Penge has a history of theatrical performance in many forms and guises over the last hundred and fifty years. Church halls, working men’s clubs, school and mission halls – all were venues for performance. See this news item opposite from the 1946:
When the population grew from about 250 in 1840 to several thousand by the end of the nineteenth century, entertainment had to be provided for the masses. Sobering to think that the White House, one Penge’s oldest buildings from 1842, existed amid an isolated rural location on what remained of Penge Common. The Almshouses had just been built, but the Royal Naval Asylum and St John’s Church were still to come.
The biggest entertainment centre from 1854 onwards was the massive and fragile Crystal Palace in the former grounds of Penge Place. Somehow Penge itself had to compete with that.
There evolved over twenty-five pubs for visitors to slake their thirst in after visiting the Palace and no doubt a few dramatic scenes connected with that. Theatre really came into its own as the rapid building programme got underway. Rural Penge became the place to live. Architecture such as the Royal Waterman’s Almshouses and the Royal Naval Asylum have their own visual sense of theatre but it was not until changes were made to the Anerley Vestry Hall that entertainment came to Penge circa 1900. In the re-named Anerley Town Hall a concert hall with proscenium stage and velour curtains became home to many recitals, orchestral concerts, plays, dinner-dances and pantomimes. The main concert hall has hardly changed since it was built.
Later, in 1915, the Empire Theatre was built (although plans had been made from 1911) and many illustrious stars of stage and screen appeared there: Max Miller, Lupino Lane, Flanagan and Allen, Gracie Fields, Michael Denison and Dulcie Gray, Arthur Lowe, Brian Reece, Mona Washbourne, Max Bygraves, Noel Gordon and Arthur English.
Frankie Laine recorded a lunchtime radio broadcast. Rivalling in grandeur many a West End theatre, seating 1500, the Empire was home to its own repertory company, the Globe players, then the Court Players, with a new repertoire of plays each week, and frequently tried out shows before they took up residence at Drury Lane or the Alhambra. Sangers Circus occasionally took up residence there and the menagerie, including horses, elephants and snakes, were stationed in grounds at the back of the Queen Adelaide pub.
Max Miller was one of the old style music hall artistes which simply do not exist anymore although shades of his style can be seen in comedians such as David Walliams.
A very young Gracie Fields made her debut performance at the Empire in 1919 while on tour for four years with Mr Tower of London before it reached the West End at the Alhambra and ran for a further five years. The show made Gracie Fields a star.
In the first part of the twentieth century cinemas were often termed theatres in order to retain some of the grandeur and social cachet associated with them. This was the case all over Britain, not just in Penge. Even today many cinemas provide an alternative space for visiting artistes and special productions as they were in pre 1945 days through to the sixties and beyond. Some of the first appearances of the Beatles and the Rolling Sones were on cinema in the sixties.
The Kings Hall Theatre had functioned as a public hall before 1910 and alternated in use from music hall to cinema. In 1920 it was enlarged as a cinema by architect Cecil Aubrey Masey to seat 1,200. Renamed the Gaumont in 1955, it showed popular releases of the period. It closed in 1958 and was demolished.
Both the Kings Hall and the Empire owed a lot to the Music Hall tradition. Marie Lloyd topped the bill at the Empire when it was first opened.
The inimitable Marie Lloyd as rendered by Miss Piggy from the Muppet Show:
The ARC Electric Theatre seems to have been built intentionally as a cinema. The word theatre was retained for its grand associations. Known locally as ‘the fleapit’, it was situated next to Property World, opposite Lidls. Customers remember paying ½ penny to sit on a hard bench and watch the silent The Perils of Pauline as a pianist thundered away on the keys.
The Alexandra Hall in Parish Lane hosted many a concert and poetry reading, as well as flower shows, lectures, choral singing and a drum and fife band.
The former Beckenham and Penge Grammar School still retains its functional proscenium stage where many competent productions of Ibsen, Shaw and Chekov took place according to former pupil and Penge resident Conway Castle-Knight.
The Empire was demolished in 1961; a casualty of television, perhaps. The Kings Hall and the ARC long before that. For many years there was no designated theatre in Penge. Shows were still performed at Anerley Town Hall and pantomimes occasionally at Melvin Hall. Local resident Linda Huggins remembers performing in the Melvin Hall pantomimes which were always well-attended.
In 2014 the Bridge House Theatre came into being in a room above the Bridge House Tavern. Brainchild of theatre director Guy Retallack and West End/Broadway musical star Rachel Tucker, both Penge residents, this small professional theatre has already won many Off Stage awards (Offies) for excellence. Shows such as Macbeth, It’s a Wonderful Life, Thrill Me, and Miracle on 34th Street were critically-praised and sell-out successes, building up a local following. Here Guy talks about his vision for the theatre:
A notable Fringe theatre, it has also made a contribution to the Penge Festival from 2015, presenting nine shows during the three weeks of festival activities. Theatre manager Rob Harris has overseen the productions of new plays, cabaret, musicals, Christmas shows for the family, and, as part of the Penge festival, archival film lectures, Penge’s Got Talent, new plays, music evenings, gala cabaret events, Walter de la Mare poetry recitals and dance.
Sadly, owing to the impact of the Covid 19 pandemic, the Bridge House Theatre, like so many professional theatres all over the country, had to close permanently in January, 2021. It had an excellent, memorable, well-supported seven year run: our thanks to Guy, Rachel and Rob for making it possible. We hope professional theatre will return to Penge in the not-so-distant future.
For further information on the Bridge House Theatre see: http://www.bhtheatre.com/