Players' Theatre: Wikis


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Coordinates: 51°30′43″N 0°7′26″W / 51.51194°N 0.12389°W / 51.51194; -0.12389 The Players' Theatre was a theatre in London as well as a theatre club for music hall in the style of the BBC programme "The Good Old Days".



The history of the Players' is a microcosm of British theatrical history, and many famous names have appeared on its stage. At its conception in 1936, the Players' was intended as a club, covering many aspects of theatrical entertainment. The founders, Leonard Sachs and Peter Ridgeway, acquired premises from Dorita Curtis Hayward, on the top floor of 43 Kings Street, Covent Garden, in what was once Evans Music-and-Supper Rooms, founded in the 1840s by W. G. Evans. As the latter had acquired the premises from a Mr. Joy it became known as 'Evans Late Joy's'. This renowned 'song and supper' room was an immediate predecessor of the later music halls. It closed in 1880.

Ridgeway and Sachs rapidly established the Players' as a notable 'little theatre'. In 1937, seeking a Christmas show, they were persuaded to present an evening of music hall entertainment recreating as far as possible a night at 'Evans's'. This was the very first programme of early Victorian delights, offered under the title 'Ridgeway's Late Joys'. The show was an instant success, the original cast including Patricia Hayes, Megs Jenkins, Richard Haydn and Harold Scott. The Late Joys was a play on the original premises name as the shows then began very late (around 11.00 p.m.) mainly because it allowed both members and performers, of whom many were on the stage, to get there for the start after their own performances.

Within a few months, subsequent editions had persuaded Ridgeway and Sachs that music hall was the club's future. Peter Ridgeway died shortly afterwards of TB, at the age of 34. Leonard Sachs continued on his own, his gift for discovering new talent being a major factor in his success. Among the new recruits came Robert Eddison, Bernard Miles, Alec Clunes, and Frith Banbury and Peter Ustinov (auditioning at 11 a.m., onstage by 11 p.m.) in his professional debut. Apart from attracting gifted artists and musicians as performers, two artists destined to become famous in their own right added their talents to the mix. Rex Whistler designed sets and scenery, whilst Felix Topolski did much to decorate the theatre with his wonderful draughtsmanship. A Rex Whistler backcloth was situated on the wall at the side of the stairs leading to the auditorium in the final Players' Theatre that was underneath the railway arches of Charing Cross.

The Players' was recognised by public and critics as 'The most original entertainment in London'. It was even endorsed as one of the clubs to which the subalterns of the Household Brigade were permitted to belong. The Churchill family were great supporters — Sarah Churchill helping as a programme seller. Sir Maurice and Lady Violet Bonham-Carter, together with their son, Mark, are to be found amongst the early membership, which included many leading members of London society. The club flourished, offering performances every night at 11.00 p.m. and at 2.00 a.m. on at least two evenings per week.

Leonard Sachs continued to recruit clever artistes. The scions of well-known Edwardian theatrical families (including Huntley Wright, Sterndale Bennett, and later J. N. Maskelyne), added an inherited touch of authenticity to the proceedings. Later still, some of the performers from that earlier age returned to the music-hall stage via The Players' — including Ada Reeve, Ruby Millar, Albert Whelan and Billy Merson, (who acted as Chairman).

Theatre in World War II

The outbreak of the second World War in 1939 inevitably caused serious problems. The Players' premises, on the top floor of an old building with a glass roof and a hydraulic lift, were not an ideal venue during an air-raid. Eventually, after two short-term arrangements (including a number of performances in a member's drawing-room in St. John's Wood), the Players' found a refuge in Albemarle Street in the former El Morocco nightclub. This was in a basement in one of the few concrete buildings in London. Thanks to this good fortune, the Players' (along with The Windmill) 'never closed' throughout the War.

