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Victoria Theatre - Jubilee Year Celebration

What is verbatim theatre?

Verbatim theatre is a form of documentary theatre where the production is based on the actual words of real people who were interviewed on their experiences of living through or participating in the topic being covered.

Under the guidance of its director, Peter Cheeseman, the Vic gained a world-wide reputation for its documentary plays.  They were inspired by Cheeseman’s desire "to bridge the cultural gap which separates the artist from the majority of the community" and produce a form of theatre that "springs from our contact with the community’’.
Eleven documentaries were produced between 1964 and 1994.  They were firmly rooted in the local community, covering industry, history, politics, religion and war.
They were based on interviews and research conducted by the actors, the director and the resident playwright, drawing on testimony and narratives of the local population.   Rather than a playwright or dramatist creating or adapting a script, Cheeseman focused on the exact transcription of recorded interviews and is one of the earliest pioneers of the sub-genre 'verbatim theatre'.

The Jolly Potters: 1964/1992

First production 14th July 1964

jolly potters posterThe Jolly Potters was the first of the Victoria Theatre’s musical documentaries.  It focuses on the life and times of the people of Stoke-on-Trent and North Staffordshire.
The background to the story is the abandonment of a way of life linked to the soil and its replacement by ever increasing mechanisation with its resulting consequences.  Between 1750 and 1850 the industrial revolution changed the destiny of the world.  Set against the backdrop of the turbulent 1840s when industrialization was in full flow and shortages of food brought many to poverty, the show reflects this great change of life and its affect on the Potteries during this hardest of times when industrial depression brought miserable conditions to a violent climax. 
It was at this time that Chartism took hold, with its strongholds predominantly in the North of England, the Midlands and South Wales.  For the people of North Staffordshire this culminated on August 15th 1842 when the Chartist orator, Thomas Cooper, addressed striking miners and pottery workers which in turn led to rioting throughout the city.
Much of the show is written in the actual words of the time, taken directly from the very copious newspaper reports of 1842, 1843 and 1844.  Some of the scenes are imaginative or comic reconstructions (in the words of the Theatre Company), but the story is always a true one.

Image shows The Jolly Potters programme 1992


 Blacksmith Joseph Capper and Chartist Thomas Cooper address a meeting at Crown Bank, Hanley

Many of the characters are real historical personalities – the local hero, Joseph Capper, the Tunstall blacksmith; Chartist, Thomas Cooper; the Magistrate, Captain Powis; military man, Major Tench of the 2nd Dragoon Guards and the inspiring William Evans, Editor of The Examiner.  

The songs are either from poems in the 1840s Trades Union paper The Potters Examiner or specially written- both set to new or traditional tunes by the singers themselves.

When The Jolly Potters was restaged in 1992 there was an increased emphasis placed upon Charles Shaw’s autobiography, When I was a Child, which was published in book form in 1902 (it was originally published as separate articles in The Sentinel and used extensively by Arnold Bennett for his 1910 novel Clayhanger).

Image shows Blacksmith, Joseph Capper and Chartist, Thomas Cooper addressing a meeting at Crown Bank, Hanley (photo Michael Barry)

the cup-making machine
Alongside director Peter Cheeseman, the 1992 production was rewritten with Rony Robinson, who is known for his radio shows on BBC Radio Sheffield (between 1984 and 2020). 

The music and songs for this production were composed by renowned folk artist John Kirkpatrick.  Kirkpatrick is a founder member of the Albion Band and former member of Steeleye Span.

Image shows The Cup-Making Machine (photo Michael Barry)

Images from the 1992 production

set design for jolly potters 1992

The Jolly Potters
Rony Robinson and Peter Cheeseman,

New Victoria Theatre, North Staffordshire. 


“The single setting necessary for the 21 scenes was a simple painted floor cloth onto which were brought pieces of furniture in order to establish specific locations. 

Two ‘notch’ areas on either side of the stage were used for storage of furniture and enabled the actors to make amendments or changes to costumes without leaving the acting area.

