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Early on it became clear that the Victoria Theatre was not going to be just about plays. Instead the venue was going to host a wide variety of cultural experiences including being the perfect forum for live music of many types; classical, folk, jazz, contemporary. Widening the horizons!
The Lindsays were regular visitors to the Vic from 1975 onwards. Led by Peter Cropper the Quartet first performed at the Royal Academy of Music in 1965 when they competed for a prize. The Quartet set out to make the string quartets of Bartók and Beethoven the basis of their repertoire.
In 1967, the members of the Quartet were appointed Leverhulme Scholars at Keele University. In 1970, the Quartet changed their name to the Lindsay String Quartet, naming itself after Lord Lindsay, the founder of Keele University. The Lindsays famously played in-the-round at the Vic and at its home in the Sheffield Crucible Theatre. Hearing chamber music performed up close in this way is so very different to a standard concert in a proscenium arch theatre. It allows much greater contact with the musicians and the performance.
In 2005, after 39 years, the Quartet announced their intended retirement the following year. They then performed a very successful series of farewell concerts throughout the world. Individual members afterwards pursued separate musical ideas.
In the farewell programme created for the last performance at the New Vic Peter Cheeseman wonders what it is that kept the Lindsays coming back to Stoke-on-Trent. Was it a liking for oatcakes? He also records and thanks them for their generosity in contributing to the New Vic building appeal.
In 1976 the Vic celebrated the centenary of Stoke-on-Trent’s most famous composer: Havergal Brian.
Celebrations included an exhibition and the production of Kenneth Easthaugh’s play Awkward Cuss, based on Brian’s life. The photo shows the script of the play with many annotations.
Born in Ricardo Street in Dresden, Longton, Stoke-on-Trent in 1876 his birth name was William Brian which he changed to William Havergal Brian. Havergal was the name of a family of hymn writers popular in the early 1900s. He is one of a small number of English composers to come from a working class background.
Havergal Brian’s early musical education took place at St. James’ church in Longton where he was a choir boy and learnt to play the organ. Photographs of Longton taken in the early part of the twentieth century (before the Clean Air Acts) show St. James' Church shrouded in the thick black smoke which poured from pottery factory or "potbank" chimneys.
Indeed, the buildings in the Potteries were all black with soot from the factories but the photo (left) shows the church once it had been cleaned. It is certain that the young Havergal Brian would have known it in its blackened state.
As a young man he took a job as organist at All Saints, Odd Rode in Cheshire- a very rural contrast. At around this time he famously heard King Olaf by Elgar performed at Stoke Town Hall and was inspired.
Brian was largely self taught in composition and he received a bursary from a member of the Minton family to allow him to concentrate on composition. He married Isabel Priestley in 1898 and the image of the prompt book for the 1976 play Awkward Cuss depicts the wedding scene.
Henry Wood chose to perform Brian's English Suite at the proms in 1907. Brian's most famous work is Gothic Symphony which was completed in 1927. It lasts for almost 2 hours requiring a huge orchestra and singers. As a consequence it is rarely performed.
From the programme notes
The great potter and entrepreneur Josiah Wedgwood was born in Burslem in 1730. He was to become the leader of the industrialisation of the manufacture of European pottery. He was the central figure within North Staffordshire’s ceramic industry.
The 250th anniversary in 1980 of Josiah Wedgwood’s birth seemed liked an ideal moment for him to be the subject of a Vic documentary.
Plain Jos is told in the words of Wedgwood and his contemporaries, with some material recorded on the floor of the Wedgwood Barlaston factory and a few additional words from Prime Minister Gladstone’s tribute to his memory.
The substantial part of the text of the production comes from the letters written by Josiah to his dear friend and partner, Thomas Bentley, over the eighteen-year period of their friendship till Bentley’s early death in 1780. The letters are all written in an energetic and very frank style, setting out his plans and worries amongst business problems and matter-of-fact orders for ware and details of his family life. The language is so lively, so full of vivid self-expression and so easily goes onto the stage that the greatest problem has been what to leave out.
