Londonist Gets Off Its Arse: The Theatre Museum

Dave Haste
By Dave Haste Last edited 147 months ago
Londonist Gets Off Its Arse: The Theatre Museum
The Theatre Museum

Believe it or not, this Londonista has never been to the V&A Museum in Kensington. So this was definitely on our list of London attractions to explore. In fact, we were getting ready to go there last weekend – looking up directions on their website no less, when we were distracted by a link to the Theatre Museum in Covent Garden (a.k.a. the National Museum of the Performing Arts), which is apparently part of the same ‘family’ of museums.

To be honest, the Theatre Museum’s own website didn’t really tell us much about the exact nature of this museum. Sure there’s lots of info there, but they seem to have missed out on the opportunity to explain the museum to those who are completely ignorant of its purpose. Still our curiosity had been roused, so we decided to find out for ourselves what this museum was all about, postponing our visit to the V&A for another occasion.

Of course visiting this particular museum on a Saturday did mean that we would have to face one of our greatest fears – the dreaded milling tourists. Located right in the middle of Covent Garden, it is practically impossible to get to the museum without encountering huge crowds of ambling fools, but we did manage to grit our teeth and reach the entrance without too much violence. And to our delight the inside of the museum itself was mercifully quiet and calm, with only a token smattering of tourists to be found, all of whom seemed to be quite well-behaved.

Near the entrance we found the museum’s first exhibition, entitled ‘A Great Night Out – The Making Of The West End’. The title of this quite small exhibition speaks for itself really; it was mildly interesting to see how the theatre district evolved from the mid-19th century to modern times (which occurred partly in parallel with the rise of Broadway in New York) and to find out about the forces that drove that transformation. Nothing jaw-dropping here, mind you – and we found the atmospheric lighting to be so dim that we had difficulty viewing all of the exhibits clearly! Our poor old eyes.

Still, it was curious to think that London’s huge theatre district had once struggled in the face of local competition, notably from the introduction of ‘super-cinemas’ and the Soho sex industry in the middle of the last century. The exhibit suggests that it was only funding from the government, the BBC and (latterly) the national lottery that gave the West End the opportunity to establish its position as one of the world’s most prominent theatre districts.

We descended a long but shallow ramp to the lower ground floor where the museum’s main galleries were situated. The walls next to the ramp were decorated with photographs of dance performers taken by Chris Harris. Not being particularly dancy types (despite previous foolish attempts at modern-dance education by one of this Londonista’s former girlfriends) this didn’t really interest us that much, but it might be of interest to you if you’re into that sort of thing.

Off to the side of the main galleries we found an odd room that clearly couldn’t decide whether it was meant to be a gallery or a conference room. Paintings of historically significant performers were offset by presentation equipment and rows of uncomfortable-looking chairs. The room’s décor seemed plush at first, but didn’t stand up to close inspection (the marble pillars appeared to be actually made of cardboard). We bored of this silly room quite quickly, and made our way onwards to the fantastically-named ‘beard room’. Sadly there weren’t many beards in evidence, but there was an interesting little video exhibit comparing two very different interpretations of a scene from King Lear.

The Theatre Museum

As we moved on to the main galleries proper, we soon became slightly disorientated. It would be an exaggeration to call the galleries’ passageways labyrinthine, but it was certainly quite easy for us to lose our bearings. We found the galleries to be something of a mixed bag – some of the props and paintings on display were of limited interest to us, but some other areas managed to stimulate our curiosity. In the middle of the galleries (or so our poor sense of direction told us) was an exhibition entitled ‘The Redgraves: A Family On The Public Stage’. At first we betrayed an amount of theatrical ignorance by not realising that Corin Redgrave, Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson (to name but a few) are all part of the same massive theatrical family tree, but we think we concealed our stupidity well.

As we exhausted the material that the galleries had to offer, we felt that the museum had not been entirely compelling. Curious enough for sure, but not overly stimulating. But as we were trying to navigate our way towards the exit we noticed an unobtrusive whitewashed corridor through a doorway to the side of the galleries, which we had previously ignored assuming it to be a ‘backstage’ area. But now we noticed an inviting sign declaring the area to be ‘the dressing room’, so we concluded that it would be OK to explore this passageway after all…

And we’re so glad we did, because in this little corridor we found the highlight of our visit. Along the walls of the corridor (and the adjacent makeup room) were a number of portraits of famous actors, taken in their dressing rooms by the photographer Simon Annand. Somehow he had managed to persuade these actors to allow him to photograph them as they prepared themselves for their performances, giving us an amazingly privileged view of their focus and immersion into character. Many of these portraits capture what must be quite private moments, both physically – a few actors have been captured on the toilet, and mentally – many of the actors are visibly ‘in another place’ as they prepare themselves. The museum is worth visiting for this alone.

As it turns out the Theatre Museum is due to close in January 2007, due to a lack of financial support. This is a shame – we’re led to believe that this is the only museum of its kind in the country, and with some decent funding it could be pretty impressive. Still this is apparently not to be, so if you’re caught in Covent Garden and you want some respite from the crowds (especially as the extended Christmas madness approaches), you should consider visiting the Theatre Museum while you still can.

Last Updated 11 October 2006