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Curtain up – Frank Matcham’s London Coliseum

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Frank ‘Matchless” Matcham’s glorious London Coliseum reopens on February 27, after extensive refurbishment, with English National Opera’s launch of its new production of Wagner’s Ring tetralogy. It seems an apt choice given the theatre’s past record of sumptuous stagings, even if more by default than design.

Like the first Coliseum, whose opening numerous accidents and problems delayed by five days back in December, 1904 – it finally opened on Christmas Eve – setbacks have meant several postponements of the present reincarnation.

Hopefully ENO won’t suffer any early technical embarrassment, as did the original theatre. The first time King Edward VII climbed aboard The King’s Car – a lushly furnished mobile lounge created to convey the royal party to its box, remain there throughout the performance and act as an ante-room during the interval – it blew a fuse and refused to move. He was allegedly thoroughly amused.

The Coliseum is one of more than 60 Matcham theatres built throughout the land in the boom years of 1892-1912, when Britain was easing out of the staid Victorian era into the more relaxed and carefree Edwardian age. Shrewd entrepreneurs like Oswald Stoll and Edward Moss – both creators of highly successful entertainment circuits, which bore their names – strenuously nurtured music hall, or variety as it was soon called. They wanted theatres and Matcham was happy to provide them. Elegance, comfort, spectacle and a sense of occasion became hallmarks of his imaginative creations.

Stoll owned and managed the first Coliseum, his aim to offer family entertainment in an opulent setting. Matcham provided a handsome marble staircase, the landmark tower topped by a revolving globe and an impressive range of amenities, including spacious tea-rooms on each floor, lifts to the theatre’s upper levels, lavishly decorated retiring rooms, a roof-garden with a glass-domed roof and an information bureau from which messages and telegrams could be sent and where doctors might register their whereabouts in case of emergencies.

Though the King’s Car was a failure, the £70,000 revolving stage – the first in the country – was not. It comprised three concentric sections, which could move both clockwise and anti-clockwise. From the start, therefore, the Coliseum hosted extravagant displays, like the opening night’s ‘Derby Day’, a recreation of Epson racecourse with real jockeys riding real horses galloping against the moving revolve. However, the shows were more spectacular than exciting – eye candy lacking the ribald vigour and excess which enlivened music hall.

Stoll banned popular stars like George Robey and Marie Lloyd for being overly racy. The result was dwindling audiences. Forced into a radical re-think, Stoll played down the front of house extravagance and opted for more economical stagings. He also relented over Robey, although Marie Lloyd never played there.

Thereafter the house history has been one of ups and downs. Dance, musicals, movies and, finally, opera came to the rescue whenever the doldrums descended.

But what a wealth of talent the theatre has hosted: Lily Langtry, Harry Lauder, Yvette Guilbert, WC Fields – billed as both the Silent Humorist and the Greatest of Eccentric Jugglers – the inimitable Grock, the Marx Brothers in their first European appearance, Max Wall – the Boy with the Obedient Feet and Sophie Tucker, who, when Stoll cut part of her act, raged: “You shouldn’t be the manager of a vaudeville theatre, you should be a bishop.”

Nor was there a shortage of more curious and bizarre acts – there was the towering 7ft 11ins Fraulein Brunhilde – The Tallest Pianist in the World – Fitz, the boxing kangaroo and the Aeroplane Ladies.

Stoll also sandwiched one-act plays between variety acts, commissioning from the likes of Harley Granville-Barker, George Bernard Shaw, Arthur Pinero, Somerset Maugham and James Barrie. Edmund Gwenn and Irene Vanbrugh played in Barrie’s Half-an-Hour, the youthful Edith Evans appeared with the great Ellen Terry in The Merry Wives of Windsor, while Sarah Bernhardt, though preceded by a group of musical acrobats, held an audience spellbound as Racine’s impassioned Phedre. It was reported that “every word seemed to scorch”.

Dance, too, wowed Coliseum patrons. “The Russian Ballet sandwiched between performing dogs and a fat lady playing a silver-plated trombone! Never! Never!” stormed Diaghilev. Yet he came several times, in 1925 bringing with him Lydia Sokolova, Serge Lifar and the young George Balanchine.

Anton Dolin, Alicia Markova and Ninette de Valois danced across the boards. In more recent years the Alvin Ailey Company and the Kirov Ballet have filled the house.

The Colly fared less well musically. In the early days Alice Esty regularly sang excerpts from the Italian repertory, there was an abridged Pagliacci (1912), Thomas Beecham’s company performed there, while Sir Henry Wood conducted 40 minutes of non-vocal music from Wagner’s Parsifal.

In 1931 the lavishly staged White Horse Inn ran for 651 performances. The fifties and sixties heralded the glory days of the great American musicals such as Annie Get Your Gun, Kiss Me, Kate, Call Me Madam, Guys and Dolls and The Pyjama Game. However, ENO’s arrival in 1968 marked the beginning of the theatre’s greatest musical successes.

The company has maintained enviably high standards since its occupancy. Everyone has their favourite productions. Mine include John Copley’s Carmen, David Pountney’s Hansel and Gretel and the legendary Goodall Ring. Let us hope the new cycle presages a glittering future, after troublesome times, for both ENO and Matcham’s marvellously restored Coliseum.

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