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- Britannia Theatre Hoxton
- Hoxton Hall
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- Curtain Theatre
- Royal Cambridge Music Hall
- Red Lion Theatre
- Goodman’s Fields Theatre
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A century ago it was the hottest ticket in town. Yiddish theatres all around the East End would pack in thousands, with several shows a night. And visiting actors from as far afield as Eastern Europe and the United States came to perform for the huge Yiddish-speaking population of Whitechapel. But the recent demise of actor Bernard Mendelovitch wrote one of the last chapters in the story of the theatres. His was a remarkable story, all the more so because Mendelovitch was unique among his peers in being born and bred in England.
To take the dictionary definition, Yiddish is ‘a language spoken as vernacular by Jews in Europe … a dialect of High German with words of Hebrew, Romance and Slavonic origin … developed in Eastern Europe during the Middle Ages’. Most importantly, it was a vernacular the Jews arriving in the East End had in common, whether they were arriving from Poland or Russia. And being a fluid and flexible language, taking from the home languages of the countries where displaced Jews settled, the tongue was peculiarly rich in idiom and humour, a great medium for jokes and songs. It was tailor made for the stage.
And there were many stages, among them the colossal Pavilion Theatre on Whitechapel Road, a Yiddish opera house on the Commercial Road, and dozens more intimate little East End theatres. The growth in the scene was fuelled by the Russian government banning Yiddish performances in 1883. Just as the Jewish population had fled west to London to escape persecution, so the entertainers moved to find them, and carry on making a living.
Actor manager Abraham Goldfaden arrived in the East End from Riga in 1883, and his company performed in halls and clubs all over the East End. Their first permanent home was the Hebrew Dramatic Club in Princes Street (later Princelet Street), which opened in 1886.
By the early years of the 20th century, the Pavilion was the home of Yiddish theatre in London. Anything went on stage: musicals, sentimental plays about life back in Eastern Europe, and translations of Shakespeare were popular. Anything went in the audience too. Pavilion-goer Cyril Spector remembers ‘the noise, everyone talked incessantly; there were arguments going on all over the auditorium; the noise was devastating, people eating, muttering approval or disapproval of what was happening on stage, explaining what was going on to those who couldn’t follow it. And everyone overacted like mad. The more hammy the performance, the more rapturous the applause …nostalgia and sadness were the dominant themes’.
Unsurprisingly though, by the inter-war years, Yiddish theatre was in decline. The language depended on a tight-knit community, and with East End Jews moving out to the suburbs that community had begun to fracture. The second and third generation immigrants increasingly spoke only English, and there were no new Yiddish speakers coming in to replace them. Just a decade or so after its heyday, the Pavilion was to close in 1935.
And that might have been an end to East End Yiddish theatre. But yet again war and persecution in mainland Europe forced Jewish entertainers west, and gave the scene a shot of fresh blood. Fanny Waxman and Meier Tzelniker founded the Jewish National Theatre at Adler Hall, and the East End got the Grand Palais, run by Mark Marcov and Etta Topel.
This is where Mendelovitch enters the East End story. Throughout the fifties and sixties, resourceful writer and manager Harry Ariel kept the Palais going. And much of the material was co-written with Ariel’s on and off stage partner, Bernard Mendelovitch.
Bernard, born in 1925, had joined the company in 1948, after being demobbed from the services. His father Avrom, a Polish-born tailor, had spent most of his life in England, but never learned to read or write English. He loved the Yiddish theatre though, and passed his passion – and his language – onto his son. So it was that Bernard could amaze visiting Yiddish performers, who could not believe that this fluent speaker was an ‘Englender’.
Ariel and Mendelovitch started writing together in their flat behind the London Hospital. The output was as diverse as it was prolific: adaptations of plays such as Hobson’s Choice rolled off the production line alongside Yiddish versions of My Way and Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina.
