When a Lancashire town was home to the stars

Burnleys Victoria TheatreBurnleys Victoria Theatre
Burnleys Victoria Theatre
When London was hit by the Blitz during the Second World War one of the most famous names in theatreland decamped to Lancashire to keep the nation entertained. Nicole Sherwood reports

This month marks the bicentenary of London’s legendary Old Vic Theatre. During the rich history of the famous old venue the role of a long lost Lancashire theatre of the same name played a crucial role.The Old Vic Theatre is famous for its big name performances and staging theatrical greats like Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. During the Second World War, it was forced to close its doors as London suffered extensive air raids in the Blitz and blackouts were imposed across the capital It was in 1940 when the Government ordered the immediate closure of all of London’s theatres and places of public entertainment. However, during the war, the theatre was considered essential entertainment to keep up the morale of the country. And so the manager of the Old Vic, Jo Hodgkinson, was on the lookout for a place in the north to house performances by the Old Vic Company. Jess. H Linscott, the managing director of the Victoria Theatre, in Burnley, offered the use of his theatre as a production and rehearsal base. In November 1941, Burnley became the main headquarters for the Old Vic. Built as the Victoria Assembly Rooms on St James Street, the Victoria Theatre was the first purpose-built theatre of quality in Burnley and opened in 1886 with a performance by established opera singer Madame Adelina Patti. During the war, the Vic – as it was known– became the temporary home and rehearsal space for Sadler’s Wells Opera Company and the Old Vic Company. Plays were devised in Burnley before they toured England.An article from the Burnley Express in 1941, said: “Having established itself a centre of opera, Burnley is now going to take an important place in the English theatre.” And so for the first time, Burnley played Shakespeare with England’s greatest theatrical performers.“Walking along the streets then, you were likely to meet, at one time or another, such people as Dame Sybil Thorndike, Lewis Casson, Ernest Milton,” said the Burnley Express in 1953, reflecting on this golden period for the theatre. Twelfth Night was the first Old Vic production to appear on the Burnley stage, followed by Macbeth, The Witch and Trilby. The company’s production of Othello, devised in Burnley, went on to receive glowing reception from leading London critics, but it was at the Victoria Theatre in Burnley that it had its first performance.“During the war, Burnley people had the best theatre and opera they ever had,” says historian Roger Frost. The company’s production of Macbeth featured none other than celebrated theatrical couple Sir Lewis Casson and Dame Sybil Thorndike. Tyrone Guthrie with Casson who played Macbeth to Thorndike’s Lady Macbeth.“She lived in Burnley during the war and she socialised with locals. She was elderly when I was young but a very good actress, a very confident, upper class woman,” says local historian Roger Frost. Dame Sybil told the Burnley Express in 1941 that she had performed in Burnley 32-years earlier and was a great admirer of Lancashire. In fact, playwright George Bernard Shaw often mistook the Lincolnshire actress for a Lancashire girl. But it wasn’t just theatre royalty who played the Victoria Theatre. Dame Sybil shared the stage with two Burnley boys. Students Peter Sherburn and Brian Steen were selected to play the part of Macbeth’s son in the Shakespeare classic, in what was a momentous moment for Burnley. The company devised plays in Burnley for 10 years, touring across the north and Wales. In London, the Old Vic theatre had been damaged by the Blitz but in 1950 the venue reopened and the company returned home.In 1952, the Governors of the Old Vic and Sadler’s Wells commemorated the Victoria Theatre with a bronze plaque of appreciation, unveiled by director Tyrone Guthrie. Not long after that came the end of an era. After 70 years of entertainment, the Victoria Theatre gave its final performance. The Vic was later demolished, but Burnley had proved that, even during a war, the show must go on.