Two peripheral stages which were set up higher were placed amongst the audience. These were used for narration and for individuals to comment on the action taking place on stage. 

Key quotations from historical documents on which the play was based were written on large banners covering the auditorium walls."

New Victoria Theatre company, February 1991. 
Director - Peter Cheeseman
Designer - Lis Evans
Lighting director - Paul Jones
Choreographer - John Kirkpatrick
Music and songs - John Kirkpatrick

Image shows text of Designer Lis Evans talking about the set design     

costume designs drawing

Drawings by Lis Evans of costume designs for the production

The Jolly Potters 1992:  “RIOT” Scen

The Jolly Potters 1992: “RIOT” Scene - Mrs Vale (Sally George) gives evidence (photo Robert Day)

The Staffordshire Rebels: 1965

programme from staffordshire rebelsThe Staffordshire Rebels (First performance Tuesday 13th July 1965)

This, the second of the musical documentaries by the Victoria Theatre, is compiled from the written records of the Great Civil War (1642-1651).

Charles I, who came to the throne in 1625, inherited from his father an unshakeable belief in the divinity of kingship and a stubborn determination to rule the country in his own way.  He soon quarrelled with Parliament and tried to rule without them.  In 1642 this quarrel flared up into a Civil War which lasted nearly ten years.  Charles’ armies were defeated in 1646 and he was executed after a second period of war in 1649.  After a brief period of government without a King, Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660.

Image shows cover of the performance programme

The miller played by Ben Kingsley


Though some of the most sensational events occur at a national level, every part of the country was involved and profoundly affected by the war.  Its outcome influenced our whole system of government and its political and human issues are still vitally important.  It is an exciting story and the Theatre Company tried to tell it in a way that it strikes us in the here and now, using speeches, songs and letters of the people involved.

Image shows Ben Kingsley as The Miller (photo Ian Stone)


battle of marston moor

The Battle of Marston Moor (The Final Melee) (photo Ian Stone)

production photo

Production photograph: Robert Powell/Fiona Walker and Amelia Taylor/Ben Kingsley with members of The Keele Row folk group in the background (photo Ian Stone)

The Knotty: 1966

The Knotty (First production 12th July 1966): from the programme notes

“There’s a story I will tell you, if you listen to my song,
I hope that it will please you, and it will not keep you long,
I’ll tell you how the railway through the Potteries was planned,
How the N.S.R. was built and changed the face of the land…….”

These wordscover of the knotty programme were written by Jeff Parton and sung to a traditional tune and they set the scene for the ensuing documentary.  The Knotty then is the story of the life and death of the North Staffordshire Railway (NSR).

The NSR came to be known as the Knotty because the emblem which adorned the rolling stock, letterheads and buildings was the Staffordshire Knot. 

The research material has come from; The Staffordshire Advertiser of the period, The Evening Sentinel, letters, the Minutes of the first Potteries Railway Committee, Parliamentary reports, Minutes of the Shareholders’ Meetings of the NSR, Minutes of Railway Trade Union meetings, and other documents.  But for the first time a great deal of material came to the creators orally from people connected with the old Knotty and especially from members of the North Staffordshire Railway Association to whom the creators were greatly indebted for such a rich and detailed narrative.

The technique of the making of a documentary is for the actors to read and digest the facts and feeling of the subject and, with the director, improvise and write the scenes, using where possible first-hand accounts of the events.

The company, with local folk singers Jeff Parton and Dick Barton wrote most of the songs, but where suitable, songs of the period were adapted, or poems set to music.

Image shows the cover of the programme from The Knotty

Images from the production files

the knotty cast



The 1969 Knotty cast at Stoke station for the Wedgwood presentation prior to the Company’s visit as the British representative to the Florence International Theatre Festival (Florence, Italy April 1969)


(Photo: Wedgwood PR Department)

cast at Wedgwood station


The cast of The Knotty receiving a specially lettered Wedgwood bowl for presentation to the Mayor of Florence.  Peter Cheeseman (Director of The Knotty) accepting the bowl from Wedgwood Works Manager Ted Lawton at Wedgwood station.