But the end was in sight. Dwindling audiences saw the Grand Palais finally close in 1970. Mendelovitch and Ariel took their show on the road, in a three-handed act with Anna Tzelniker, and after Ariel’s death in 1989, Bernard played his one-man show to large audiences in the US and Canada. There were fewer Yiddish speakers by the year though, and the actor retired to Bournemouth, where he died in February this year.
So has Yiddish spoken its last words? Michael Grade, the new boss of the BBC thinks not. This scion of an East End Jewish dynasty, and vice president of the International Forum for Yiddish Culture said last year that ‘Yiddish is not dying because my generation, still young enough to remember its power, wants it to survive.’ Perhaps this language that so enthralled East End audiences just a generation or so ago has life in it yet.
When Henny Youngman died on February 24, 1998, at the age of 91 in Manhattan, New York, the world of comedy lost the last of a generation.
Henny was known as the ‘King of the One Liners’ in a career spanning 70 years.
But although he was in a
tradition of the wisecracking Jewish comics who worked New York’s ‘Borscht Belt’ – along with Milton Berle, Jack Benny and Sid Caesar – and seemed as New York as the Empire State and Staten Island, Henny was born Henry Youngman, a Whitechapel lad.
Henny’s parents, like so many thousands of others, had come to the East End from Eastern Europe in the latter years of the 19th century.
Bound for the USA
But they soon found that Whitechapel was lacking in fortune for poor immigrants and, in September 1906, when young Henny was just six months old, they boarded a ship to emigrate to New York, and new opportunities.
Henny’s dad had artistic ambitions for his boy but not as a comedian – he wanted him to become a violin virtuoso. But as one of his fellow comedians quipped in the 1930s: “Henny’s the only guy who, when he opens his violin case, the audience hopes he’s got a machine gun in there.”
Henny worked nights as leader of a band called the Swanee Syncopaters, and it was then, during the late 1920s, that comedy first started to creep into his act. During the band’s performances, Young-man often fooled around with the crowd.
As luck would have it, the regular comedian didn’t show one night and the club owner asked Youngman to fill in. He was a success, leading to more work as a comedian – although Henny admitted that his wife often supported him in the first two decades of show business.
In fact, his wife, Sadie, who died in 1987 aged 82, was the butt of his most famous one-liner: “Take my wife… please!” The quip was actually an off-the-cuff remark before a
radio show, but stuck to Henny, and was the inspiration for the title of his 1973 biography, Take My Life, Please!
In fact, while he was attempting to make his living as a musician, his real professional career was taking place during the day – as a printer in a five-and-dime store.
“But I didn’t have any confidence in a business that was run by a guy like me,” he joked.
“However, if things went sour in comedy, I could always get a job printing… or I could be out of two jobs at once!”
It was the day job that led to the first break in his career. Among his jobs were writing and printing comedy cards, a series of one-line gags that were sold in his store.
Milton Berle – a few years younger than Youngman and already a top comedian – discovered Youngman when he was enticed into the store by a sign for the cards and took an immediate liking to the ‘naturally funny guy’.
A life-long friendship began, although the two often traded barbs: “He once said he was the king of one-liners,” Berle wrote in his 1974 autobiography, “but I told him that was because he couldn’t remember two.”
Youngman would respond: “Milton, is your family happy? Or do you go home at night?”
Youngman’s big break came in 1937 when he appeared on the popular Kate Smith radio show. He was a big hit, staying with the show for two years, leaving eventually to pursue a career in the movies. But except for mostly cameo roles, film stardom never materialized.
His one-line style lent itself better to the club than the screen, so Youngman headed back on the road, averaging nearly 200 dates a year for the next 40 years.
His career was revived in the late 1960s as a regular on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, a TV show that was perfect for his style because it was nothing but one-line gags. “Oh, that Henny Youngman!” soon became a national catchphrase.
He died, rich and successful, in Mount Sinai Hospital, Manhattan, at the end of a journey that had taken him all around the world – via Whitechapel.
Dancer Lionel Blair inherited his show business flair from his mum and dad, who were dance mad East Enders.
