Sunday, August 14, 2005

Fifty Years New

We are back from holiday, a week spent at Ribby Hall near Blackpool, entirely unremarkable apart from an unexpected discovery in "Ripley's Believe it or not" on the Blackpool Pleasure Beach sea front.

We finished our holiday with a day trip to Scarborough and a rather special one-off show called Fifty Years New, a five night commemoration of the Steven Joseph Theatre.

Housed for the last nine years in the former odeon, I had the pleasure of visiting it very early on after opening on a trip organised by the ABTT, an organisation I have sporadically been a member of since my schooldays. The celebrated Sir Alan Ayckbourn himself took the trouble to tell us about the building & the Company. We also arranged to see a performance of "By Jeeves!" and I was so taken with the show that Karen & I returned a couple of weeks later to catch it again and we also saw it when it ran in the West End for a Season.

The show was held in "the Round" which always struck me as a bit of a daft name as it is actually square! It refers to "in the round" where the audience surrounds the stage on all four sides. Whilst I enjoy that type of staging for its intimacy, I actually felt that By Jeeves! worked better in a proscenium setting.

Something else unusual about the Round is the ceiling- the clutter of lighting & roof fixings are semi-hidden behind a mesh grid which is strong enough to walk on. I have indeed done so (wearing a Hard Hat) and it is a strange experience, colloquially referred to as a Trampoline Grid. The minor downside is that the lights splodge pools of light on the mesh to show up their beam shapes but it doesn't affect the beam quality on the floor to any particular extent.

Lighting in the round is tricky as there is the need for the actors to be seen from all four directions without the light spilling onto the audience from both the intrusiveness and the glare. The standard wash comes from 36 barn-doored fresnels (soft-edged variable spread spotlights with flappy bits on the front for rudimentary beam shaping) covering nine areas lighting in all four directions. There are numerous additional light fixtures up there (referred to by traditionalists such as myself as "Lanterns") used for specials and the use of colour etc. so it is rather busy aloft. There is a central bit of the grid that doesn't have wire, this is a convenient point for getting gear up & down, as well as for simple flying effects, such as lowing a Mirror Ball.

Last night's show consisted of reminiscences by Sir Alan interspersed with readings from a number of plays from the last decade. (the fifth reading was from Miranda's Magic Mirror, a kid-centric piece that kept David's attention. The interval was announced with him being presented with a drink in a novelty illuminated glass on a silver salver, which he described as a commemorative cocktail. We bought one (for a fiver, mainly because David wanted the glass!), it was a very sharp grapefruit lemon base.

On returning after the interval, practically everyone in the theatre had a glass and we all rose to toast the Theatre, something that had become a tradition over the five night run (& I got the impression that most of the middle-aged audience had been there each night).

We were then treated to the first (& probably last) performance of a fragment of something called simply "untitled farce" that involved an MP, visiting guests, romance, intrigue and a lot of trademark Ayckbourn humour. Something that particularly tickled me was the MP meeting his new Wife shortly after the death of his old one who had urged him on her deathbead to remarry- he actually met her at the Crematorium...

So what was the remarkable discovery in Ripley's? Almost entirely un-noticed in one of the galleries, was what looked like some sort of Organ-like musical instrument. It had one keyboard (with strange use of colour and black note positioning) and several rows of cinema-style stop keys in a rather splendid wooden cabinet. It wasn't labelled like the other exhibits, although there were still Dymo labels over the stop keys announcing items such as STAGE, ICE and FRAME.

I immediately recognised it as I had seen it a few years earlier in the Pleasure Beach visitor's centre and was disappointed to see that it was no longer there. What was being exhibited was a Strand Electric LIGHT CONSOLE, that particular (small) model having originally been installed in the Ice Arena, home to the Hot Ice shows. If you follow the link, the Blackpool design is similar to the Caracus University one (third photo) which is small compared to the massive ones at Drury Lane, the Palladium & the Coliseum. The single manual version was also made for the Royal festival Hall in a much neater compact layout and the style was once described as a "light harmonium".

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