Miranda Reckitt

Until a couple of weeks ago, all that was known about the Hadleigh Theatre was contained in two old playbills, one dated 1795 and the other 1803.  The 1795 one is headed “The Theatre, Hadleigh”, with no mention of where the theatre was situated.  The 1803 playbill is headed “New Theatre, George Street, Hadleigh”.  On many occasions, I have walked up and down George Street wondering where the New Theatre could have been and whether any trace of it might be visible in the extant buildings of the period.  I understand that Howard Tribe was similarly fixated and that he had communicated his interest in the subject to Mr. Cross of 48 George Street.

Then Howard arrived at The Old School in a state of considerable excitement, bearing an old worm-ridden and very dirty wooden box just discovered by Mr Cross in the ruins of an old outhouse  which had finally collapsed.  It seems that the box must have been placed in the roof-space of the building.

On inspection, there was nothing in the box, except for a lot of dirt, but it had been lined with old playbills for the Hadleigh Theatre.  The playbills were in a very poor condition, being covered in dust and grime and having been nibbled away in places, presumably by mice.  I undertook to try and restore the playbills and Howard obligingly provided me with a scalpel from the Highcliffe Veterinary Practice.  Armed with a damp sponge, a pair of scissors and the scalpel, I was able to remove all the playbills without causing any further damage.

There are seven playbills in all, with two being identical.  They are all headed “New Theatre, Angel Street, Hadleigh” and cover six dates in the period 11 March to 5 April 1820. It is not clear when the Season began but the performance on the 5th April is stated to be “The last Night but one of Performing”.  Bearing in mind the weather at that time of year and the state of the roads in those days, it is unlikely that the Season began much before the beginning of March. This is borne out by the fact that four out of the five March playbills carry the sentence “N. B. A good Fire will be previously made to warm the House”.

The playbills are in such a poor state that they will not photocopy well.  John Bloomfield has kindly taken pictures of them for the record and I am in contact with the Archives Department as to whether they are worth preserving and, if so, how to go about it.  In the meantime, I have “reconstructed” them on the computer  using similar typefaces and layout to give a fair idea of what they look like and copies can be seen along with the playbills from 1795 and 1803 in the little display mounted on the screen behind the harpsichord.

The information to be gleaned from all the playbills is of some interest.  The earliest one dated 1793, which merely refers to The Theatre Hadleigh, offers seats in the Pit for 2 shillings and in the Gallery for 1 shilling.  By the time we get to 1803 it is possible to purchase a Box for 3 shillings as well, although it may be that that is the price of one seat in a Box.  By the time we get to 1820 and Angel Street the ticket prices are the same but all the playbills state “Half Price taken at the usual time to Boxes, Pit and Gallery”.

I had assumed that none of these three Theatres were purpose-built because, even if there was more than one Season a year, they would be very under-used. However, on reflection the fact that the latter two boasted Boxes, a Pit and a Gallery indicates quite a sophisticated arrangement of the interior and not the sort of structure which could easily be erected on a temporary basis.

An examination of the pieces on offer in the six 1820 playbills must be a fair reflection as to what was being performed all over England just at that time. The only serious play to feature is Richard III but She Stoops to Conquer was also on offer as well as Stephen Storace’s No Song No Supper, described as “a musical Farce”, which was first performed at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in 1790. This latter is of particular interest because it is the only one of Storace’s works which is still in the standard repertoire and occasionally performed, as indeed it was by Opera Anglia at The Old School in 1989.  I digress but would mention that Storace was Mozart’s pupil and friend, and Storace’s sister Anna was a Soprano who sang the part of Susannah at the first performance of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro.  Storace was as popular in his time as Gilbert and Sullivan were nearly a century later. Indeed, I have often thought that Storace’s works should really be described as Operetta and that he was a direct influence on G & S.

Some of the other offerings were clearly of a somewhat coarser nature including “Honey Moon – or how to rule a Wife”, “What’s Trumps – or three weeks after marriage” and “Clamorous Bowels - or where shall I dine?”   All the programmes are long by our standards, with several different plays or farces interspersed with comic songs and dances.

In 1820 the Company, whose name is not stated, appears to have consisted of seven actors and four actresses.  One actor, Mr. Laverock, is also mentioned in the 1803 playbill.  In 1820 he is accompanied by Mrs. Laverock, who plays all the “dame” parts, and Miss Laverock.  There is also a Miss Williams and a Miss Read.  These three, presumably young, ladies are all given to dancing from time to time but it is Miss Williams who is not only billed as performing “a Fancy Hornpipe” when required,  but on 5 April is  given star billing… “Also, Miss WILLIAMS, in Character of the ACTRESS OF ALL WORKS, will attempt a Recitative, Vocal and Rhetorical Imitation of the different Subjects and Performers in that very celebrated, attractive and highly popular musical DRAMA, now performing at all the established Theatres, in or out of London, with the greatest application and applause, called DON GIOVANI – or The Libertine of London”.  The songs which Miss Williams was to sing are then listed, from which it is apparent that this Don Giovani is nothing to do with Mozart.

If the Company could not run to enough players to cover all the bit parts, local talent was procured.  Thus, on 25 March the part of a Child in The Soldier’s Daughter was to be performed by a “Young Lady of Hadleigh” and on 5 April the part of Mrs. O’Connor (a Widow and Landlady of the Hotel) in High Notions – or the Cheesemonger’s Trip to Sea-Bathing!” was to be played for that night only by an anonymous “Widow of Hadleigh”.

It is significant that, although songs and dances were obviously a most important part of every night’s entertainment, and practically all the Company could, or at any rate would, sing there is absolutely no mention of any musicians or what musical instruments were used to accompany the singers. This must surely mean either that musicians were regarded as being of such low status that they did not warrant a mention, or that some of the players would accompany each other. No Song No Supper is actually scored for eleven instruments but, of course, can be played with whatever instruments are to hand. 

Now, of course I am traipsing up and down Angel Street to see whether there is any trace of the Theatre there, which does not seem likely.  John Bloomfield has suggested that it might have occupied Macey’s Barn (now demolished and replaced by Coinette).  If anyone has got any thoughts on this or any very early photographs of Angel Street showing something which might, possibly, once have been a Theatre – do get in touch.

The above article first appeared in the 2004 Summer Music Festival Programme Booklet.