Dad was Myer Ogus, a Russian barber whose great passion in life was ballroom dancing. He met Della Greenbaum, his wife-to-be at an East End dancehall back in the 1920s.
After the wedding, Myer decided they’d have better prospects abroad and he went ahead to Canada to look for a job. Said Lionel: “Mother’s family did not altogether approve of my father and told her: ‘That good-for-nothing’s deserted you after only a few months marriage’.”
Della was relieved to receive steamship ticket in the post but, still upset at being left behind in the first place, proudly swept down the gangway when the ship docked in Canada, ignoring her young husband’s outstretched arms.
Lionel said later: “The story always makes my family laugh. It’s an example of mother’s temperament. She adored my father but wanted to express her fury as dramatically as she could.”
Lionel was born in Montreal six years later and got his first look at London when the family returned to live with his mother’s parents in King Edward Road, Hackney.
There was not much room to spare and Lionel’s younger sister, Joyce, slept in the bottom drawer of their parents’ bedroom wardrobe.
During the war he saw night skies lit up as the docks and East End were blitzed and one day at school, while helping clear up rubble, he managed to get his pals singing. From then on, he was encouraged by teachers to entertain classmates.
Lionel had a happy childhood and recalls going to his local synagogue in new clothes bought by his mother for Passover – “most snapped up at bargain prices in Petticoat Lane.”
In the 1950s Lionel and Joyce amused friends and family by jitterbugging and tap dancing, just as they’d seen it at the cinema.
Their first stage appearance was at a talent show in Stoke Newington, run by music hall’s Kate Carney in which contestants had to sing and dance. She gave them a week’s contract to jitterbug as England’s Youngest Swingsters.
Soon afterwards, Lionel landed a part in the Burt Lancaster film The Crimson Pirate, and a Jane Russell film Gentlemen Marry Brunettes.
Next came stage appearances and an opening in the Jewel and Warriss series on BBC TV. From there, Lionel became a TV choreographer at the princely wage of £36 a show.
In 1967 he married his sweetheart Susan, a London fashion model, with his old school pal, comedian Bernie Winters as best man.
Apart from Bernie, his other great friend was Bruce Forsyth. They first met as young dancers at London’s peekaboo Windmill Theatre. He met another East Ender, Bud Flanagan, when the old-timer was appearing with the Crazy Gang. Chatting after a show, Lionel recalled that his parents had in Canada years earlier hired Bud’s sister as a baby-sitter.
“I know,” Bud told a surprised Lionel. “I remember my sister talking about you and the family.”
For at least 20 years Lionel’s nimble feet and irrepressible smile could be seen on TV week after week, in Royal Command Performances, variety nights, concerts and shows like New Faces and Give Us a Clue.
And if Lionel’s dance-mad dad could have seen him he would have been proud – and maybe a little envious too.
For further reading: Stage-Struck by Lionel Blair
When Sidney Vauncez died in April this year, he ceded his place in the Guinness Book of Records … as the world’s oldest working journalist on a nationally available weekly paper. At the age of 97 he was still penning his regular piece for theatrical journal The Stage. He had had a long and varied career. Novelist, journalist and playwright, he was also a keen documenter of the Jewish East End. His own history though was a little more mysterious, and it was a mystique Sidney positively encouraged.
Vauncez was a nom de plume for a start. Simon Blumenfeld was his real name, as Jewish as you can get, though Simon embraced the culture and not the faith: a confirmed Marxist, he was no fan of religion. He was deliberately vague about his roots, though his son Eric was to dig out what little he could of the family tree, revealing that his father’s family (then called Composiore rather than Blumenfeld) had come from Sicily, where they grew olives until a volcanic eruption destroyed the business. Simon’s grandfather had been a sailor, possibly a pirate, while Simon’s father was born in Turkey. His mother came from Odessa in the Ukraine. Certainly, during a brief stop in Bavaria, en route to London, the Composiores were practising Catholics. Towards the end of the 19th century they came to London and settled in the East End.