Leonard Sachs was called up for military service and (riding in a taxi to Waterloo to join his troop train) he made over the Players' Theatre Club to Jean Anderson, already an established actress and Players' artiste. Jean contrived to keep the Club open and solvent for the next five years, before going on to a very distinguished career both on stage and on television in series such as 'Tenko' and 'The Brothers'. Under her management, the Players' became a haven for Londoners suffering the Blitz, as well as a home from home for many of the allied forces also living in London.

Americans, Australians, Canadians, Czechs, Danes, Dutch, the Free French, Indians, New Zealanders, Norwegians, Poles, Rhodesians, South Africans — all were to be found among the Players' audience. Indeed, to this day, every Players' audience usually contains a number of 'visitors from abroad' who are duly greeted and teased. In addition, nearly every Sunday saw a contingent of Players' artistes entertain in hospitals, at gun-sites and searchlight emplacements. James Robertson Justice made his debut as Chairman and launched his film career at this time.

Rebuilding the club

With the end of the War, Leonard Sachs returned to take up the reins again and was immediately obliged to seek yet another location. Having rented a small flat in Craven Street, he was looking out of a rear window one day at the brick face of the Hungerford Arches under Charing Cross Station, when he faintly discerned the legend "Forum Cinema". Sending Bill Draper, the Stage Carpenter, round to investigate, they found that this 'arch and a half' had indeed been a theatre from 1910 onwards.

During the War, it had been turned into storage for the Army Corps of Cinematography. Of greater importance, was the discovery that here had originally been a music hall called "Gatti's-in-the-Arches" created by the Gatti Brothers, Carlo Gatti and Giuseppe Gatti. (The Gattis had owned two music-halls, the other being called "Gatti's-in-the Road" in Westminster Bridge Road). Although this provenance was very exciting, the building had been very neglected and lacked any theatre fittings or equipment.

Enquiries at the War Office put Leonard in touch with a sympathetic Senior Officer who remembered the Players' company's visits to the sites and camps. Orders were given, and the building was released within a matter of days. Players' members and artistes rallied round and, incredibly, the building was open for business within three weeks. For a time, the Membership lists over-subscribed, as the Club went from strength to strength. New talent was discovered or returned to theatrical life.

Start of famous post-war careers

Hattie Jacques, Bill Owen, Ian Carmichael, Clive Dunn, John Le Mesurier, Ian Wallace and John Hewer appeared regularly on the bill. They provided a strong lead to the brilliant newcomers joining the company — Daphne Anderson, Patsy Rowlands, Maggie Smith, Marian Studholme, Marion Grimaldi, and Margaret Burton being but a few.

Leonard was asked to present a similar show at the Festival Gardens, for the Festival of Britain. So favourable was the response, that the great theatre chain of the time, Moss Empires, invited Sachs to undertake a long tour of all the major variety theatres in the United Kingdom. This triggered the interest of BBC Leeds, and in due course The Good Old Days reached BBC television. Originally only a few programmes went out, and Don Gemmel (Leonard's successor as Director of the Players') was Chairman. Such was public acclaim, that the show was scheduled for first four, then thirteen, then twenty-six weekly editions. It remained a part of the BBC light entertainment for 32 years and was frequently to be found in the 'top ten' in terms of ratings.

In 1954, The Players' commissioned a short 'end-piece' designed to fill the third part of the usual Players' evening. The author and composer was Sandy Wilson — the work he provided was The Boy Friend. From its first appearance, barely forty-five minutes long, the merit and charm of the piece was self-evident. After a triumphant four-week run, Sandy was asked to expand the piece. The full-length version again earned immense acclamation, but West End Management would not offer the play a transfer.

Courageously, Don Gemmel, Gervase Farjeon and Reginald Woolley arranged a short Christmas season at Swiss Cottage's Embassy Theatre. Once again, audience and critics were in total accord, and on the morning the reviews appeared, 'The Boy Friend' was offered five or six West End theatres. It eventually transferred to the Wyndhams Theatre, where it played to more than 95% capacity for five years, and made a star of Julie Andrews in New York.

