The Old Vic

Terry Coleman
Faber and Faber

The Old Vic

Having written a biography of Lord Olivier, one of the most significant figures in The Old Vic's history, it is a natural progression for Terry Coleman to move on to the equivalent for the building.

The Old Vic has a long but not necessarily very distinguished history, which stretches back to 1818 when the Royal Coburg Theatre was built just south of the river in Waterloo.

During the first half-century and more of the building's existence, its main thread of continuity rested on the certainty with which, despite support from royalty, more often than not, every succeeding manager became bankrupt.

The artistic values were also often questionable, courting popularity at the expense of quality. What was often a crumbling building was first rescued by Romaine Delatorre, rich enough to commission a wonderful new building from the legendary Frank Matcham's father-in-law, Jethro Thomas Robinson. His Palace of Varieties at least looked good until he too ran out of cash.

The low tone and dubious morals were eventually dismissed by the arrival of Emma Cons, bizarrely, for someone taking over a music hall, a temperance fiend who turned the venue into the extremely respectable Royal Victoria Hall, complete with teahouse in what is now the foyer.

She was also the aunt of Lilian Baylis, still a century later the individual with whom the old Vic is most closely associated.

The forceful Miss Baylis might have started out working in a teetotal venue purveying bland entertainment but once she took over was keen to promote theatre including Shakespeare, opera and ballet, although the song and dance soon moved to a new location north of the river, which she called Sadler's Wells.

By the 1920s, the Old Vic had become a theatre so tempting that the biggest names in the business including Gielgud, Olivier, Ashcroft and Richardson would happily forsake much higher fees elsewhere to appear. This continued through the war and beyond until, in the early 1960s, the building became home to Britain's first National Theatre under the future Lord Olivier.

Those who have already enjoyed Mr Coleman's biography of Olivier will find many of the stories in this section rather too familiar and might swiftly wish to skip on to the disastrous tenure of The Prospect Company. This followed the old tradition of operating with massive deficits from year to year, despite Peter O'Toole's ludicrously eccentric Macbeth that was so bad it was good (at least in box office terms).

Many readers will have been attracted to this building-biography by the attractions of the Artistic Director of the last dozen years, American actor/director Kevin Spacey. His time in the role, which is soon to end as he passes the reins to Matthew Warchus, is well documented.

It contains a few surprises for the average, under-informed theatregoer. Most of us probably turn right out of Waterloo Station and into The Cut believing that the glorious old theatre on the corner is a licence to print money. In fact, it is nothing of the sort, relying on philanthropy to survive.

Terry Coleman has written a good overview of a remarkable couple of centuries. As one might expect, he concentrates far more on living memory than the first 150 years, although they are covered in reasonable detail. At times, he can give a little too much explanation to purchasers who, one would imagine, will already have at least a basic grounding in theatrical lore.

However, anyone who loves this glorious, well-appointed London delight is bound to find much to please them in this homage to its history.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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