The young Simon was born here on 25 November 1907, and his early years were formed by the radicalism of the Jewish East End. He became a Communist and soaked up the works of Israel Zangwill, becoming determined to make it as a writer. He was a friend of East End boxer Jack Berg (once sparring with him). Largely self-educated he became involved in organising volunteers for the Spanish Civil War and against Mosley.
During the 20s and 30s, Blumenfeld produced plays and novels. His first The Iron Garden, set in the East End, was published in America in 1932. It came out in Britain in 1935, re-entitled Jew Boy, and was reissued in the 1980s. A 1937 novel, Phineas Kahn, was reissued in 1988, with an introduction by Steven Berkoff.
But during the 1930s, Simon realised that journalism was more likely to pay the bills. He became a correspondent for a French news agency, simultaneously hacking out cowboy novels (a hugely popular genre at the time) under the soubriquet Huck Messer. From the Yiddish for ‘carving knife’ it was only one of Simon’s colourful pen names. Literary friends at the time included Aldous Huxley, who had penned the dystopian fantasy Brave New World in 1932.
His political beliefs didn’t stop Blumenfeld signing up at the outbreak of World War II – he considered the Nazis a far greater evil. A curious posting saw the talented writer assigned to the Royal Army Ordnance Corps in the Midlands, where he became an authority on German ammunition. The Army got it right second time around, transferring Simon to the script-writing crew of Stars In Battledress, an army talent show. His station was now the rather more glamorous Grosvenor Square, where he began rubbing shoulders with future stars such as Charlie Chester. It was Blumenfeld’s entrée to the world of showbiz.
Simon began writing for titles including Band Wagon, and here he adopted the alias Sidney Vauncez. From the Yiddish for ‘moustache’, it reflected the luxuriant handlebar job he had now cultivated. He founded the Weekly Sporting Review with army pal Isidore Green, the paper combining their twin loves of showbiz and boxing. But a libel suit from the managers of Tommy Steele sunk the title.
Blumenfeld became light entertainment editor of the Stage in the early 1960s, a pivotal time for the business. Rock and roll and TV light entertainment had all but killed off variety (the successor to the music halls). But the astute writer realised traditional talent was flowing into the club scene, largely based in the north but soon to cover the whole country.
He had an extraordinary breadth of showbiz friends and acquaintances: Paul Robeson, Mistinguette, the Beatles and Barbara Windsor to name but a few.
Legendary East End villain Jack ‘Spot’ Comer asked Simon to ghost his autobiography … his wife then dissuading him.
In 1987 he penned a play for the Edinburgh Fringe, The Battle of Cable Street – a modern look at the East End, which drew on his own past. A video produced a few years ago, East Endings, took Simon and friends back to their East End beginnings. Released to mark the 80th birthday of Simon’s pal, the artist and illustrator Harry Blacker (aka the cartoonist Nero), the film was set in Bloom’s in Whitechapel and featured a diverse cast of East Enders, including Barnet Litvinoff. Bill Fishman, Anna Tzelniker and Simon/Sidney himself.
· Simon Blumenfeld, journalist and author, born November 25 1907; died April 3 2005
Bernard Delfont in Whitchapel by John Rennie
Three-year-old Boris Winogradsky stood bawling his eyes out. He was lost and a long way from home. To make things worse, he was trying to speak Russian to the confused PC trying to help him.
It was 1909 and the scene was Brick Lane. His father Isaac arrived and, in fractured English, laid claim to young Boris. The family had already journeyed across Europe, from the tiny Ukrainian town of Tokmak, via Hamburg and Tilbury, to make their home in Spitalfields. They weren’t going to lose their youngest member that easily.
Nearly 80 years later, baby Boris would have been through a handful of name changes, becoming Barnet then Bernard, with Winogradsky becoming Grade then Delfont. He would finally find himself Lord Delfont, part of Britain’s most famed entertainment dynasty, theatrical impresario and producer of movies such as The Deer Hunter and the Jazz Singer. As he muses at the end of his autobiography*, ‘I am a most fortunate man.’
