Between 1871 and 1899, the proprietor of one of the largest and most successful theatres in London was a woman - Sara Lane. Her theatre, the Britannia in Hoxton, was an astonishing palace of illusion in the heart of the East End - not a music hall but a full scale theatre, seating 3,000, offering a programme of performances from fire-eaters to Shakespeare. The theatre was particularly well known for its annual three-month-long pantomime, witnessed by Dickens (who enjoyed himself).
The photo is of an original programme for the 1886 pantomime, from the archive of Sara Lupino, a descendant of the famous Lupino acting family, who were related by marriage to Sara Lane. Sara Lupino first told me the story of her ancestor and gave me the idea of writing a play about her.
This is still a work in progress, but here's the first scene, an introduction to the extravagant world of Victorian theatre...
THE QUEEN OF HOXTON
SARA LANE Proprietor of The Britannia Theatre, Hoxton
CAROLINE LA DOUCE Singer and actress at the Britannia
Sara’s cluttered office, backstage at the Britannia. Sara is writing at her desk, feeling pleased with her work.
Caroline enters, carrying a large poster – the bill for the following week’s performances. She takes a stand in front of Sara’s desk.
SARA Bigger and better than ever before Caroline!
CAROLINE I’m not having it.
CAROLINE holds up the poster.
CAROLINE Next week’s bill. You’ve put me below the Hungarian goats.
SARA The goats are very popular.
CAROLINE It’s a question of skill Mrs Lane. There’s no skill in being a goat.
SARA They’re very popular.
CAROLINE So am I.
SARA says nothing.
CAROLINE I have my loyal followers.
SARA They don’t turn out like they used to. Some have dropped off due to rheumatism and deafness.
CAROLINE The young fellers like me too. I sing the latest. I’ve got a new one.
SARA You’re more popular than the castanet and spoons. Be grateful.
CAROLINE But the bill. You’re going to pay the goats more than me.
SARA There are fifteen of them.
CAROLINE And they shit all over the stage! Estevan is taking money that rightly should be mine and is he using it to feed his fifteen goats? No. They’re out in the back alley eating rubbish.
SARA I’ll have a word.
CAROLINE He’ll be sorry when they can’t do their balancing act ‘cos they’re too weak on orange peel and some spat out tobacco!
SARA We’ll do you a benefit night soon Caroline, I promise.
CAROLINE I don’t want charity. I want a decent wage.
SARA Some acts are more of a draw than others.
SARA I’m a business woman. I can’t argue with the takings.
CAROLINE I’ve been with you ten years Mrs Lane. And I’ll still be here when all the acrobatic goats, castanets and spoons have been forgotten. I’ll be here singing a good tune.
SARA The Monarch on Shoreditch High Street is closing.
CAROLINE I heard.
SARA That’s three East End theatres gone in the last two years. There aren’t the opportunities for artistes that there used to be.
SARA But good news for us. People still want to go to a show and they’ll come to the Britannia. I’m expecting a boost.
CAROLINE I never knew the Monarch was in trouble.
SARA Times are hard.
CAROLINE You wouldn’t close the Brit?
SARA Caroline, I wouldn’t dare! I’d have the ghost of my poor Sam Lane ruining my sleep every night! He said to me on his deathbed, ‘promise me Sara, that you won’t let the Britannia go,’ and I promised. My Sam built this theatre up from nothing, from a dirty room at the back of a tavern, and I’ve carried on his work. Look at the Brit now
CAROLINE Mr Lane would be proud of you. But…
SARA … the most wonderful Palace of Illusion in the whole of London and people down from the West End have said so.
CAROLINE There’s rumours...
SARA I know. But the pantomime will be our saviour, as always. Ooh, it’s going to be bigger and better than ever before! Ali Baba and the Demon Bat King.
SARA Cave. Treasure. Realm of the Demon Bats.
SARA Subtitle – Harlequin, Sultana and the Magic Lamp!
CAROLINE Chief Fairy?
SARA Of course Chief Fairy. Fairy Shalimar.
CAROLINE Thank you.
SARA I would never give that part to anyone else Caroline. I might have to have you double up as one of the 40 Thieves, and a Djinn.
CAROLINE Ooh, a Djinn. Who are you?
SARA Madame Sultana the Fruit Seller. Searching for the brass lamp left to her by her dying grandmother and wickedly stolen from her.
CAROLINE Have we got a pair of bungling thieves?
SARA Of course, Harry and Arthur Lupino are down for that.
