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From the early 1960s, plays for children were an important part of the Victoria Theatre’s annual programme. The Christmas play was designed for families and parties of primary school children aged 5 to 11 years. From 1969 onwards, a play for older children was also produced annually in the spring or summer. These plays regularly included adaptations of classic novels, such as The Three Musketeers, Treasure Island, Wuthering Heights and Moby Dick.
This early play by Alan Ayckbourn was the very first children’s play at the Victoria Theatre, opening on 26 December 1962. As well as writing the script and acting in the show, Alan Ayckbourn also co-directed it with theatre director Peter Cheeseman.
In the photo:
Elizabeth Bell (standing) as ANGORA
Alan Ayckbourn (in top hat)
Peter King (in cap) as SCRUNCH - another criminal
David Wehner (right) as NUD – a bodyguard
Alan Ayckbourn wrote this programme note for the audience:
“Christmas V Mastermind was written specially for this cast, for this theatre, and for you. We aimed to make it a family show, intelligent enough for the children but not too involved for the adults to follow, and sufficiently amusing for both to find it entertaining.”
This production was written by Brian Way and Warren Jenkins and directed by Peter Cheeseman. Brian Way was an English theatre practitioner. He founded the Theatre Centre in London in the 1953. The company began the concept of theatre for children in an educational setting. Laurence Harbottle, of Harbottle and Lewis, a law firm prominent in advising clients from the world of entertainment, has observed that the Theatre Centre became a “launch pad for educational theatre in schools – and what Brian became, in the next half century, was the seminal influence on that movement, worldwide." *
*Harbottle, Laurence (21 March 2006). "Obituaries: Brian Way". The Guardian. London.
The photo captures the joy of the children watching the play. A scene which you can relive at the Christmas show at the New Vic every year. For many children in the surrounding area a trip to the Vic for its winter show must have been their first encounter with live theatre.
Note the mention of nylon stockings in the programme- tights were still very much a thing of the future in 1963!
Note the fashions of the sixties captured in the black and white image. Coats, not anoraks or jackets, for the adults and the children, suggesting that most travel at that time was still done by walking or on buses rather than in cars.
Perfomed over the school Easter holidays the Vic were capitalising on the break from school in April 1968.
The programme reveals that this adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s wonderful evergreen story included a young actor called Robert Hoskins in the small parts of the Judge and one of the stoats and weasels. He is the stoat/weasel seated at the very far left of the photo.
Robert Hoskins is now better known as the multi award winning Bob Hoskins. His work included lead roles in television series and films such as Pennies from Heaven (1978), The Long Good Friday (1980) and Mona Lisa (1986).
Two photographs from the production.
Robert Hoskins as Judge.
Robert Hoskins as a Stoat/Weasel. He is sitting at the table on the far left with his right arm extended.
Nick Darke in rehearsal for this production in August 1972. Nick played Queequeg and in this photo he wields a harpoon which is still kept in the Victoria Theatre Archive collection. The harpoon was crafted for the theatre production by a local foundry based in Longton, Stoke-on-Trent.
The production was adapted by Peter Terson from Herman Melville’s book. Terson worked with Peter Cheeseman on numerous adaptations of novels as well as his own original works.
Note the timing of the production. First performance was August 8 1972: a summer holiday treat for children!
As an actor Nick Darke took roles in over 80 plays at the Vic. Peter Cheeseman, the Artistic Director, played a major role in his transition from actor to playwright, commissioning Nick’s first play after being impressed by his adaptation of Mother Goose. Nick wrote 27 plays which have been performed worldwide, including 8 for the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Nick Darke’s ancestors included Cornish seafarers and master mariners and his funeral in 2005 was held on a Cornish beach.
It may seem odd to include this production in the Children’s theatre section. A play with more adult themes would be hard to find. The photo on the left shows the play in performance and records one of the more disturbing scenes which is set in the 17th century Bedlam mental asylum.
Look more closely and you will discover that Middleton and Rowley’s Jacobean revenge tragedy was one of the set texts on the Joint Matriculation Board "A" level English Literature syllabus in 1979. The Vic seemed always to have the uncanny knack of putting on productions of set text plays to help generations of local school children understand the dramas featuring in their public examinations. It is certain that those who saw the plays on school trips benefited from seeing the text brought to life in the theatre.
This was a demonstration of the Vic’s huge commitment to education in the area.
In the 70s the Vic also supported outreach activities for primary level children which were run in their schools. The photo on the right shows pupils at Park Hall School enjoying a puppet making workshop run by the Vic.
First performance at the Victoria Theatre staged on 10th June 1981. Adapted from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island for children aged 10-14 and adults by Rony Robinson.
The story of Treasure Island written by Robert Louis Stevenson in 1881 and initially published in serial form from 1st October 1881 until 28th January 1882 in a children’s newspaper entitled Young Folks needs no reiterating here. The story, as evidenced by the title of the magazine in which it was initially published, was written with a young audience in mind. This could not be much further removed from Stevenson’s other seminal work The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Rony Robinson who adapted the story for stage is mostly known for his presentation of a daytime show on BBC Radio Sheffield from 1984 until his retirement in November 2020.
"I have a confession to make, although the tale was adapted for children aged 10-14, I would have been only eight when I went to see Treasure Island on a hot summer day in 1981. Perhaps questions were asked, and untruths were given to enable myself to be smuggled into the Victoria Theatre as if I were a stowaway aboard the Hispaniola herself. Alas I cannot recall, but perhaps I had undergone my own small adventure, following in the footsteps of Jim Hawkins. Indeed, I don’t even know for certain if it was a hot summer day or not, I could probably find out, but what purpose would that serve? Perhaps my perception of it being so hot comes from the story being partly set in the Caribbean and not the actual weather on the day itself.
What I do certainly recall is the atmosphere inside the theatre, where we, as the audience were transported to the 18th century and the age of piracy, where the characters from the story truly were alive. Although I was of that generation of children that was raised on Star Wars in cinemas, this was something different: the characters were more real, they were there in front of you, we were surrounding them looking at them from all sides. Of course, I didn’t understand at the time that this was due to the nature of the theatre ‘being in-the-round’, all I knew was that the characters were real, and we were there with them.
Indeed, my perception of the characters being real was so vivid that I was convinced that the late actor David Miller, who played Long John Silver, only had the one leg. David Miller, a veteran of many productions at the Victoria Theatre, most notably Fight for Shelton Bar in 1974, of course worked with one leg strapped up to convey the impression of the famous one-legged pirate, but no argument could persuade me at the time that this was the case."
In 1997 the Christmas production was Aladdin. No Ugly Sisters, no “It’s behind you!” in fact, not so much a pantomime, more a re-telling of the story. The story seems to have come to Europe from the Middle East in the early 18th century. In England the first recorded performance was at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden in 1788.
This image is taken from the Vic’s 1997 production prompt script. Prompt scripts are used by the Stage Manager. Stage managers facilitate communication across all creative and technical departments, they oversee sets, props, lights, and sound; and call all technical cues during performances.
This particular script records in fine detail all the information about the sound effects, music, lighting, special effects and stage layout in relation to the spoken words or script of the play. It shows the layout of furniture and other dressings on the stage. It also indicates the cues for the actors and the sound production team.
It runs to over a hundred pages and gives a fascinating insight into the complexities of the way the productions are put together.