Looking back 120 years at Newport’s panto season of 1900
THIS year we’re not able to enjoy our annual trips to the pantomime, so we’re looking back to the Newport pantomime season 120 years ago.
In December 1900, Newport had only the Lyceum Theatre, located in Bridge Street, offering a seasonal pantomime.
The Lyceum Theatre, previously known as the Victoria Hall and Assembly Rooms, had a reputation for staging a wide range of performances and welcoming a variety of well-known performers and celebrities, including Charles Dickens.
By 1900 the theatre had a packed programme of theatrical amusements and was busy each evening.
In 1900, the theatre was under the management of Mr Clarence Sounes, who was also the proprietor.
The Lyceum Theatre
At this time independent touring companies were a common feature of theatrical life.
These companies travelled from venue to venue presenting various entertainments, and the Lyceum Theatre, being no different from other theatres, invited such companies to appear.
One such company, the Moxon Company, organised by Miss Cissie Moxon and managed by Mr H F Housden, visited the Lyceum Theatre in June 1899 and presented the musical comedy, A Trip to Rum-Fun – it was an enormous success.
So, for Mr Sounes to even consider securing the Moxon Company for the 1900 Christmas pantomime season they must have been good.
This was an important decision by Mr Sounes because the theatre could have easily found itself in serious financial difficulties if the seasonal pantomime had failed.
Blue Beard was the pantomime chosen for the Christmas season of 1900.
In the previous Christmas holiday (1899), Little Red Riding Hood had been the pantomime of choice. Over the decades the story of Little Red Riding Hood had been a real favourite with Newport audiences, so the story of Blue Beard was a bit of a risk but, as we shall see, it was in keeping with trends in pantomime stories at the time.
Advertisements for the new pantomime appeared in local newspapers two weeks before opening night – December 24, 1900.
Children, young and old, would have eagerly awaited the holiday pantomime to be transported to exotic places; to be amazed by the tricks; to laugh at the jokes; to join in with the singing; watch the elegant dancers, and laugh at the antics of the comic characters.
The glamour of the pantomime and its rich costumes and scenery, along with the comic antics of the cast, would have been pure delight for an audience, who probably wanted to escape from the industrial grind for a couple of hours.
The box-office was open daily from 10am to 10pm. You could go along to the theatre to book seats, or, if you were rich enough, you could telephone 158 to talk to the box-office and book that way. The phone almost certainly didn’t ring very often.
Picture: British Library
Prices for seats ranged from 6d to £1 1s. Evening performances began at 7pm.
A matinee performance was put on for Boxing Day to cope with the holiday rush and it began at 2pm. Further matinee performances were held on Thursdays and Saturdays, again beginning at 2pm.
However, as the pantomime run continued additional performances were announced, and these were arranged for the mornings.
The story of Blue Beard was first adapted for pantomime in 1791.
The very first Blue Beard pantomime was staged in April 1791 at the Wargrave Theatre, a private theatre, owned by Lord Barrymore.
Carlo Antonio Delpini, who was a dancer, created the pantomime.
By December 21, 1791, Mr Delpini had arranged the pantomime for the Theatre-Royal at Covent Garden. It appeared under the title Blue Beard; or, The Flight of Harlequin; it was not a success and if presented today we would not recognise it as a pantomime.
Audiences did not like the brutality of it, which is surprising considering the cruelty in previous pantomimes – pantomime in the 18th century was not a Christmas children’s entertainment.
There were many attempts at the storyline, but Mr E L Blanchard, a 19th century pantomime creator, made the most of it In 1879, Blanchard’s Blue Beard appealed to both young and old pantomime goers.
A difficult story to set, he made use of the principal story and dumbed down the harlequinade section.
As a result, the storyline became popular from 1879 and into the early 20th century.
So, in 1900 the Lyceum Theatre in Newport was on trend.
For the Newport version of Blue Beard, Mr H F Housden and Mr George Burton were the pantomime creators for the Moxon Company; Housden was not only the manager, but also a playwright.
Both men made sure that the pantomime had a number of key features, including a transformation scene; local references; audience participation; songs; jokes; dancing; exotic characters; comic antics; set scenes; colourful costumes, and new scenery.
The pantomime would have been made appropriate for the patrons of the theatre.
Some of the features were advertised in several local newspapers, and, like today, the production had a headliner – the headliner was Miss Cissie Moxon, the organiser of the company.
Moxon was a local celebrity. She was described as a talented singer, comedienne and a vibrant actress; she was the leading lady of the company. And as leading lady, she was given the part of Selim, Principle Boy – the hero of the story.
Her costume would have revealed her legs, and she would have taken part in the character’s trademark thigh-slapping practice, which was racy stuff in 1900. Nothing is known of the Principal Girl.
Mr Hindle Taylor performed Sister Ann, the Pantomime Dame. He was a talented actor, and had appeared at various venues with the company, including Merthyr, in both pantomime and pantomime-burlesque productions. Unfortunately, nothing is known of his comic antics and jokes.
Between 70 to 80 artistes made up the rest of the cast, and they comprised of actors, singers, and dancers. These performers were reported to be very ‘strong’ and committed to the rehearsals, which took place two to three weeks prior to the opening night.
The pantomime contained local gags, which were described as funny ‘without being too personal’.
The production contained scenes of ‘The Happy Valley’, ‘The Home of the Lotas’ and a ‘Bagdad Market Place’.
The scenes were praised by a local critic as being a ‘creditable artistic effort’. The expected transformation scene was described as having ‘labour… expended upon it to ensure its success’; transformation scenes were a popular and significant feature of pantomime.
In addition, Housden and Burton included the usual harlequinade section, which it was reported: ‘lasts just long enough’.
While, the supporting chorus, dancers and the enlarged orchestra were acknowledged as being ‘full and powerful’. The costumes, scenery and other visuals were credited as being a total success.
The Lyceum Theatre staged the pantomime for only two weeks, because the Moxon Company had another engagement in one of the larger towns in the Midlands.
The Newport pantomime was a success and it had drawn in the crowds.
With the glitter gone and the scenery packed away, the Lyceum Theatre had set a trend for Blue Beard, because the Empire Theatre, a rival Newport theatre, decided to capitalise upon the Lyceum’s success by presenting an ‘animated picture’ version of Blue Beard the following Christmas.
However, by the Christmas of 1901 the Lyceum Theatre’s production of Cinderella was casting its magic and transforming pumpkins into carriages.