Half Moon Theatre: 213 Mile End Road
In 1979, Half Moon Theatre moved into the former Welsh Methodist Chapel on the Mile End Road and began to plan its transformation into a new theatre and community centre. Rob Walker’s first production, staged in the scaffolding of the un-renovated building, had Frances de la Tour as a female Hamlet. In 1980 Pal Joey, starring Sian Philips and Denis Lawson, was a big hit and transferred to the West End. An arson attack in 1981, during a run of Ezra by Bernard Kops, destroyed some valuable archives, but the building itself was not badly damaged. This was followed by the world premiere of Edward Bond’s The Worlds. In 1982 came Yakety Yak!, a musical with the band Darts and all four McGann brothers: Joe, Mark, Paul and Stephen.
Chris Bond was Artistic Director of Half Moon Theatre on the Mile End Road from 1985-88. He shares his thoughts about the financial troubles faced by the company in the late 1980s and the impact of this on the demise of the theatre. Interviewed by Rosie Vincent.
Lee Rogers was first involved with Half Moon when he was a mature student. He went on to become Chair of Trustees and recalls the hopes, dreams and hard work involved when the theatre made its move from Alie Street to the Mile End Road. Interviewed by Kiera Blasse and Isabel R.
Deborah Bestwick was Director of the Half Moon Theatre young people’s company in the late 1980s and became Director of Half Moon Young People’s Theatre in 1990. She talks about the establishment of Half Moon Young People’s Theatre and the opportunities and challenges, including the new theatre on White Horse Road. Interviewed by Aimee Thompson.
Steve Harris was Associate Director at Half Moon Theatre in the 1980s and as such was responsible for the young people’s programme and policy. Steve Harris recalls the emergence of Half Moon Theatre’s young people’s work in the 1980s and reflects upon where the company is today. Interviewed by Toni Tsaera.
Actor/teacher, Sandra Vacciana was in Half Moon Theatre’s young people’s company in the late 1980s and early 1990s. She talks about the ethos and practices of the young people’s company at Half Moon Theatre and their relationship with the main theatre ‘parent’ company. Interviewed by Rosie Vincent.
Steve Harris was Associate Director at Half Moon Theatre in the 1980s and as such was responsible for the young people’s programme and policy. He talks about introducing diversity within the young people’s theatre company and how that led to bi-lingual plays for young audiences. Interviewed by Toni Tsaera.
Deborah Bestwick was Director of the Half Moon Theatre young people’s company in the late 1980s and became Director of Half Moon Young People’s Theatre in 1990. She talks about the cultural and political context of the company’s work in the late 1980s. Interviewed by Aimee Thompson.
Nick Stafford was Writer-in-Residence at Half Moon Theatre’s young people’s company in the mid-1980s. He talks about integrated casting and the distinctive nature of young people’s theatre practice at Half Moon Theatre, as compared with Theatre-in-Education. Interviewed by Toni Tsaera.
Dawn Austwick was Theatre Manager at Half Moon Theatre in the 1980s. She describes the inadequacies of the new building on Mile End Road and its contribution to the company’s funding problems. Interviewed by Toni Tsaera.
Theatre historian Susan Croft was involved with Half Moon Theatre when it was based on the Mile End Road. She remembers the new purpose-built theatre and the separate young people’s theatre space and lays some of the blame for the failure of the main house with the architecture. Interviewed by Alexia-Pyrrha Ashford.
Steve Harris was Associate Director at Half Moon Theatre in the 1980s and as such was responsible for the young people’s programme and policy. He talks about the new theatre which was built on the Mile End Road site and how it probably became the downfall of the company. Interviewed by Alexia-Pyrrha Ashford.
Alice Bigelow lived and worked in Tower Hamlets when Half Moon Theatre was founded in Alie Street and later when it moved to Mile End. She recalls the changing profile of the young people’s theatre when the company moved into the Mile End Road and plans for a new theatre were announced. Interviewed by Toni Tsaera.
Jacquetta May is an actor who was was based at Oxford House as part of the young people’s theatre ensemble for Half Moon Theatre. She talks about how the organisation was run. Interviewed by Toni Tsaera.
George Costigan is an actor who performed at Half Moon Theatre in the late 1980s. He talks about how he felt the old Mile End Road theatre was a more inventive space than the concrete construction of the new theatre.
John Turner was Artistic Director of Half Moon Theatre on Mile End Road from 1989 to 1990. He talks about the financial problems experienced by the theatre in the late 1980s. Interviewed by Rosie Vincent.