But listen, I have this vision Caroline. The transformation scene – bigger and better than ever before. Come with me, to the Paradise of the Crystal Oasis.
An ethereal haze clouds our vision… the smoke clears and we see an exotic scene… a dark cave, desert palms, snowcapped mountains, a blue sea in the distance…
CAROLINE But the light changes, the gauze lifts…
SARA And we are in a fantastic cavern, the rocks sparkling with coloured jewels, golden treasure heaped everywhere.. but again the gauze lifts…
CAROLINE We move on, towards paradise… The music swells… excitement mounts..
SARA There’s a glimpse of magical beings moving, shifting… Gauze after gauze lifts…
CAROLINE To reveal…
SARA A scene of pure delight..
CAROLINE The audience gasps…
SARA Against a backdrop of a shining marble palace, crystal fountains gush sapphire blue water. Beautiful fairies in sparkling costumes dance a captivating dance. Above them, as if by pure magic, wonderful spirits fly through the air…
CAROLINE Wait wait!
CAROLINE I’m not doing no flying.
CAROLINE Last year I said never again.
SARA You’re one of our most experienced flyers.
CAROLINE Exactly. I’m too old for that malarkey. Remember last year? I nearly lost all my hair when they got me too close to that gas lamp.
SARA It won’t happen again.
CAROLINE Dangerous Mrs Lane. Flyers could start a f… Not to mention what it does to your back. At my age.
SARA At your age?
CAROLINE I mean… you want the young ones doing it. The ones who haven’t carried three children. Clanked into that iron corset thing, hoisted up…
SARA It’s perfectly safe.
CAROLINE It’s agony. You try being gracious and fairylike while you’re suspended horizontal for an hour and your back’s killing you.
SARA No one said the theatrical life was easy Caroline. You know the audience always loves to see the flying. We mustn’t disappoint them.
SARA I’ve stood there in the wings and seen the look on a child’s face as she gazes up, and she truly believes she’s seen a fairy soaring on gossamer wings. The illusion is complete. We’ve done our job.
CAROLINE What’s Fairy Shalimar going to do then?
SARA What the Fairy Godmother always does. Take pity on a poor, suffering child and transform their life. Ali Baba, shivering orphan on the streets, finds untold wealth and becomes prince of … of…
CAROLINE And love.
CAROLINE He finds love. Marries the princess. Love is worth more than all the treasure of the Forty Thieves.
SARA Yes yes. All that.
CAROLINE We could do a dream.
SARA Fairy Shalimar comes to Ali Baba in a dream. Yes. He’s asleep – Maria’s going to be Ali Baba. He’s huddled under Madame Sultana’s fruit stall… and you descend like an angel from above…
CAROLINE No flying!
SARA You rise up, a vision of loveliness. We’ll do a trap.
CAROLINE Not too much smoke. Makes me cough. Could we try steam again, instead?
SARA Oh no, it made the whole theatre smell like a laundry. We’ll do a Corsican trap. He’s asleep, here. Slowly, in wreaths of smoke, you begin to appear out of nowhere… back here… Rising up. You move, as if by magic…
CAROLINE Alf and Bert underneath the stage cranking away like mad…!
SARA The trap is up.
CAROLINE I step towards the sleeping boy and touch him with my wand.
SARA But who… who are you?
CAROLINE Do not be afraid Ali Baba. It is I, Fairy Shalimar. I am here to make your dreams come true. A life of wealth and power lies before you.
SARA No, I am just a poor orphan.
CAROLINE Tomorrow Ali Baba, head for the mountains. There you will find a cave, filled with treasure. And… um… and most precious of all, a Magic Lamp.
SARA (whispers) But beware the Evil Bat King.
CAROLINE But beware the Evil Demon Bat King who rules the dark depths. He will try to suck your blood and take from you everything that is rightfully yours!
SARA Can this really be true?
CAROLINE Indeed. Because I am Fairy Shalimar from the Paradise of the Crystal Oasis. Then I do my dance?
CAROLINE Which one?
SARA The one you did for Cinderella and the Enchanted Forest.
CAROLINE That was a good one.
SARA It’s going to be a wonderful show. Bigger and better than ever before. And Easter’s late next year so it will be a long run. 15 weeks from Boxing Night.
CAROLINE We’ll be exhausted.
SARA We’ll be in the money. This will mean a turnround in our situation.
We’ll be in the money, three thousand customers will be in the warm on a winter’s evening, we’ll all be in paradise.