A history trail of North Laine's theatrical legacy

Photo:The Theatre Royal Brighton today

The Theatre Royal Brighton today

Photo:Max Miller points from his plinth to the Theatre Royal

Max Miller points from his plinth to the Theatre Royal

In the steps of the stars

By Geoffrey Mead

North Laine is Brighton theatre land! And the history of theatre, drama and music hall in the city is largely tied up with North Laine localities and some adjacent areas. As part of the Theatre Royal 200 years celebrations I was asked by Brighton Museum to work with a Times journalist on a history trail of the city's theatrical legacy. It soon became obvious after the briefest of research that North Laine would figure large in the trail! Geography and history do not always sit closely together and the trail has to jump back and forth through time in order to make a coherent route.

Start at Pavilion South Gate

The trail starts on the fringe of the North Laine at the Pavilion South Gate. The first record of a theatre in the early resort is when a company of players arrived in 1764 from the theatre in Chichester to perform in Brighton. It has to be remembered that at that time Chichester, an important judicial and ecclesiastical city, was very much the centre of West Sussex gentry, while Brighton was the run down fishing town becoming a resort.

No theatre at that time

There was no building even remotely resembling a theatre at that time so the players performed in a barn between East Street and the Steine. In the 18th century Great East Street did not stop at North Street but carried on north past Kemp's farmhouse (now the Royal Pavilion) to Church Street. The site of the barn is the NatWest bank in Pavilion Buildings. As it was a barn the players had to wait until the harvest grain had been moved elsewhere! The plays in that barn were a false start and it is another nine years before theatre makes another appearance. In 1773 Samuel Paine, a local builder and brickmaker, built a theatre in North Street just below the present Burger King and set back in a yard behind other buildings.

Back across Pavilion Gardens

Walk back across the Pavilion Gardens, passing the Dome built in 1805 and used later as an entertainment venue, to the New Road, where next to the Pavilion Theatre, opened in 1935, is the statue of Max Miller - Brighton born Harry Sargent achieved long lasting fame and wealth as the Cheeky Chappie and was the epitome of the interwar music hall. Max looks across to the Theatre Royal, which opened in June 1807 and was considerably expanded during the later 19th century.

The Oxford Music Hall

Almost next door was the Oxford Music Hall, a venue which suffered a severe fire in 1867; this was a fate familiar to music halls. Gas lit, packed with smokers, built largely of wood it is unsurprising. However, a major cause was the hot food served during performances - baked potatoes prepared on charcoal braziers and wheeled through the crowds! The Oxford was to be the site of a number of entertainment venues: music hall, theatres and latterly a cinema. The site was scandalously demolished in 1967 (even though the building was expected to be used for Brighton Museum's costume collection), to be replaced by a bland 1970s office block.

Into Church Street

Turn from New Road into Church Street and walk up to the west corner of Bond Street. Here we have an opportunity to 'box the compass'. Eastward rises the colourful bulk of American Express. Built in the 1970s it covers the site of Brighton's first purpose built music hall, which was erected on an old circus ground at the rear of the Globe Inn, Edward Street.

Bond Street

South at the end of Bond Street is the stage door entrance of the Theatre Royal. The building has a distinctive roofline, is the oldest in the street and is possibly from the late 18th century.

Gardner Street

North along Gardner Street the 'odd man out' is the former Victor Value and Tesco supermarket, now housing Komedia and a key feature in the North Laine cultural landscape.

Tichborne Street

Westward up the hill on the corner of Tichborne Street is a 'post modern' red brick building now housing part of the Arts Council - appropriately, because this was once the New Canterbury Music Hall, a famously grand building that sat on the fringe of Pimlico, a notorious slum and red-light district that was cleared in the 1870s. The Canterbury supported a diverse clientele. Being close to the Theatre Royal it was a 'post theatre' venue where the gents and toffs could pick up the Pimlico street girls. Climb the steep slope of Church Street and stop at the corner of Spring Gardens. At the north end the grim 1970s block housing LA Fitness was the Grand Theatre of Varieties opened in 1891 but demolished in 1961 after a bad fire. A short walk to the edge of the adjacent gardens gives a view of Brighthelm, until its resurrection in the 1980s a famous punk rock venue, The Crypt.

Across Queen's Road

Cross Queen's Road, and though leaving the present North Laine conservation area, Church Street was wholly in the historic North Laine. Glance along Camden Passage - at the north end it runs into North Gardens, which had the Barn Theatre in the 1920s, where a young Ralph Richardson had a minor role.

Plaque to Dame Flora Robson

At St Nicholas walk through the churchyard and stop at Wykeham Terrace, where there is a plaque commemorating Dame Flora Robson, the actress and film star. Further down the hill stop at the Clock Tower where there are a number of historic sites to view. Across where Boots west entrance is located used to be The Regent, a classic interwar 'super cinema' and dance hall.

North Street

Below Boots in North Street the Unicorn pub had a singing room at the rear, which is thought to be one of the town's earliest music venues. Opposite, as noted earlier, was the first Brighton theatre behind the North Street frontage. Burger King itself is on the site of the Prince's News Theatre.

Duke Street

Cross into West Street and turn into Duke Street. The Havana Bar marks the site of the third theatre, which replaced the one in North Street. Although contemporary views show it as a grand stone structure, it was a complete theatrical fake, as it was fronted with painted scenery! Here played the Regency greats - Mrs Siddons, Mrs Jordan, who was William IV's mistress, and Harriett Mellon, who went on to live in Regency Square and marry not one, but two millionaires! In 1805 this theatre received the accolade 'Royal', which it took with it when it moved in 1807 to New Road, the fourth site.

Middle Street

Down Middle Street to the celebrated Hippodrome, opened as an ice rink but converted to a concert hall in 1903 and now undergoing restoration as a 'night spot'.

The seafront

Onwards to the seafront and westward the hulk of the West Pier preserves the shape of its 1899 theatre, with almost opposite the site of the Alhambra music hall (Charlie Chaplin's dad performed here), the location now lost under the Brighton Centre. East along the front the Palace Pier has controversially 'lost' its Edwardian theatre, and opposite the Aquarium's various alterations has all but obliterated its entertainment history. Back through the Steine to the Pavilion South Gate and the tour is done!

Other theatres

There were - and are - many more theatres in the city, but outside the North Laine 'catchment' and they have only been omitted here for the sake of brevity.

[Previously published in the 'North Laine Runner', No 189, Nov/Dec 2007]

This page was added on 20/02/2008.

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