Mike Goldwater photographed several plays for Half Moon at Alie Street and Mile End Road as well as being involved in the Half Moon Photography Workshop, which was founded in 1972 and based in the Half Moon Alie Street foyer. The photography workshop later became known as Cameraworks.
“The architect for the new theatre in Mile End Road was Florian Beigel. I knew him quite well, having done some work for him and understood what a creative person he was. By chance, I was chatting one day with the director of the theatre and we were both discussing our respective plans for the future of the gallery and the theatre as the closure of the Alie Street building was imminent. She told me they had found a building in the Mile End Road, but were not happy with any of the plans a number of architects had submitted to create the new theatre. I think it was a Friday afternoon and their deadline for deciding on the architect was the following Monday. I mentioned Florian to her and called him. He worked up a proposal over the weekend, submitted it on the Monday, and got the job.”
Monica Forty is a Headteacher who has been involved with Half Moon Theatre for thirty years, including as a youth worker and Trustee. She recalls how the company had an ethos of inclusivity and mutual respect at a time when it wasn’t always fashionable. Interviewed by Caitlin Ralph.
Frances de la Tour performed at Half Moon Theatre on Alie Street and then played Hamlet when it moved to the Mile End Road. She talks about the innovation of the fringe company which she believes influenced other venues, such as the Donmar Warehouse and Kings Head Theatre. Interviewed by Khalilah Lubega.
The Mint Juleps are a female acapella group who came out of one of the youth theatres at Half Moon Theatre on Mile End Road in the 1980s. Three of the members – Debbie Longworth, Debbie Charles and Lizzie Charles – talk about how their impromptu singing at the theatre led to their discovery. Plus a small performance! Interviewed by Rosie Vincent.
Actor and Workshop Facilitator Debra Baker talks about her association with Half Moon Theatre, from her childhood to the present day and the theatre’s role within the local community. Interviewed by Georgina Da Silva.
Actor Nora Connolly recalls what it was like at Half Moon Theatre in the 1980s and how the Young People’s Theatre space was used as a workshop for local performers. Interviewed by Isabel R.
Michael Le Poer Trench was the photographer for many productions at Half Moon Theatre in the mid-1980s. He talks about the importance of the company in the East End of London. Interviewed by Toni Tsaera.
Half Moon Theatre Trustee, Julia Williams was a member of the Half Moon Youth Theatre in the 1980s before going on to become a drama teacher. Here she recalls the final party held at the Theatre’s Mile End site. Interviewed by Toni Tsaera.
Ché Walker is the son of Robert Walker, who was the Artistic Director of Half Moon Theatre in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He talks about his perceptions as a 13 year old boy of the social and political challenges Half Moon Theatre faced when it moved to Mile End Road. Interviewed by Georgina Da Silva.
By the 1980s, the company was flourishing and there was a collective of actors devising participatory and immersive shows to tour into schools and community spaces. In 1983 a Bangladeshi outreach worker was appointed to develop contacts with the growing Bangladeshi community, now 20% of the population of Tower Hamlets. In 1984 Half Moon Theatre appointed Steve Harris as Associate Director to create a long-term Young People’s Theatre (YPT) policy and programme. The company also began working with disabled actors, which led to the founding of a new company, Double Exposure, committed to integrating disabled and able-bodied performers.
In 1985, the Mile End Road conversion was complete and YPT moved from a temporary base in Oxford House to its new home, the purpose-built youth theatre centre. The YPT company performed shows at the theatre and in schools. In addition to the youth theatre groups, a young playwrights’ group was set up and Half Moon YPT initiated the first London Young Playwrights’ Festival and became the centre for coordinating follow-up activities. From these the New Playwrights’ Trust emerged to promote and develop new writing. Technical training began in 1985, when the Entertainment Technicians’ Course became the first of a series of vocationally-oriented courses for unemployed young people in East London.
In 1987, Deborah Bestwick joined as Director and Nick Stafford was appointed as the first ever Writer in Residence for the YPT. The permanent resident acting company included disabled and Deaf performers. The company began exploring bilingual work and in 1988 launched its first bilingual theatre programme in English and Sylheti-Bengali with Dear Suraiya… Love Rehana. This ground-breaking work was hugely successful and the company continued to devise work of this nature, including Bhela – The Raft by the Bangladeshi writer Shamim Azad. When Half Moon Theatre went into voluntary administration in 1990, Half Moon Young People’s Theatre was set up as its own entity and the former Limehouse Board of Works was identified as a new home for the company.