(Photo: Wedgwood PR Department)

war scene from the knotty


The 1966 Company rehearsing the Great War scene with ex-NSR railwayman Harry Sharratt (centre) advising.

(photo Ian Stone)

knotty in rehearsals



Rehearsals for The Knotty:

Peter Cheeseman (Director) (left) and Peter Terson (Playwright) (right) on the 1966 set of The Knotty. Both men are standing on a painted floorcloth depicting a map  of the railway's Loop Line and the name of the Harecastle Tunnel is prominent. 

Six into One: 1968

Six Into One (Tuesday July 16th 1968)

six into one programme coverThe subject is the creation of the City of Stoke-on-Trent in 1910.  Federation was a quite exceptional event in the political history of the district.

From the programme notes

"More tempers were lost, many more raw feelings exposed, many more prejudices aired, more harsh, bitter, passionate words exchanged, a lot more lies told, a lot more false promises made and a lot more disappointments felt than are normally packed into the year.

The exceptional drama and excitement of this particular event has been drawn on for a considerable amount of the story, with the objective of making local politics itself interesting and exciting.  The gas, the water supply, the state of the roads are things we take for granted till they go wrong.  Not enough of us vote in municipal elections.  Local politicians and officials are either mocked, abused or ignored.  The subject is regarded otherwise as rather boring.  The Theatre Company has aimed to treat the subject with a proper seriousness, as well as a proper irreverence, and shown the events in a way which displays the detail, the ambiguities of motive, the complexities and the rich interest of a subject which deals with the basic needs of our lives."

After initial research by Tony Perrin, the show was compiled and created from the speeches, letters, newspaper reports and other records of the Federation of the Six Towns, and from tape-recorded interviews with North Staffordshire people.

Image shows cover of Six Into One programme 1968 (illustration by Vic playwright Peter Terson)

Images from the production

six into one cast photo


Some of the 1968 cast.

(Photo: Six Towns Magazine)

six into one cast photo


More of the 1968 cast.

(Photo: Graham Lucas)

The Burning Mountain: 1970

The Burning Mountain (First Production 13th January 1970)

The Burning Mountain programmeA musical documentary about the founder of the Primitive Methodists, Hugh Bourne (1772-1852)

Hugh Bourne was undoubtedly one of the greatest men North Staffordshire has ever produced.  He was powerfully built, a journeyman wheelwright by trade, hard-working, energetic, red-headed and short tempered.  Impelled by a painful conviction of his own sinfulness since childhood, from his ecstatic conversion to Christianity at the age of 28, he spent the rest of his life in a self-imposed and gruelling crusade in his chosen cause – or rather the cause he regarded God as having for him.  He was not what most people would call a likeable person.  His attitude to life was totally uncompromising.  The standards he applied to himself were rigorous and he tended to expect the same of others.

As a documentary, no writer is involved in the composition nor are they the result of ‘improvisation’ by the actors.  The words used are the words of people involved in the events of the story, or people concerned as human beings about the issues raised.

Hugh Bourne’s words and those of many of his friends, converts, enemies and acquaintances are to be found for the most part in his extensive manuscript journal, kept daily for almost 50 years of his life.  Other Primitive Methodist material (making up about half the dialogue in the play) has been taken from other manuscripts, biographies and conference minutes.  The rest of the dialogue was tape recorded in conversation with many North Staffordshire people and has been integrated into nearly every scene in the play.

The Primitives’ original hymns were not sung to the tunes in their first tune book produced more than 75 years after the start of the movement, but to folk songs adapted for the purpose.

