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Poignant playbills in Brighton

Our old friend Bill Posters has surfaced again in a delightful volume of playbills celebrating over two hundred years of the Theatre Royal in Brighton, which opened on its present site in 1807 with a performance of Hamlet played by Charles Kemble.

Every West End show used to play Brighton directly before London, and the racier ones - anything by Joe Orton, or Beyond the Fringe - could be relied upon to produce that distinctive sound in the Brighton auditorium of seats being noisily tipped up as the irate customers headed for the exits. 

The most striking thing about the book - which has been issued to critics to coincide with the launch of a new production company opening with Pinero's Dandy Dick, and an invitation to a day at the Brighton races - is the contrast in style of theatre posters over the years.

19th century posters were dignified, detailed listings in heavy black type of various fonts. And a play's title would only be the half of it. Boucicault's Streets of London, for instance, in 1872, was preceded by a musical comedy, various "turns" and then all the acts of the play proper were listed: "Act 3, The House on Fire" featured members of the Brighton Fire Brigade with "upwards of 100 auxiliaries!" in "this great sensational scene."

Red type and occasional pictures gradually seeped in, until, from about 1935, the familiar H M Tennent-style posters of stark red lettering, streamlined information and organised billing took hold.

As it happens, I have one of those posters, not reproduced in the book, on my office wall, announcing Helen Hayes in The Glass Menagerie, directed by John Gielgud, in 1948. The show was en route to the West End, presented by Tennent Productions Ltd in association with the Arts Council and by arrangement with the Theatre Guild of New York.

One spread of four posters brilliantly sums up the 1960s: Kenneth Williams in One Over the Eight, Beyond the Fringe, Harold Pinter's The Caretaker ("direct from the Duchess Theatre, London, after over 400 performances") and Nicol Williamson in Inadmissible Evidence.

Then, suddenly, the posters becomes much freer, with pink or mauve backgrounds, mug shots of the actors (Leslie Phillips and a young, mustachioed, thinner-faced Julian Fellowes in Michael Pertwee's Sextet), and clear evidence of visiting managements and producers providing the poster, not the theatre itself.

This trend has been carried to its obvious, and dreadfully confusing, conclusion of magazines and newspapers now listing productions by show title, not name of venue, the argument being that you look for a play, not the venue it's playing in.

I think this is regrettable. The play consists, to a very large degree, in the fabric of its location. A play, any play, in the Haymarket is palpably different in kind from any play at the Bush, or even in the Duke of York's.

And any play in the Theatre Royal, Brighton, will be defined by the magic of that lovely place, with its red plush seats, perfectly proportioned auditorium, raffish proximity to the sea and the Pavilion, even the implicit knowledge of the little actors' bar located, and much frequented, almost on the stage itself.

The theatre has fallen into disrepair several times in its history and the current volume records the varying fortunes and ownerships with discreet short paragraphs between the posters; but with one glaring omission.

David Land, the producer who first put Tim Rice in a room with Andrew Lloyd Webber, rescued the theatre and refurbished it at great personal cost in the 1990s, and there's no mention of him, or his special place in the theatre's history.

That's the only serious blot on a treasurable tome. "Speaking personally," says Simon Callow in an introduction, "there is no theatre in the world in which I would rather appear." Nor one in which I would rather sit.

I wonder if we'd ever all reach agreement on our top ten favourite British theatres. Here are ten of mine: Wyndham's and the Haymarket in London, Theatre Royal in Brighton, the King's in Edinburgh, the Glasgow Citizens, Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds, Theatre Royal in Stratford East, the Royal Court, the Wakefield Theatre Royal and Opera House, the Roundhouse (sometimes).


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