I worked at Half Moon from 1979 – 1982. It was at the time when the organisation was transitioning from Alie Street to Stepney Green. My role initially was Administrator of the Old Half Moon and Publicity Manager for both theatres. In 1982, I moved from these roles to being Administrator and Director of Half Moon Young People’s Theatre. Rob Walker was a larger than life character – irreverent, inclusive and affable, as well as a creative and intellectual force in the organisation. He made you feel that anything was possible. My strongest memories of the Half Moon are probably the people who hung out there – especially the locals, many of whom had shady East End pasts! The shows I particularly remember were We Can’t Pay, We Won’t Pay, Trafford Tanzi (my son saw it when he was 6 weeks old!) and Ezra, since it was a privilege to work with Bernard Kops. I also have very fond memories of Ragged Trousered Philanthropists which was directed by John Adams…I don’t remember a lot about the arson attack but I guess it happened because it was a socialist theatre and the East End was a very divided place politically. I went from the Half Moon to Women’s Theatre Group. At the Half Moon I learnt to be a risk taker, to turn my hand to a wide range of things and to always choose work that had a political dimension.
Katie Venner was Appeals Manager for the capital campaign to build a new theatre on the Mile End Road site in the 1980s.
The Appeal Chair was Illtyd Harrington of the GLC and there was a lot of political support from the Labour led GLC. It was an exciting time – Arts Council had given a large capital grant and there was a planning gain grant through Tower Hamlets Council form the sale for redevelopment of the Alie Street Theatre. The Board of the theatre including a lot of East End activists like Claire Bland (Eve’s mother) and Steve Gooch (writer). The Appeal Committee had more political figures rather than wealthy folk on it. The fundraising was hard going – we were a socialist theatre. We did a West End benefit with Maggie Steed and Frances de la Tour – who had been in Rob Walker’s Hamlet – that was great fun – its was also the time of the Miners Strike, the Falklands War – I was young and not very politically aware but learning fast! There was a constant tension with the local community aspirations of the Theatre as being theatre for the people – I’m not sure it succeeded although the Half Moon Young People’s Theatre did – that also caused tensions when there were budget constraints. The Appeal ultimately did not succeed to raise all the money – building started and then stopped. The theatre was never finished. I left shortly before the half finished – but operational – theatre opened and I was sad I was not asked to the opening. I was ill by the time I left – I had felt a lot of pressure (I was 22/23!) to raise the money without a lot of help and management – everyone was expected to get on with the job in isolation. It took me 6 months to recover – I spent a summer growing tomatoes in East Dulwich.
Click here to read more from Katie.
Norman Goodman was the Education Worker at Half Moon Young People’s Theatre from 1985 to 1989, later becoming the Chair of the Committee in 1990. When Norman left Half Moon, he was presented with a painting by Dan Jones depicting people and performances from his years at Half Moon. Norman has donated that to the Stages of Half Moon exhibition which is in situ in Half Moon on White Horse Road.
In 1979, Half Moon Theatre moved into the former Welsh Methodist Chapel on the Mile End Road and began to plan its transformation into a new theatre and community centre. Rob Walker’s first production, staged in the scaffolding of the un-renovated building, had Frances de la Tour as a female Hamlet. In 1980 Pal Joey, starring Sian Philips and Denis Lawson, was a big hit and transferred to the West End. An arson attack in 1981, during a run of Ezra by Bernard Kops, destroyed some valuable archives, but the building itself was not badly damaged. This was followed by the world premiere of Edward Bond’s The Worlds. In 1982 came Yakety Yak, a musical with the band Darts and all four McGann brothers: Joe, Mark, Paul and Stephen.
As the company celebrated its 10th birthday in 1982, sufficient funds had been raised to begin work on the ambitious £1.2m scheme conceived by architects Florian Beigel and Philip Christou and the Architectural Research Unit. The New Half Moon Theatre would use the Welsh Chapel as a community venue and build a separate new square-plan auditorium, as well as an independent young people’s theatre. When Rob Walker left in 1983, Stuart Mungall became Artistic Director for a brief six-month period, during which time the production of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist was very successful and gave Josie Lawrence her first professional role. By then the young people’s theatre was firmly establishing itself locally with a collective of actors devising participatory and immersive shows to tour into schools and community spaces. A Bangladeshi outreach worker was appointed to develop contacts with the growing Bangladeshi community, now 20% of the population of Tower Hamlets.
