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The Archive: Reviving the spirit of Liverpool’s Star

Playwright Michael Wynne outside the Liverpool Playhouse
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One hundred and fifty years ago, in April 1866, Charles Dickens visited the majestic St George’s Hall in Liverpool to give one of his famous dramatised readings. Being a lover of music hall, he was probably taken to see work in progress on the city’s soon-to-open Star Music Hall a few streets away.

The Star opened to a packed house on December 26 that year, the curtain rising to the strains of the national anthem, in honour of Queen Victoria, sung by the celebrated Italian soprano Madame Tonnelier and J Busfield, an English tenor. Later on the bill, they sung arias and duets from Vincenzo Bellini’s opera Norma.

Photo: Ian Cowell/Arthur Lloyd
Photo: Ian Cowell/Arthur Lloyd

For the next three decades, the Star was one of the leading music halls in the country, attracting all the top stars of the day. Though he only lived another four years after that visit in 1866, it is likely Dickens would have returned to Liverpool, one of his favourite cities, and paid the Star a visit.

In honour of its 150th anniversary, the Liverpool Playhouse – as the Star was eventually to become – has commissioned Olivier award-winning playwright Michael Wynne, who hails from Liverpool, to write a play, The Star, evoking the glory days of the city’s number one music hall. Two years ago, Wynne’s play Hope Place, set in and among the centre of Liverpool, proved a huge hit with Playhouse audiences.

“I featured some music hall songs in Hope Place and the audience went wild for them,” he explains. “I mentioned to [artistic director] Gemma Bodinetz that the Playhouse started out as a music hall and she commissioned me there and then to write a play about it for the anniversary year.

“A lot of people think of music hall as being a London thing, but there were music halls thriving all over the country in the latter half of the 19th century. Liverpool and Birkenhead had at least a dozen between them.”

Wynne wanted to write something that evoked time and place, as well as connecting to a modern audience, rather than a simple ‘good old days’ homage to music hall.

“It is part fiction, part historical fact. I’m hoping it has the spirit of now and the look and sound of then. I’d like the audience to feel as if they’re back in the days of the Star, in spirit at least. But, at the same time, I’m hoping they’ll relate to it in a contemporary way.”

Just as with Hope Place, Wynne hasn’t flinched from dealing with class issues of the time. “One of the things that comes across in The Star is that music hall was this huge working-class get-together. It was very rough and ready, not the refined business of middle-class theatregoing. One of the characters in the play is a middle-class capitalist who wants to close it down and reopen it as a proper theatre which is more or less what happened to the Star.

“A lot of middle-class people didn’t like the idea of the working classes enjoying themselves and getting drunk.”

A programme for Norma, which opened the Star Music Hall in 1866. Photo: Ian Cowell/Arthur Lloyd
A programme for Norma, which opened the Star Music Hall in 1866. Photo: Ian Cowell/Arthur Lloyd

In reality, the Star operated as a full-bodied music hall for 30 years until it came under new management, which restyled it as the Star Theatre of Varieties. However, this new-look variety house was short-lived, and in 1896 it was closed for extensive refurbishment and installation of electric light. The owners boasted it was “the most perfectly appointed theatre in the provinces”.

Within two years, the Star had forsaken variety in favour of blood-and-thunder melodrama. The early years of the 20th century were a time of great change in regional theatre, mostly brought on by the introduction of the repertory system by Annie Horniman and Ben Iden Payne in Manchester in 1907. Influenced by that, the Liverpool Repertory Company came into being, and by 1911 it was ready to take over the lease of the Star and rename it the Liverpool Playhouse, under the direction of Basil Dean, who went on to become a top London producer and film-maker, and an actor who went under the name of Miss Darragh.

Archivist Harold Ackroyd writes in his book The Liverpool Stage: “At that time, to many people, repertory was synonymous with everything that was, dramatically speaking, dull, drab and boring. The chosen plays being the most highbrow of the highbrow. The critics jeered at the company for believing there was sufficient support for permanent theatre, although they nevertheless proceeded with their plans for the Star Theatre, but for which the success of later years may never have been achieved.”

For Wynne’s decidedly un-highbrow play, the orchestra pit has been reopened for the first time in years, with a live band, and the whole of the stage will be deployed. “I fell in love with music hall while researching this play,” he says. “I’m just excited to get all that music and fun back into the place where it happened all those years ago. You could say it’s a bit of a love letter to the theatre and, in particular, to music hall.”

The Star runs at the Liverpool Playhouse from December 9-January 14

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