Of course most of it was down to hard work, persistence and ambition. The Winogradskys had left a simple life in Tokmak, ‘centred on a house, a garden and some trees’. Now there was no house, no garden and certainly no trees, just a room above a Brick Lane store. As his mother Golda complained to Isaac ‘Don’t we deserve something better? Have we come all this way to live above a shop?’
It was the start of a perpetual drive to something better. A fortunate move to the still-new Boundary Estate soon followed. And Isaac supplemented his work in the garment trade by running a small (and unsuccessful) cinema in the Mile End Road. Meanwhile, he and his wife had a double act, singing Russian folk songs at the Mile End Pavilion, better known as the Yiddisher Theatre, where there was always a sentimental audience for songs from back home.
Isaac’s further venture into the rag trade with his eldest son, who had left Rochelle Street School at 14, was soon to end. Lew – the immigration officers at Tilbury had replaced the Russian ‘Lovat’ with the Anglicised ‘Lew’ just as they had redubbed Boris ‘Barnet’ – was a precocious child. Though barely into his teens, he had been the driving force to set up a profitable embroidery shop with his dad, but then called a halt. Young Winogradsky announced to the family he was following his parents onto the stage, taking to the music halls as a dancer. Lew shortened the family surname, calling himself Lew Grade. His parents were horrified, but changed their minds when they saw the good money he was making.
Meanwhile Barnet, three years younger, had to admit that ‘the fruits of learning were not for me … I was more interested in having fun.’ Fun consisted of making lots of friends, enjoying lots of laughs and developing a nascent stagecraft – practising funny walks and gurning facial contortions. His enduring memory of Rochelle Street wasn’t the lessons but the Zeppelin air raids. Air raid precautions took the primitive form of a man sounding a wooden rattle to warn the pupils to take cover.
There was little shelter of course. Long before the days of Bethnal Green underground, the Winogradskys and their neighbours would trek to Old Street tube. And though the lumbering airships looked harmless, the damage they did was real enough. The real target was the docks, but not far from Barnet’s Henley Buildings home, a stick of bombs was to wipe out an entire street, killing a dozen people.
By 1920, he was at Stepney Jewish School, and it was their Barnet’s habits got him into trouble. He was making a good living running a football sweepstake each week. So good was business, that the young West Ham fan decided to up the ante by increasing the prize to sixpence.
The regime at his new school was stricter than at Rochelle Street, though. An eager-eyed teacher called him to the front, and Barnet opened his hand to reveal a bunch of slips reading ‘Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United’. A swift caning and Barnet decided school was not for him. At the age of 12 he never went back, and was soon to follow his big brother onto the stage.
Last week we left the young Barnet Winogradsky, aged 12, a school dropout. Having travelled the breadth of Europe fleeing the Russian pogroms, it looked like the boy had come a long way, but wasn’t to go much further.
But that reckons without an enormous helping of native intelligence, ambition and chutzpah. Over the next decades, Barnet would become by turns a performer, agent, impresario, and finally businessman. With his brothers he would found a showbiz dynasty that, during the sixties, appeared to monopolise UK entertainment.
First Barnet hit the London stage as an ‘eccentric dancer’ – the high-speed hoofing you see in early 1930s Hollywood musicals. A false start saw him reject his first job, in a revue’s chorus line for famed producer Thomas Convery. ‘I’m not accepting three pounds. I want fifteen pounds a week,’ demanded the pushy Barnet. Thirty seconds later he was back out on Oxford Street.
Accepting fellow East Ender Albert Sutan’s advice that ‘you’re aiming too high … start at the bottom like the rest of us,’ the two formed a duo. They Anglicised their names, becoming Grade and Sutton. The bookings came thin and slow. In desperation their agent tried a name change (‘the business isn’t big enough for two Grades,’ he opined) and dubbed the pair the Delfont Boys.
