The History of Theatre in Lichfield

When "the Life and Times of Lichfield in the 20th century" comes to be written, Howard Clayton is well qualified for inclusion. Thus our Vice-Chairman, Mike Tole, introduced our speaker on Thursday 21st May. This was more of a formal greeting as Howard Clayton is known to all as a public figure and local historian.

The history of theatre in Lichfield was placed in an historical context by tracing the growth of drama from the Middle Ages to the 20th century. No record exists of "Mystery Plays" being performed but the silent Mummers and the active Morris Dancers are known to have appeared in the City. The Elizabethan period also seems to have been a time when Lichfield was denied drama - as it was to others during the Commonwealth. However the restoration of Charles II, with its reaction against Puritanism, created both opportunity and encouragement for the theatre - "refinement, moderation and a scientific spirit were all the rage".

George Farquhar was among the dramatists who flourished during the 'post restoration' period and Howard Clayton related how, having accidentally wounded a fellow actor in a Dublin theatre, he quit the boards and joined the army. In Lichfield, while staying at the George Hotel, he wrote "The Recruiting Officer". "Beaux Stratagem", his last play and considered by many to be his best, contains a reference to 'Lichfield Ale'. A little later, in the early 18th century, David Garrick first acted in Shakespeare in the Bishop's Palace before seeking and finding fame in London. The Guildhall was the venue for productions by visiting players, welcomed to Lichfield by its educated elite.

Among these thespians were Roger Kemble and his daughter Sarah who, upon her marriage to William, became Sarah Siddons. She was a friend of Anna Seward to whom it is thought she expressed her discontent with the inadequacies of the Guildhall as a theatre. It was Anna who persuaded a group to form a company in 1790 to build a theatre in Bore Street. Over the next 80 years the Theatre Royal saw many famous actors of the day tread the boards including Charles and Edward Keane, Ellen Tree and Frank Benson. Prior to 1840 productions were aimed at 'the Gentry' but subsequently a different clientele was served with 'novelty acts' including the "Monster Chinese Rock Band". The visits by Paganinii and Madame Tussaud exemplify the catholicity of this theatre's appeal.

By 1873 the Theatre Royal had been replaced by the St James Hall which was used for lectures and discussions as well as theatrical productions. 'Race Week' and 'Yeomanry Week' were celebrated by special productions, sometimes with unseemly audience participation.

In 1911 the St James Hall had become a cinema and was subsequently renamed "The Palladium" and later "The Lido". In 1949 Mr and Mrs Cowlishaw changed The Lido to "The David Garrick Theatre" where Lionel Jefferies acted and Kenneth Tynan had productions performed; but by 1956 it was a cinema again.

If you were not among the many members present to hear Howard Clayton tell the fascinating story of the theatre in Lichfield then a visit to the Heritage Centre will fill in some of the gaps.

Ivor Mitchell
May 1992