Image shows the cover of The Burning Mountain programme

Primitive Methodism originated in the “camp meetings” held at Mow Cop in Staffordshire on May 31st 1807.  This led, in 1811, to a joining of two groups - the Camp Meeting Methodists and the Clowesites led by Hugh Bourne and William Clowes respectively.  Bourne and Clowes were charismatic evangelists with reputations for zeal.  Primitive Methodists saw themselves as practising a simpler form of Christianity, closer to the earlier Methodists.  They were visible and noisy and made use of revivalist techniques such as open-air preaching, with their services involving a fanatical zeal.
In 1907, to celebrate the one-hundred year existence of the movement, a Camp Meeting was held at Mow Cop, the place where Primitive Methodism originated.  

To mark this occasion pottery manufacturers produced a series of commemorative and souvenir items.  This plate from the Vic’s Collection shows the founders, Hugh Bourne and William Clowes, against a backdrop of Mow Cop castle.

photo of Brian Young as Hugh Bourne

Brian Young as Hugh Bourne
(Photo: Richard Smiles)

Stanley Dawson

Stanley Dawson as Dan Shubotham turning the table on his
card-playing friends when he is converted on Christmas Day 1800

(Photo: Henry Grant)

Hands Up – For You The War is Ended!: 1971

Hands Up – For You The War is Ended! (First Production 18th May 1971)

Hands Up – For You The War Is Ended! Programme  cover 1971The story is told in the words of Bill Armitt, Jack Attrill, Reg Baker, Frank and Gladys Bayley, Bob Burt, Jack and Edie Ford, Jock Hamilton, Mrs Heath, Mrs Parkes, Eric Wilson and Arthur Winkle.

On 3rd September 1939 Great Britain declared war on Germany.

Frank Bayley was ‘called-up’ along with hundreds of thousands of other young men and was granted leave to get married before sailing off to war.  With the others, Frank ended up in deserts of North Africa.  In early March 1941 the Allies suffered a series of crippling setbacks resulting in a ‘disorganised retreat’ leading to the capture of many thousands of Allied troops.  Included amongst them were Frank Bayley, Bill Armitt and Jack Ford.  Reg Baker and Jock Hamilton were also captured.

Towards the end of 1942 the tide was turning in North Africa in favour of the Allies and the prisoners were transported by boat to various prisoner of war camps in Italy. Bill, Frank and the two Jocks were eventually transferred to a camp on the Lombardy plain in sight of the Alps.  In 1943 the Allies landed in Italy and shortly afterwards Italy surrendered.  With the Italian prison guards ‘disappearing’ the prisoners were able to escape.  Bill, Frank and the two Jocks struck out for the Swiss border, with months of hiding and their journey to the foot of, and eventually across, the Alps.

Many, like Reg Baker, were less fortunate than Frank and his comrades, and were shipped to German POW camps.  As the Allies' success continued across Europe more and more POWs were liberated.

Throughout the war women on the ‘Home Front’ had their stories to tell.  Mrs. Edith Ford took a job on the buses and worked on the specials coming back from the Royal Ordinance Factory at Swynnerton where many local women worked.

Hands Up – For You The War Is Ended! Programme 1971

rommels advance 1971



Image from 1971 Production

“The Song of Rommel’s Advance”
(Photo: Richard Smiles)

image from 1971 production




Image from 1971 Production

(Photo: probably Richard Smiles)

image from 1995 production




Image from 1995 Production

Hilda Armitt, Bill Armitt and Bob Burt at rehearsal showing their photograph album to the actors Daniel Tomlinson and Phil McDermott who played Bill and Bob.

