In the final weeks of the year that saw the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens it is appropriate to revisit an aspect of life that the writer loved -the Theatre. I am thinking particularly of the provincial touring company immortalised in “Nicholas Nickelby”.
The Inns of Leek would have seen real life characters unlike the fictional Vincent Crumles the actor- manager who appears in the book. They would have been part of the local scene especially as improvements in roads made travel easier from the late 18th century onwards. A favourite revenue of the actors was the Swan and the Red Lion. I have seen a playbill from 1843 for a production of “Othello” in the Red Lion. In the 18th century the Swan had a theatre at the back of the pub and was used by a number of touring companies. It is thought that the first performance in Leek of Richard Sheridan’s play the Rivals was performed.
It most famous association was with a celebrated 18th century actress Harriet Mellon who first appeared at the Swan in 1789 and then two years later when the company wintered in Leek. In late 1790s she broke into the West End Theatre and her fame was assured.
Sometimes things could go wrong and the same venue much later saw a performance of “ King Lear” in 1878 which was bought to an abrupt halt when one of the actresses was accidentally stabbed. Fortunately the injury was not serious.
A report in a Derbyshire paper in 1850 described a company in Ashbourne on enroute to Leek with productions of “Macbeth”, “Romeo and Juliet” and the “ Rose of Ettrick Vale” with Mr Thornton, of which more later, “playing the pantaloon”
What the quality of performance witnessed by audiences of the time can be surmised by character sketches of the actors who appeared in “Thespian Dictionary”
Mr Henry Thornton: “As an actor he boasts of that merit which constitutes a good country performer, for he can bustle through a part with considerable ease, though unacquainted with the authors words”.
Mr George Cooke: “This actor has experienced both the frowns and smiles of fortune; he is consequently soon conquered by the Tuscan Grape”