (née Holliday) of one of Arnold Bennett’s “Five Towns” novels set in the Potteries. Note The Vic’s iconic red and white logo based on the Staffordshire Knot and incorporating the masks of comedy and tragedy.
The painting originally hung on the wall in The Old House at Home, a pub on the Hartshill Road which is still there today. There being no bar at the theatre in the early days, The Old House was a favourite after-show watering hole for the cast and crew in the 1960s and 70s. The publicans, Fred and Ida Haynes, were good friends of The Vic company and always made them welcome.
In 2015, in memory of his late parents, Ronald Haynes kindly donated the painting to the Victoria Theatre Archive where it is on display.
Painting of the Victoria Theatre by Arnold Stephenson (1974)