(Photo: Paul W Jones)


image from 1995 production



Image from 1995 Production

Gladys Bayley at rehearsal showing her photograph album

(Photo: Paul W Jones)

Fight for Shelton Bar: 1974

Fight For Shelton Bar (First Production 22nd January 1974)

Fight for shelton bar programme coverIn the late summer of 1973 Peter Cheeseman, Polly Warren and Graham Watkins (of the Victoria Theatre company) met Ted Smith and Bill Foster (Chairman and Secretary of the Shelton Steelworks Action Committee).  Ted and Bill asked if the Vic would do one of their documentaries about the Action Committee, to alert the people of North Staffordshire to the danger to local employment if a large part of Shelton Bar steelworks were to close down.  With two years of campaigning by the Action Committee seemingly ineffective a ‘documentary’ would alert people to the danger and the national publicity generated would add much needed weight to the case

Fight for Shelton Bar was a show putting the Action Committee’s case on behalf of the whole district, and it became an information and propaganda exercise addressing this district and the world outside, with wide coverage in national newspapers and TV programmes.  
The documentary tells of the running battle between the Works Action Committee and the British Steel Corporation (BSC) over BSC’s proposals to close down steelmaking at the North Staffordshire steelworks.

In 1964 £20 million had been spent making the Shelton plant one of the most modern in Europe.  The works were highly profitable.  The proposed reduction would have lost 2,000 jobs and raised the Stoke unemployment level by 3%.  It was a threat to the whole district.  The stage was set for a classic confrontation: a giant nationalised industry pursuing a long-term rationalisation scheme versus a close-knit and absolutely committed workforce, dedicated to preserving, in their own words, ‘their history and heritage’.

Over four months Peter Cheeseman and a small research committee from the Theatre company made over 100 hours of tape-recordings in personal interviews, at Action Committee meetings and in the steelworks.  Each stage of the fight was recorded in detail during its crucial phase.  Each of the steelmaking processes was similarly recorded.  

The documentary was staged in January 1974 and stayed in the theatre’s repertoire for most of the year.  Every night a member of the Action Committee spoke during the show to bring the events up to date.  It is true to say that the theatre documentary played a significant part in the campaign to win a hearing for Shelton’s case.  It was a good case, and they won it.

Fight for Shelton Bar is typical of Cheeseman’s documentary methods, using only authentic source material from the protagonists in the real events as the dialogue for the wide variety of scenes, with narrative songs created by the researchers in a robust folk style.  The whole play gives an accurate but emotive picture of life in the steelworks and of the way decisions were taken.  It was propaganda of a kind, but propaganda that works not by bullying and terrorising but by evoking sympathy and understanding.

Image shows Fight for Shelton Bar publicity poster.

interviewing members of the Shelton Works Action Committee interviewing shelton bar staff

Both images above show director Peter Cheeseman and actors Polly Warren and Graham Watkins from the Vic
interviewing members of the Shelton Works Action
Committee for research material at Shelton Steelworks.

 (Photo: Robert Smithies of The Guardian)

Jowl Jowl and Listen Lads: 1977

In 1975 the Victoria Theatre was approached by the Hem Heath Colliery NUM Branch Secretary, Jim Colgan, to produce short playlets for a new form of Safety Competition being organised by the NCB.  Peter Cheeseman (Vic Director) proposed a Documentary Theatre Show on the subject of Pit Safety - a series of short scenes and songs, all varied in style and content, some serious and some comical.

 Furthermore, the proposition was that the workers should perform the show, with the Vic’s professional guidance and training in putting it together, directing and staging it.  The results was the 1977 production Jowl jowl and listen lads!

In appreciation the miners of Hem Heath presented an engraved Miner’s Safety Lamp to the Victoria Theatre.

miners lamp           detail of miners lamp

The Dirty Hill: 1990

The Dirty Hill (First Production 30th May 1990)

Dirty Hill programme coverFrom the programme

"Everywhere, battles rage for pieces of the earth’s surface, wars of words, wars about money, wars to the death.  But there’s a new kind of war – the Ecological War.  What price do we pay for the comforts of modern life?  What counts in the adding up?  Who’s on the right side in the battle for Berry Hill?  The Vic’s tenth musical documentary first performed in May 1990 tells a story of our times. 

