Time travelling through Grand Theatre's early past meeting playwrights and actors

Irish playwright Bernard Shaw. Photo: Getty ImagesIrish playwright Bernard Shaw. Photo: Getty Images
Irish playwright Bernard Shaw. Photo: Getty Images
By Barry Band

With the future of theatres in the balance due to Covid19, Grand Theatre Friends are musing about favourite shows and stars of recent years.

While we look forward to the current situation being resolved, I’ve plugged in the time machine, given it a spot of WD40, and parked it in Church Street for the first few months of the Grand’s existence in the 1890s.

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What might our great-grandparents have seen when they got spruced-up for an intellectual night at the theatre?

Oscar WildeOscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde

We’re looking for familiar names. Shows, actors, writers. Will we find many?

Sneaking into the stalls with the carpet-fitters, prior to the big opening night of July 23, we see the boss himself, William Shakespeare, looking down from his plinth above the stage box.

That’s encouraging but are we going to see any of his plays? Just one, opening night only, with that sturdy actor Wilson Barrett robing up as Hamlet.

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Theatre owner Thomas Sergenson is playing safe with a repertory of popular

pieces for the rest of the week.

What else might be familiar to we time travellers from the 21st century?

Well, week three of the Grand’s existence has the comedy Charley’s Aunt, which our own Auntie Mary could have seen at the Grand as late as 1956, with Richard Hearne starring.

Auntie Mary, in her younger days, will have seen regular appearances by the Carl Rosa Opera Company at the Grand and our peep into 1894 reveals that very company giving eight operas during a week in August.

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The following week we see a touring company in The School for Scandal, by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and She Stoops to Conquer, by Oliver Goldsmith.

Definitely a talking point over the teapot at the weekend!

Still looking for names that might ring a bell with a 21st century theatregoer, I draw a blank.

It’s April, 1895, before a familiar name appears in the Grand programmes. It’s Bernard Shaw, a 39-year-old scribe from Dublin with a play called Arms and the Man, which Grand Theatre audiences won’t see again until 1982!

Actor Wilson Barrett returns in August, 1895, with Hamlet in a repertory of four plays, and in September a play by Jerome K. Jerome titled Prude’s Progress is included in a week of plays starring Madge Kendall.

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It’s November, 1895, before another familiar name appears at the Grand. Peering from the time machine we see a poster for The Importance of Being Earnest, by Oscar Wilde, with two performances during a week’s repertory by a touring drama company.

As for Wilde himself, he is serving a two-year jail sentence!

Our swoop into 1895 closes with Wilson Barrett returning from an American tour to present his own drama, The Sign of the Cross, to Grand Theatre Christmas audiences. The play is his most successful and is on the way to making a fortune for the actor-writer.

HG Wells hasn’t made an appearance but his time machine is working!

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STAR SPOT: If you watched the ‘screwball’ comedy His Girl Friday on Freeview last week, it was during the filming that former Rossall School student Frederick Brisson, son of Danish matinee idol actor Carl Brisson, met Hollywood star Rosalind Russell and they married in 1941. Look them up on Wikipedia

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