The most tantalising problem centred around Thomas Bentley. Despite the existence of the many hundreds of letters from Josiah, only four of Bentley’s letters have survived, so that in some ways he remains a shadowy figure and a virtually silent repository for the many ideas and thoughts and fears of the irrepressible Josiah. What Bentley actually wrote and said to Wedgwood, day after day through the years, we are forced to piece together from the pattern of letters and events.
Wedgwood was a prominent abolitionist who fought against slavery and produced the anti-slavery medallion “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?”.
John Kirkpatrick arranged 18th century songs to be performed in Plain Jos. Find out more about John Kirkpatrick.
Image shows the Plain Jos programme from 1980 showing an invitation to Thomas Bentley written by Josiah Wedgwood
The throwing of the first day vase
(Photo: Don McNeil)
A scene from Plain Jos
(Photo: Don McNeil)
”Am I Not A Man And A Brother” – Wedgwood’s anti-slavery medallion
(Photo: Don McNeil)
Director Peter Cheeseman and musician/musical director John Kirkpatrick in rehearsal
(Photo: John Rainsford)
A visit to the Victoria Theatre often includes a musical element. Plays with music included are a frequent feature of the theatre's repertoire and actors leave the action of the play to play instruments at the side of the performance circle. Actors themselves rather than addtional musicians play instruments and provide songs which is integral to the play's action.
In the 1960s, it was rare to find actors who were also musicians. This was largely due to the specialisation of available training. The choice in those days was to train as a musician at a music college, or as a dancer at a conservatoire, or to pursue acting at a drama school.
Notable examples of musical actors in the Vic’s early years were Ben Kingsley, Gillian Brown and Anne Raitt, all of whom could sing and play an instrument, as well as compose songs.
“I had to exploit the company’s own capacities and special skills as actors … and in 1966 I began to look deliberately for good artists who could also sing.”
Introduction to The Knotty - Peter Cheeseman, 1970.
Rehearsing songs for The Knotty in the back garden of their “digs” (1966)
(L-R) Anne Raitt and Gillian Brown
(photo by Ian Stone)
Peter Cheeseman had a firm belief that music was essential to provide an emotional momentum in a theatrical situation packed with factual material.
“I’ve often thought of music in a documentary play as being a bloodstream that pulses through it … Music enables stylistic experiment to take place. It becomes a fundamental tool.”
Peter Cheeseman, 1986.
During the 1970s, to enhance the skills of non-musicians in the acting company, regular singing and instrumental classes were included in rehearsals. This enabled the actors’ performance of live music and song to bring additional vitality to Vic productions, particularly evident in the documentaries and Road Shows, the latter being an entertaining mix of songs, dances and sketches performed in community venues.
From the 1980s, training courses for actors offered a wider range of theatre skills, enabling companies to employ more versatile performers, many with strong musical capabilities.
When the New Vic opened in 1986, a new generation of actors, directors and writers was emerging, eager to offer a more contemporary repertoire of plays, often with the involvement of professionally trained actor-musicians, musical directors and choreographers.
One of the most successful productions in the New Vic’s first decade was Good Golly Miss Molly! produced in 1989, 1991 and 1993 to full houses. A local-issue drama, written and directed by Bob Eaton, it featured actor-musicians performing in a live rock-and-roll band as part of the story, with audiences joining the actors onstage for a celebratory musical finale.
30 years on, the skilful way actors move in and out of the action on stage to play musical accompaniments is a regular feature of the New Vic’s productions and continues to delight audiences.
Image shows the cover of the programme for the 1991 production of "Good Golly Miss Molly!"
Both the original theatre in Hartshill and the larger New Vic Theatre in Basford have opened their doors to a huge variety of different musical talents and genres. Included in the list of performers are Cleo Laine and Johnny Dankworth, Stoke-on-Trent Operatic Society, Chris Barber's Jazz Band, the Fron Male Voice Choir, flamenco guitarist Juan Martin and the High Level Ranters.
The venues have made space for local schools, music groups and University and college artists who might otherwise have struggled to find a suitable performance space. The Vic must have been the place many young musicians first performed and the place many audience members first experienced live music.
The huge collection of programmes in the Archive is a testament to the variety of performers and musical groups who have visited.