Most of the words you will hear in The Dirty Hill were spoken by the people who took part in the dispute over the application by the British Coal Opencast Executive to mine Berry Hill in Stoke-on-Trent.  All parties involved in the dispute allowed the recording of their speeches and the use their words in the script.  In total over 150 hours of recordings were utilised to make the documentary.
Additionally, extracts were used from the local press and the words for the songs were written after listening to the research recordings."

It was hoped that this, the theatre’s tenth documentary, and the first at the New Vic, might give some indication and understanding of the scale of the important issues raised by the Berry Hill dispute, and be in some way, a positive contribution to the discussions.

scene from the Dirty Hill


A scene from the performance
L-R Sayan Akaddas, Mary Cunningham, Charlotte West-Oram,
John Kirkpatrick
(Photo: Robert Day)

a scene from a performance of the Dirty Hill


A scene from the performance
L-R Maggie-Ann Lowe, Charlotte West-Oram, Sayan Akaddas
(Photo: Robert Day)

cast of the Dirty Hill at Berry Hill




The cast and Director during a visit to the proposed opencast site at Berry Hill
(Photo: Paul W Jones)

Nice Girls: 1993

Nice Girls (First Production 20th Oct 1993)

Nice Girls programme cover 1963The North Staffs Miners’ Wives was a group formed in 1985, in the wake of the national miners’ strike, to give aid, using various fundraising endeavours, to the families of miners that were sacked by the National Coal Board.  The Victoria Theatre has had a long association with the mining community of North Staffordshire, having previously worked together on the plays Jowl Jowl and Listen Lads! (1977) and Miner Dig the Coal! (1981).  It was also the miners of Hem Heath who symbolically launched the appeal to build the new theatre.

In May 1993 three courageous women, Bridget Bell, Gina Earl and Brenda Procter, assisted on the outside by Rose Hunter, occupied the Number 2 shaft of Trentham Colliery for three days in an effort to prevent its closure.  The script is made exclusively from tape-recordings and is therefore the words of Bridget Bell, Gina Earle, Rose Hunter and Brenda Procter, with some extra contributions from other people.  The words of friends, comrades and partners, as well as security guards and policeman are as remembered and quoted by Bridget, Gina, Rose and Brenda.  Additionally, extracts from some radio and TV coverage of the occupation are included.

Despite the seriousness of the situation there were many light-hearted moments that shine through the play, which serve to highlight the camaraderie felt between the women.  Arthur Scargill, leader of the NUM, formally released them after their ordeal.

This play was the story of the women who occupied Trentham Colliery in May 1993. First performed October 1993.

Image shows programme cover from 1993

scene fromNice girls



A scene from the performance
Jane Wood (back left) as Brenda Procter, Alice Arnold (back right) as Bridget Bell,  Anna Jaskolka (front) as Gina Earl

(Photo: Robert Day)


scene from Nice Girls


A scene from the performance
(left-right) Anna Jaskolka as Gina Earl, Charlotte Barker as Rose Hunter, Jane Wood as Brenda Procter, Steven Granville as Martin Hulme, 
Alice Arnold as Bridget Bell

(Photo: Robert Day)


rehearsal for Nice Girls


Recording a rehearsal

(left-right) Samantha Calvert (Script Secretary), Peter Cheeseman (Director), Alice Arnold (plays Bridget), Steven Granville (plays all the men), Bridget Bell, Brenda Procter, Anna Jaskolka (kneeling, plays Gina), Jane Wood (standing, plays Brenda)
(Photo: Zoe Bacharach)

No 1 Shaft at Trentham Colliery    cast and production staff retracing the women's steps

Research for the production
No 1 Shaft at Trentham Colliery (the Mushroom Tower) which was the women’s target for the occupation.  Behind it is No 2 Shaft where the women ended up.  In the foreground is the cast and production staff retracing the trio’s steps led by Bridget Bell and Brenda Procter.

(Photo: Zoe Bacharach)

nice girls commemerative mug   baclk of commemerative mug

A Mug commemorating the part played by the wives of miners in the Miners Strike of 1984-85