LICENSED FOR DRAMA

Posted by Admin on Monday, 25th July 2011, 12:15

An octogenarian aunt of mine remembered it as a chapel of worship, and recently I saw a photograph that showed another relative in its choir. Both souvenirs are of a time prior to the alleged discovery of an architectural defect which induced the Wesleyan Methodists at the turn of the century to build their new chapel on the opposite side of the road.

Renamed, after deconsecration, the Alexandra Hall became our chief centre for ‘live’ entertainment. In 1911 the Cowes Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society used it for the first time. A play, The Magistrate, was produced in April, and Edward German’s Tom Jones in May. The society’s former venue, the Victoria Hall in Medina Road, was bombed to rubble in 1942.

My own introduction to Gilbert and Sullivan Opera was effected in 1926 when the CAODS did Patience, and I still think Bunthorne’s song concerning a ‘singularly deep young man’ one of Gilbert’s wittiest. Lady Jane’s solo, that superb blend of satire and sincerity, also made an enduring impression: I whistled it for weeks.

For thirty years the society’s association was practically unbroken. There were three interruptions: two during the Great War, and one in 1922 when Les Cloches de Corneville was taken across the road to the Royalty cinema.

An old programme found among some old scores tells me that in 1920 the Cowes and East Cowes Philharmonic Society put on a concert version of Merrie England. The chorus numbered one hundred and forty – no lack of volunteer vocalists! With the British Empire at its zenith, and Armageddon passed, people had ‘something to sing about’.

During the nineteen twenties, the gap left by the non-existence of a theatre proper was filled from time to time by a travelling repertory company that came to the Alexandra Hall for one-night stands. Over 80 years have elapsed since those performances were given, and I am not able to judge their quality, but I was enthralled at the time. The plays I saw included Brown Sugar, A Bill of Divorcement, The Knave of Diamonds, and The Speckled Band. There was always at least one scene which left such a lasting impression that I knew it by heart. At odd moments I entertained my parents with dramatic or humorous snippets. I recall one excerpt from Ethel M. Dell’s The Knave of Diamonds. I did two characters: the drunken Sir Giles Carfax, and his timorous butler, Sir Giles’ final words ending in a venomous snarl of which I was particularly proud.

The Speckled Band really shook me. I knew the plot, for at that time Sherlock Holmes was one of my favourite characters in fiction. I still remember the build-up of tension as Holmes found that a bed screwed to the floor had a bell-pull conveniently close to its pillow. The scene changed: the stage was dark: an aura of red and mystical light illumined an Indian who squatted at the front of the stage and played on a snake-charmer’s pipe the most weird music I had ever heard. The strain was unendurable. That night, and for many more, my bedroom was invaded by imaginary snakes that descended bell-ropes, and were drawn back by uncanny music.

Around that period my parents took me to see my first love in the world of musical comedy – The Belle of New York. I have Gustave Kerker’s score in front of me. When I can inveigle someone into playing for me, it is the first thing I set up on the piano. Blinky Bill, Fifi, Harry Bronson, and Cora Angélique, emerge from the melodic structure. What in musical comedy is more delightful than Oh, Teach Me How To Kiss, La Belle Parisienne, They All Follow Me, and When We Are Married: what more inspiriting than She is the Belle of New York: and what more replete with the joy of living than On the Beach at Narragansett?

Later I saw Ivor Novello’s play, The Rat, in which an Apache Dance was done with thrilling abandon.

The caretaker of the ‘Alex’ lived next door. The space formerly occupied by his home did, for a while, afford a new view of the harbour, but no protection against ‘Nor-Easters’. A wireless enthusiast, he made and gave me my first crystal-set, and when King George the Fifth’s inaugural speech at the Wembley Exhibition was broadcast he took his loudspeaker (a curved black trumpet typical of the ‘twenties) into the Hall, and invited a number of his friends to ‘listen in’. It was, I think, the King’s first time ‘on air’. We felt, I recall, a great sense of occasion.

Apart from theatrical entertainment, the Alexandra Hall provided accommodation for a variety of other activities. In winter the Cowes Rifle Club used its basement for an indoor range; politicians held meetings there; and I can remember an exhibition of artificial flowers organised by St Dunstan’s. Of a Gramophone Recital a single record remains in my memory – Amelita Galli-Curci’s La Paloma. Infrequently, traces of cigar-smoke near the porch, and the unusual sight of men in evening-dress en-route for the Duke of York, indicated an interval during boxing-matches.

The seating facilities of the Hall comprised wooden chairs that could be moved to clear the floor for dancing. I never danced there, but I have a recollection of surreptitious peeps, taken from a curtain-covered doorway, that revealed men in Oxford-bags, and ‘flappers’ with bobbed hair passing in rhythmic parade.

For several months extensive alterations were in progress, during which the building was converted into a dwelling. A long-standing vacancy had made a character-change inevitable. The last dance-step has been taken, the ultimate foot-light switched off, and the final curtain rung down. Of the Alexandra Hall as a theatre there remain only happy memories. May its tenants store a commensurate quota.

T. C. Hudson

© T. C. Hudson.
This article may not be reproduced without prior permission of the author.

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