Bookings all over Europe followed, Paris and Berlin being an eyeopener for the naïve young cockneys. Bust-ups followed too, and when the patronising Albert (later to be reborn as comic Hal Monty) tried to squeeze Barnet (now called Bernie) out of the act, he was rewarded with a punch on the jaw.
Back in London Bernie needed a new partner, and found promising young dancer Toko. But approachin 30 he could see the writing on the wall. Eccentric dancing was hard work, would never top of the bill and was gradually going out of fashion. Bernie took the advice of old East End pal, tap dancer Keith Devon. ‘You’re a businessman, a natural. Why don’t you go into management or set up as an agent?’ And with the encouraging words of Elsie and Doris Waters ringing in his ears (‘We know you’ll be a big success,’ said Elsie. ‘We bring luck.’) he did just that.
It was tough up against established agencies, and he started off, on commission-only, for brother Lew. Lew showed his tough side when Bernie asked for a loan to go out on his own. ‘How can I lend money out of the business to set up my own brother as a competitor?’ Lew pleaded. But the 1940s saw Delfont establishing his own agency, then expanding into theatre production. And by 1947 full-page ads in the Mail and Express were boasting ‘You’re never far from a Bernard Delfont family show.’ The Delfont name was on 14 West End and touring productions plus numerous seaside shows.
By the late fifties, with Delfont running a stable of West End theatres, with agent brothers Lew and Leslie Grade supplying the acts. They’d hardly started though. Into the sixties and Lew was now in TV, as boss of ATV. It made sense for the new TV bosses to look to their variety background for talent, and Delfont’s West End reviews would frequently find themselves on screen. Bernie was now staging the Royal Variety Performance and reinventing London revue with the massively successful Talk of the Town, which was finally to close in 1982.
Delfont was also juggling multiple jobs, finding time to buy up and rejuvenate much of Blackpool seafront (including the Tower, Tower Circus and two piers) for his friend Charles Forte. And in 1966 there was another demand on his skills. Brother Leslie suffered a stroke. With Lew fully occupied at ATV, Bernie stepped in to run his brothers’ company, The Grade Organisation. The success of the organisation was attracting interest, and a bid came in from recording giant EMI. There was only one proviso, that Delfont come with the package.
Delfont had reservations ‘I was not a company man but an independent … a middle-aged businessman who had left it a bit late to start as a corporate executive.’ Nonetheless as chairman and chief executive of EMI Film and Theatre Corporation he built a successful complement to the recording business, funding films as diverse as the Go Between and Mutiny on the Buses. But having steered a merger between EMI and Thorn he was in for a shock. The rules of the newly formed company dictated he must retire, as he’d just turned 70.
There was to be little slowdown. He negotiated the sale of the leisure division to old pal Charles Forte at Trust House Forte, and then just a year later spun the company off again, buying the leisure side and renaming it First Leisure. By now ennobled as Lord Delfont, the East End boy never slowed down until his death in 1994. His legacy lived on … for a while at least. Nephew Michael Grade would head up First Leisure until the company broke itself up in 1999.
East End, West End by Bernard Delfont, published by Macmillan, ISBN 0333511905
It’s often said that the 1960s didn’t really happen until the 1970s. That was when the alternative ideas, creativity and challenges to the established order really started happening – briefly at least.
So it was that an East End theatre company began by challenging the space between theatre and street, cast and audience. It culminated in one of London theatre’s most vibrant companies and fascinating performance spaces. Yet today the Half Moon on the Mile End Road is a Wetherspoon’s pub, its courtyard space used not for the consumption of Brecht and Chekhov but the ingestion of Chicken Tikka Masala and Shepherd’s Pie … what went wrong?
The Half Moon Theatre Company, which began in 1972 in a rented synagogue in Alie Street, Aldgate, was very much a child of the previous decade. A cheap rehearsal space with living accommodation alongside would make it affordable for the group to put on pretty much any production they chose, and for the performers to exist if not attain riches. And being established right in the heart of the East End, a million metaphorical miles from Shaftesbury Avenue, it would encourage local people to get involved – the sort of people who just didn’t go to the theatre. The name was taken from the nearby Half Moon Passage.
