In the grounds of Walthamstow Girls' School lies a unique surprise — a hidden 'Greek' amphitheatre — and it's been putting on plays for almost a century.
Built in 1924, and opening with its first production the following summer, the theatre came about at the request of Mary Norris, the then-headmistress, who chose to embellish her school with a Greek-style amphitheatre, rather than the proposed lido.
The performance space — today known simply as The Greek Theatre — was constructed primarily by unemployed local men, who worked partly in exchange for food, owing to the Poor Laws of the time. Explains Mark Greenall, an expert on the theatre: "In the 1920s, there was terrible poverty and unemployment in this part of London due to a massive recession after world war one, which hit the docks and ancillary industries."
At the time, it was in vogue for prestigious public schools to have theatres like these, but Greenall reckons that Walthamstow's is the only one built at that time in the grounds of a council-run school. Norris was clearly of the mind that her girls could hold their own with the best of them, when it came to highbrow culture.
As if to hammer this point home, once the theatre was ready to be used, Norris contacted the great actor Sybil Thorndike through a cousin who happened to know her — and Thorndike agreed to play in the theatre's opening production of Medea.
Chorus parts starred girls from the school, Greenall tells us, many of whom would dash from rehearsals to their exams still dressed in ancient Greek attire. For the inaugural performance, a staggering 800 people turned out to witness the play... although that did include everyone in the school — so a somewhat captive audience.
Through the decades, the theatre has been used for numerous school plays and speeches, and in the 1940s, even staged a dog show to raise money for the war effort and to celebrate Walthamstow's incorporation as a borough.
From 1958, a group called the Greek Theatre Players began staging a Shakespeare play here each summer, and they've done so ever since. A loose collective, the Players hire most of their costumes, and always welcome new members. "We see ourselves as very much a local tradition appealing to people who wouldn't normally think of going to see a Shakespeare," says Greenall.
The beauty of the theatre — which is ensconced in mature shrubs and trees — reckons Greenall, comes from its uniqueness as an outdoor performance arena, although this also makes for challenges for actors.
Says Greenall: "Acting and singing outdoors bring extra demands on technique and projection compared with indoor working. The compensation is the feeling that you're working in a magical space when the sun goes down and the lights turn the stone a slight golden colour.
"Those who act here — many of whom have worked in professional theatres up and down the land — will testify that it is a magical and intimate venue."
Audiences are often surprised to learn of the theatre's existence, even if they're local to the area: "They're stunned to find such a venue hidden in the heart of the borough,"Greenall says, "The most common refrain is always that they had no idea it was there."
In 2023, the theatre stages a production of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale (26 July-29 July). While you can't purchase tickets online — due to 'the unpredictability of British weather' — they are available to buy on-site, and the Greek Theatre Players have always managed to fit everyone into their shows.