More recently, on the occasion of the Players' Diamond Jubilee in 1996, Sir Peter Ustinov was installed as Honorary President in front of a capacity audience. Many members of the Royal Family to have passed through our doors including Prince Charles, Prince Phillip, Princess Anne and Prince Edward.

An evening at the club

The Members of the Players Theatre Club, almost as well rehearsed as the cast, would join in with the performances, answering the Chairman and singing along with some of the most famous songs in music hall. These could be supplemented by any one of the some 30,000 lesser-known songs from the vast archive.

The Players' was unique, however, in more ways than one. It was essentially a members' theatre. Relaxation of Britain's restrictive licensing laws made it possible for any casual visitor to buy a ticket for £15.00.

The evenings' entertainment continued to be billed as 'Ridgeways Late Joys': an evening of revival Victorian music hall and that is exactly what it was — a selection of professional artistes, past masters at putting over a minor musical masterpiece in costume. The simple accompaniment remained that of a grand Steinway pianoforte and the company combined at the end of the show for a rousing ensemble finale, concluding with 'Dear Old Pals' — sung at every performance for 64 years.

The whole evening was compered from the stage by a distinguished Chairman. This would often be the then Director of The Players', Dominic Le Foe, who dubs himself "as British as the Flag" but could equally have been Alan Curtis, Barry Cryer, Michael Kilgarriff, Johnny Dennis, Jim McManus or in earlier days Robin Hunter, John Hewer, Don Gemmell, Fred Stone and many others. The sartorial elegance of the chairman was matched by the performers. The humour was strictly Victorian, but with astute observations on life, as relevant now as they ever were in Queen Victoria's day. There were two short intervals during which the audience would be invited to visit the bars and help swell the coffers of this merry throng by indulging in a few libations, toasting the health of Her Majesty awhile.

Every year the Players' presented an original Victorian pantomime, often by J R Planché or Henry James Byron.

The Players' Theatre Club was unique and had survived unfunded and unsponsored since it was founded in 1936, until its misfortunes in 2002. A competing group tried to take over the club. Their attempt failed, but not without doing permanent damage to the club's relation to its landlord.

21st century rebirth

The remaining director, aided by a group of members, set up a restoration committee and after a phenomenal amount of work by many people, founded a new club. This was registered as a not-for-profit company - 'The Players' Joys Limited' and has charitable status.

The Players' group is now once more delighting audiences in the West End, putting on shows at the Arts theatre, and, shortly at the re-named Venue theatre (in future, the Leicester Square theatre). In addition, they work with Westminster City Council for example by performing in the spectacular 'West End Live' festival, (second appearance in 2008), and by putting on a Music Hall show for the launch, at the Coliseum theatre of Westminster's innovative idea for a National 'Silver Sunday'.
A long lease of a building in Craven Street (the other side of the Charing Cross station tracks) has been purchased by another group of supporters, who have registered a property company with the tobacconistic name 'Craven Players Limited'. It aims to construct a completely new theatre, which will be 'friendly' to the elderly, disabled and the environment. A benefactor has given the club £100,000 towards the cost of the project.

Theoretically there are two Players' clubs operating in central London. The original theatre premises under the Arches off Villiers Street were taken over by off West End Theatres. They renamed it 'The New Players Theatre'. After a short while they sold the theatre, bar and restaurant to Pure Management, who also own the nightclub Heaven, across the Arch. Pure Management continues to operate the theatre. A relationship with Soho Theatre was formed after the hugely successful sell out show "The Tiger Lillies: Seven Deadly Sins" a punk cabaret production. It therefore seem to have little relationship left to the Music Hall heritage of the old club.

'The Players' have concentrated on more frequent, smaller scale shows, plus the maintenance of awareness of Music Hall around London and the country by participation in local festivals and other events. The Players' Theatre club is an important part of British music hall tradition.

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