Amateur dramatics

Earlier in the week I spent a couple of hours killing time in the Leeds City Museum. It’s the first time I’ve been there since it became a museum. The last time I walked out of those big double doors it was the Leeds Civic Theatre.

The Civic is full of stories and memories. It’s where my parents met; the stage where my mother spent most of her leisure time through her teens and twenties; and where, after a conductor demanded more light for his instrumentalists, my father accidentally blew the pit lights during a 1972 production of Nabucco, plunging the orchestra into darkness. (In an otherwise reliable career as a lighting man, this cock-up was second only to the time when he was working in the City Varieties and knocked his interval pint off the gantry a few minutes into the second half. He managed to catch the glass, but the soloist was showered with a splattering brown rain of John Smith’s finest, and he was shown the door directly after the show). To this day, several of my mother’s closest friends are those she used to tread the boards with in days long before wayward sons.

I remember seeing plays there when I was little (Fantastic Mr Fox and some piece with a character called Uncle Slug spring to mind). It was a relatively small theatre, rather opulent in an Edwardian kind of way, with seats upholstered in worn red velvet, an ornate ceiling, a sweeping balcony supported by pillars that seemed to be in the way pretty much wherever you sat outside of the central stalls, and a safety curtain that looked like it had been there for sixty years. I watched my mum in The Jew of Malta, and as Magnolia in Showboat.

Later, I played in the orchestra for West Riding Opera for a couple of years, earning the princely sum of £90 for a week’s run, scraping away erratically at the back of the second violins under the same conductor who had overseen my pa’s Nabucco misadventure thirty years earlier. Christian and Will worked backstage as scene shifters, and after the shows we sat around with the twenty-something crowd, sipping our pints in the bar and pretending we didn’t have to be in school the next morning. Regular members of the after-show company included two trumpeters called Matt and Dave, and a clarinettist called Claire who drove an old yellow Mini. I wonder where they all are now.

Wandering round the museum the other day, I tried to get my bearings. Not the easiest in a completely renovated building. The dressing rooms are all offices now, and there’s no access to the side door where I once found several of the cast members from Traviata gingerly stepping over the comatose body of a friend who had taken his ticket money to the pub instead of coming to see the show, then turned up hammered afterwards. I may be wrong, but I think at least part of the bar area is now a room about Africa, where a pleasant-looking man with a beard was teaching children how to play skin drums. I remember the bar principally for crinkle-cut crisps and pints after operas, and for another wrecked friend (the other half of the ticket-money-in-the-pub duo) confiding to an old lady at the bar in his best Noel Coward accent, ‘I’m a thespian, don’t you know…’

Upstairs, in what I reckon is now ‘The Story of Leeds’, there used to be a rather tired reception room where we went for interval drinks each year during patron’s night at the G & S. Attending the Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s performances each year was a matter of family honour. My grandfather had, in his day, been president of the society, and they rehearsed (and perhaps still do) in the women’s canteen down at our family’s steel pressing factory. My dad used to keep the factory open late and leave the heating on for them in the winter. Like many people born since the coronation of Elizabeth II, Gilbert and Sullivan makes me cringe a little, but the Leeds lot, though a little short on men and soloists (a memorable policeman’s chorus in Pirates of Penzance contained only two men, one of whom was more accurately a boy, while the same bloke took the Henry Lytton roles for pretty much my entire childhood), were an enthusiastic and dedicated bunch, with the sort of ambition that amateur dramatics is all about.

By the time it closed, the Civic was falling to pieces, and unusually for the monumentally unimaginative folk of Leeds ‘Let’s-Make-It-a-Shopping-Centre’ City Council, the transfer of the theatre and opening of the museum seems to have been done pretty shrewdly. The museum is very good – interesting and accessible without being patronizing – and the new Carriageworks theatre on Millennium Square is lovely, and probably much better suited to the sorts of productions that generally go on in it.

And all trace of Braime has not entirely left the building. In one room, showcasing the exotic collections belonging to Leeds gentry of times gone by, there are two glass-topped antique drawers of moths, fixed with pins in neat rows. They were donated a long time ago, and somewhere during the move from the old museum, details of where they came from have been lost. The label simply says ‘provenance unknown’, but, irritated as he might be by such anonymity, my grandpa would no doubt be pleased to know that his dead insects are still on display.

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