The trio behind the plan were Mike Irving, Maurice Colbourne and Guy Sprung – the first two were unemployed actors (plenty of them in any generation) and the latter artistic director. ‘Build it and they will come’ is an optimistic mantra for any business – and at first they didn’t. A production of Bertolt Brecht’s early masterpiece ‘In the Jungle of Cities’, which wrestles with power, money, status and hatred in 1912 Chicago, might have seemed an unlikely hit, but people came to the 1972 show, and the Half Moon began to get the attention of Fleet Street and the West End.
Michael Billington is today Britain’s longest-serving theatre critic, and the authorised biographer of East End playwright Harold Pinter. But in the early seventies he was new to the reviewer’s chair at The Guardian. He was blown away by an adventurous Half Moon production of Henry IV. Already the Half Moon was thinking about the nature of the theatre space itself – ideas that would come to fruition on the Mile End Road a decade later.
He wrote: “Bill Dudley has ingeniously transformed the auditorium into a medieval loft with a raked wooden platform bisecting the audience and a mini-drawbridge being lowered from a balcony for processional entrances. This means that the actors are rarely more than about fifteen feet away from the audience; and crucial speeches, like Falstaff’s on Honour, can be addressed to individual spectators rather than hurled at a faceless throng.”
For those of us who always sit at the back during live performances, lest we get dragged on stage, it sounds a nightmare, but people loved it. Shakespeare was no longer a precious painting to be viewed behind glass, but something to be lived, experienced, taken part in. The Half Moon had anticipated modern theatre by going right back to the days of The Globe and The Theatre, with performers and audience meeting in the pit. That the synagogue held just 80 people only added to the power and intimacy.
Soon though it was too small. In 1979, the company decamped to a disused Methodist Chapel by Stepney Green (a theme was emerging here). Appropriately, they opened with The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. The continuing flavour was class and agitprop theatre – you would go to the Half Moon to see Edward Bond, Dario Fo and Eleanor Marx, as well as Shakespeare. It might not be Shakespeare as you knew it though.
A 1980 production of Hamlet had Frances de la Tour in the title role. The actress, best-known to young audiences as Olympe Maxime, headmistress of Beauxbatons Academy, in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, is better known to their parents as Miss Jones, target of Rigsby’s unwanted affections in Rising Damp. From the late 1970s, de la Tour was a mainstay of the Half Moon, also appearing in Fo’s Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay. Set amid the radical politics and economic collapse of seventies Milan) it sat perfectly amid the feeling of chaos and collapse that engulfed Britain in the dying days of Callaghan’s Labour government.
“Don’t confuse serious with solemn, though. There’s a lot of comedy and bite in these plays, and the feeling you were in the thick of it with the cast created a real tension,” remembers Jack Torode, an audience member during the seventies. Michael Canty, another fan of the Half Moon, agrees: “People don’t keep going back to serious theatre because it’s good for them … they go because it’s fun. Performances there were fun.”
The Half Moon continued to provide ‘difficult’, political theatre and to pull in the crowds – demonstrating that people are happy to be challenged while they’re being entertained. Popular theatre could be more than just re-runs of classic hits, light musicals, or pop songs strung around a flimsy narrative. By the early eighties, the company had again outgrown its home (it sat 200). Where would the Half Moon move now – perhaps a disused Catholic Church? The plans that emerged were far more ambitious.
The theatre would expand into a derelict site next door, with a new building leading naturally from the rather lovely red brick chapel. Robert Walker was now the artistic director and he had firm ideas about the use of the space.
1983 was an exciting year for the Half Moon Theatre Company. From its earliest days in a derelict synagogue, it had the funding for a purpose-built space that would change the very way theatre was used.
