John Baxter Somerville

Photo:Theatre Royal Brighton

Theatre Royal Brighton

200 years of the Theatre Royal, Part 4 of 7

CONTINUING THIS SERIES OF PAGES ABOUT THE HISTORY OF THE THEATRE ROYAL IN NEW ROAD, IN CELEBRATION OF ITS 200TH ANNIVERSARY DURING 2007, WE NOW TELL OF JOHN BAXTER SOMERVILLE, WHO WAS ITS MANAGER FROM 1936-63. THIS WAS A GOLDEN AGE FOR THE THEATRE ROYAL.

Born in 1907

John Baxter Somerville, or 'JB' as he was always called, was born in 1907. He qualified and practised as a solicitor and in 1932 founded the Croydon Repertory Company. In 1934 JB's Croydon company performed at Theatre Royal Brighton and, enthused by our theatre, he immediately made an offer to lease it, which was granted.

Brighton Repertory Company

In early 1935 the Brighton Repertory Company, along with a non-profit making leaseholding company, Community Theatres (Brighton) Ltd, was launched. Brighton Repertory Company was most successful artistically but was under-financed and was soon in difficulties. The Chairman of the Company died soon afterwards and, following the resignation of the other Directors, JB and his Treasurer carried on alone and with enormous debts.

A fresh lease

They formed a new non-profit making company, Theatre Royal (Stage Plays) Ltd, and a fresh lease was granted in 1938. As well as performing at Theatre Royal Brighton, Brighton Repertory Company also appeared at other theatres. When it was away from the Theatre Royal, JB presented touring companies and London productions. In the 1930s these included Cyrano de Bergerac with Donald Wolfit; Noel Coward's Design for Living with Diana Wynyard, Rex Harrison and Anton Walbrook; and Sir John Martin-Harvey in The Only Way.

War time

When war broke out in 1939, Theatre Royal Brighton was dark for only a week and then benefited greatly, as many London theatres were closed and so West End productions were touring. More stars than ever performed at the Theatre Royal. Shows included The Importance of Being Earnest with Edith Evans, John Gielgud, Peggy Ashcroft, Margaret Rutherford and Gwen Ffangcon-Davies. Margot Fonteyn performed with the Vic-Wells Ballet and Theatre Royal Brighton also hosted Glyndebourne Opera's first touring production. 

When south-east England was declared a restricted zone in 1940, JB presented a season of improvised concert party entertainment, and then a return to his Repertory Company to keep the theatre open. So much money was lost that the Theatre Royal was within a week of closing down and the Repertory Company was disbanded. But JB kept the wartime mentality and by 1941 he was again booking touring companies, with famous actors such as John Mills.

JB was Chairman and Honorary Director of Mobile Entertainments (for the armed forces) in the Southern area and through this brought eight plays by George Bernard Shaw to the Theatre Royal Brighton.

After the war

When the War ended, the Theatre Royal and its theatrical spirit had survived intact, but both the building and JB's companies were in serious financial trouble. The ailing Brighton Theatre Royal (Stage Plays) Ltd was scrapped and a new company of the same name was formed, with a new lease for the Theatre. From then on the fortunes of Theatre Royal Brighton improved.

A 'Who's Who' of the theatre world

JB transformed this theatre into a 'Who's Who' of the theatre world. Every British actor of note performed here and Brighton enjoyed outstanding productions and premières. From now until JB's death in 1963 this was a golden age for Theatre Royal Brighton. When he died it was the end of an epoch.

JB's legacy

JB's legacy was huge: he had twice saved Theatre Royal Brighton from closing, in the Depression of 1935-36, and in the crisis of war in 1940-41. He then built up the theatre again, both financially and dramatically, and had an astonishing talent for choosing both playwrights and actors who were to have tremendous careers. They were loyal both to him and to Theatre Royal Brighton, which he established as one of the most important theatres in Britain.

[Previously published in the 'North Laine Runner', No 187, July/August 2007]

This page was added on 20/02/2008.

If you're already a registered user of this site, please login using the form on the left-hand side of this page.