Stephen Joseph On The Victoria Theatre

Within Stephen Joseph's book Theatre In The Round (Barrie & Rockliff, 1967), he gives a candid description about founding the Victoria Theatre in Stoke-on-Trent. This page reproduces Stephen Joseph's own accounts of the founding of the Victoria Theatre.
Proposals for a permanent theatre in the round had been discussed for several years in Scarborough, but it seemed unlikely in a town where the main industry was entertainment that anything approaching civic support could ever be given to a theatre. Various improvements were made to the concert room [where the Library Theatre was based] so that it could more readily serve our purpose. But the concert room did not belong to us, and we could hardly expect it ever to be more than a makeshift theatre.

Our visits to the Municipal Hall in Newcastle-under-Lyme carried a real hope from the start that a permanent theatre might be established here. There had once been a flourishing Georgian theatre that had closed when the larger Victorian theatres opened in the neighbouring Potteries towns. The building had been converted into a cinema and now stood empty, dilapidated and virtually unusable. No one planning a permanent theatre (in the round or any other sort) could fail to note that even the theatres that had replaced the old Royal were now themselves either cinemas or empty shells.

The only remaining professional playhouse in the area was the Theatre Royal in Hanley, which had been rebuilt in 1956 after a fire. Its re-opening had been an opportunity for much celebration and it was even called the finest theatre in the provinces. It ceased to be a playhouse in 1962 and turned over to the current craze for bingo.

Permanence in the theatre is an elastic concept.

The premises we finally found were just over the border that separates Newcastle from Stoke.... Our audience had to come from a wide area and the theatre would have to serve the whole of the Potteries, indeed the whole of North Staffordshire, and from this point of view the position carried no disadvantages.

The Victoria Theatre had been built as a small cinema, serving an artisan residential locality, on the main road between Stoke and Newcastle. The site unfortunately included no car parking facilities, and the frontage could never be anything but modest. But in many ways the building itself seemed ideal for conversion. Several plans were drawn up. We had only a few pounds available and a few promises.

At worst we could simply clear away the debris and set up our portable rostrum units as soon as the Scarborough season had finished.

But generous help came from William Elmhirst and Miss Margaret Rawlings; Granada Television offered us surplus seating from their cinemas; ABC Television presented us with a cheque for £700; and the Gulbenkian Foundation paid for much-needed decoration in the foyer. We were able to embark on a fairly substantial scheme of alterations. Our architect, Peter Fisher, took full charge of the conversion while the summer season kept us at Scarborough. He drew up plans for permanent seating rows, the construction of dressing rooms, an extensive control room and arrangements to put at any rate some spotlights in the roof void. The work had to be carefully discussed and detailed if it were to be completed in time for the Scarborough company to move in.

Experienced theatre people whose advice we sought were mostly discouraging. And the familiar arguments that no theatre could succeed in the Potteries were reinforced by the unlikeliness of the place. And we were told authoritatively that the conversion plans could not be completed in the time available. Fortunately everything went smoothly enough.

The Victoria Theatre opened on 9 October 1962 with a performance of
The Birds and the Wellwishers, a play by William Norfolk that had been among the new productions at Scarborough. Directed by Peter Cheeseman, the play gave good comic opportunities to Alan Ayckbourn as an earnest do-it-yourself clerk and to an adenoidal Elizabeth Bell as a romantically minded telephonist. The author had written the play with a fine sense of humour that appealed strongly to young people. In some ways it was a good play to open with. Thoroughly entertaining, well acted, unconventional. It attracted people with bright minds, or with a simple desire to enjoy themselves. It did not attract people looking for secondhand West End successes, nor the dramatic critics who were invited and, for reasons unknown, did not come. Was it the new play or the new theatre that kept them away? The following plays included Pinter’s The Caretaker and David Campton’s adaptation, from Poe, of Usher. These plays established the fact that the Victoria Theatre had decided to look for a young audience or an audience of any age that did not have too stereotyped a notion of what a play should be.

Peter Cheeseman assumed the job of manager, in charge of the Victoria Theatre, with a free hand and the responsibility to get the thing going. No easy task. If in an area as highly populated as the Potteries there is no theatre and if, further, a few years ago there used to be several theatres, it is not a rash conclusion that the people don’t want a theatre and know they don’t want one. Obviously the situation is not as simple as that.

Perhaps the theatres were too big, or had the wrong policy, or were in one way or another out of date or otherwise unsuitable. But the Victoria Theatre, no matter how much it tried to avoid mistakes could not escape the disadvantages of its situation, its lack of car-parking facilities, the sheer simplicity (to use a polite word) of its conversion, and above all the known fact that a theatre is not for the likes of us (as it were). But Cheeseman set about the task of winning an audience with huge enthusiasm and bristling energy. Results so far: a young audience, growing attendance figures and some interesting successes - notably Marlowe’s
The Jew of Malta, Brian Way’s Pinocchio and the theatre’s own musical entertainment called The Jolly Potters.

Extract from Theatre In The Round, by Stephen Joseph (1967, Barrie & Rockliff). Copyright: Stephen Joseph.