Having previously directed Trafford Tanzi at Half Moon in 1980, Chris Bond was appointed Artistic Director in 1984. His first production was a Christmas comedy, Dracula with Daniel Day Lewis, which was such a success that it was brought back the following year. Steve Harris was appointed as Associate Director to create a long-term Young People’s Theatre (YPT) policy and programme. The company ran youth theatre groups, a young playwrights’ group and technical training courses began. During his tenure, Chris Bond’s productions included Sweeney Todd, which opened the New Half Moon Theatre in April 1985, and Elizabeth, both with Gillian Hanna; an ambitious adaptation of Moll Flanders; George Costigan in Love on the Plastic and As Is, one of the first plays about HIV/AIDS; and the satirical musical Poppy. In 1986, Steven Berkoff wrote and directed Sink The Belgrano!, with Maggie Steed, and Yvonne Brewster joined the company on an Arts Council Director’s Bursary and directed Flash Trash, a reggae pantomime.
By the late 1980s, the financial implications of the major capital project represented a huge problem for the company in a climate of recession and cuts from funding bodies. John Turner took over as Artistic Director in 1989 and created a circus spectacular for Christmas, Circus Moon. However, the company finances were unmanageable and the theatre went into voluntary administration. The following year, some of the company’s archive was rescued and given to Royal Holloway University of London in Egham, Surrey. At this point, the Young People’s Theatre became an independent organisation with its own constitution.
I arrived at the Giraffe House [the nickname given to the separate Young People’s building] in April 1989, a fresh-faced 23 year-old from deep in the northern wilds, to take up my second job in arts administration. Carlisle born and bred, I’d been Arts Officer on my home turf at Cumbria County Council for the past two years. Now I was branching out into a world with many more people and much more arts but far fewer sheep.
The culture shock of the big city was exactly what I wanted, and I loved the YPT from the beginning. I can still remember the chalky scent of the Giraffe house as you entered, and how much I loved my desk, next to Norman’s. Being a non-hierarchical company was very different from local government, and working in a multicultural area and with a multicultural team was brilliant. I remember going ‘home’ to Carlisle at Christmas and being shocked that everyone was white.
What was unexpected was the discovery, a few months into the job, that the company was almost definitely going to fold. At that time, we had rather little to do with the Main House, who treated us with what I remember as benign neglect. They undoubtedly had high regard for what we did, but basically let us get on with it. I don’t remember being asked to report into board meetings about what we were doing, for example, and I don’t remember anyone from the main house ever popping across to the Giraffe House to see us for any reason. However, once the crisis came, it quickly became clear that there might be a chance of saving the Young People’s Theatre part of the company. If we could set up as a new legal entity and demonstrate that we could operate soundly both financially and with good governance, the funders might fund us. It was a lot of ifs, and no one could promise anything.
It was then that Deborah Bestwick and I attended a couple of Half Moon Board meetings. The company was deep in trying to save itself, or at least to fold in the best way it could, and was very gracious in giving its blessing for us to do all we could to save the YPT part of the operation, although it could offer no practical help – which we had not expected. Their benign trust in us held.
We then had to trust each other. We were mostly a young company and we really believed in the work we were doing. Everyone wanted to do our best to save the YPT, but there were no guarantees it would work, so it was a hairy few months. No one would have been blamed for jumping ship and there were moments when we had big arguments. It was mainly Deborah and me who met with legal people and funders to negotiate, and we would come back and report to the rest of the company. We would tell them everything, including that nothing was guaranteed and we couldn’t promise them they would keep their jobs, and they, sometimes, would accuse us of hiding things, which we weren’t; things could get difficult.
It was a huge learning curve, from small things like learning how to do payroll to crunch things like making sure our limited company with charitable status was correctly legal to bizarre things like understanding what it might mean that the lease on 43 Whitehorse Road was to include the air directly above the building (I think – I don’t think it specified for how high or whether we could charge birds or planes for flying through it).
In the end, we all held together. The YPT had excellent connections in its community and found a strong group of people to be its new Board. It had an impressive track record and all of the funders came in with full funding for the new company. We found new rented premises and made a budget that balanced and on one day in April, almost exactly a year after I arrived, we were made redundant; and the next day our new company employed us. It remains one of my proudest professional achievements, because the work has been able to continue, to grow and develop and flourish – and it could very easily have gone the other way.
Looking back, I think there were some key things that made it work:
My time at Half Moon YPT formed me in key ways and there are some values I hold that Half Moon helped to shape.