Architect Florian Beigel was brought in to design a theatre with no fixed seating, making for a very flexible auditorium. Walker wanted everyone to come to the Half Moon, from kids to pensioners, bringing their own work, talking about theatre and performance. The Half Moon now had a proper bar and office space for the first time. In 1985, the now theatre, funded by the Arts Council, the ILEA, the GLC and Tower Hamlets Council, reopened with a production of Christopher Bond’s Sweeney Todd.
Beigel firmly places Robert Walker as the driving force behind the new Half Moon. “He was a very inspiring guy. For him it was all about theatre in the street, theatre in the courtyard. We had a marvellous relationship and came up with the idea of a ‘scenic street’.” This ‘street’ would break the remaining barriers, sweeping you straight off the Mile End Road, into the internal courtyard and right back to the where a spy window looked onto the old Jewish cemetery at the rear. As far as possible, Beigel and Walker had dismantled the walls separating the theatre from its surroundings. The popular and political rubbed shoulders – Woyzeck one week, The Wizard of Oz the next.
The Half Moon traditions were intact though. “The design was based on the most personal, engaged forms of theatre from the past – The Globe, Italian Commedia del Arte – actors and audience together,” Beigel notes. In the garden behind was the Young People’s Theatre. The Half Moon was drawing from the past but looking to the future.
They played around with the space. “At one point we had a horse walking in from the street and right through the building,” laughs Beigel. Somebody had to follow behind and clear up the mess of course. A fine East End tradition – a generation before, local people would have been following brewers’ drays, seeking fuel for their roses. It seems a very long time ago, and a very different world now. Within just a few years the dream would be dead.
Florian affects a vagueness when I ask him his age – ‘Oh, 67, 68 … something like that’, (digging further, it emerges that Beigel was born in 1941). That, and the architect’s thick German accent, legacy of his childhood on the shores of Lake Constance, which has survived decades of living and working in London, impart a rather professorial, unworldly charm to his speech.
As a lecturer in architecture at London Metropolitan University, Florian is training the new generation who will shape London. But Beigel is primarily a working architect, always looking forward, energetically pitching for new projects. On the day we speak, he is savouring the disappointment that his company’s pitch for a project on Mile End Waste has not won the commission.
‘It’s a part of London we are always interested in … it’s very important to us,’ he says. With these visions of the future, architects are perhaps not sentimental, nostalgic people. They may always be looking to the past, but for inspiration and to draw a line to the future. Talking to Florian Beigel today, though, there is still palpable sadness and anger at what happened to the Half Moon.
By the mid-eighties financial problems were mounting. Every penny from the Greater London Arts Association grant was being used to service debts from the build. At the same time, as old faces left and new came in, the Half Moon lost its artistic bearings a little. From growing year on year, the company faced a struggle to hold its audience. All could have been overcome, had the company not suffered the body blow of having its grants cut. Not only did the GLA see its grant as being misused, but the Conservative government decreed that theatres had to be self-supporting. The company’s dream of cut-price political theatre for local people was neither financially nor politically palatable to the party of Margaret Thatcher. In 1990, the Half Moon was broke and closed its doors.
The legacy continued. The Half Moon Young People’s Theatre is still going, and has its theatre in Whitehorse Road, Stepney. The Half Moon Photography workshop evolved through Camerawork in Roman Road to be part of the Four Corners film collective. Maurice Colbourne would go on to find fame as Tom Howard in the hit BBC series Howard’s Way during the eighties, before his sudden death in 1989. Michael Irving is still a working stage and screen actor. After the Half Moon, Guy Sprung worked as a theatre director in Berlin and Moscow, before returning to his native Canada. He now lives, fittingly, in the Mile End area of Montreal.
Florian Beigel was back in the East End recently, working on that pitch for Mile End Waste. Each ride past the Half Moon pub was a painful reminder of what was. “There were plans for the Magic Circle to buy it, to use it as a library and a theatre. Lots of local people put in money to keep it going. Instead – a pub! And they’ve cut the space in half. What a waste.”
I stand outside on a Friday, trying to recapture the bustle and energy of those eighties performances. From inside, the lunchtime drinkers, hunched over pints of lager, stare out.