Hall Green Little Theatre
Note: The material for this page has been obtained from booklets in Birmingham Reference Library.
Although the theatre is in Acocks Green, not Hall Green, it has the name of the neighbouring suburb because it arose out of an idea of some Air Raid Wardens in Hall Green. In the beginning, plays were put on in local halls, while scenery was built in a leaky and cold shed. Morale began to fall. The idea of a proper theatre building was born, but before it came to fruition, temporary premises were found in a dilapidated repair garage. This meant that there was somewhere to meet, rehearse, and make costumes and scenery. Morale improved, and plans for a permanent brick theatre were developed. An architect drew up plans, and money was raised through jumble sales and the like. When the princely sum of £400 had been saved, it was possible to start. The site for the theatre was land on the Fox Hollies Hall site, which included a static water tank, built in the War, which had become a rubbish dump. The land was leased for 82 years on 24 June 1950.
The building licence did not cover any paid labour, so only volunteers could be used. Amazingly, the group had set itself the target of having a theatre open within a year. A booklet on the history of the Theatre in its first ten years describes what happened:
Saturday, April First, 1950, and a group of youthful drama enthusiasts take possession of a rubbish dump in Pemberley Road, Acocks Green, Birmingham. Coats are soon off and, that same afternoon, the site is cleared and digging begins…on the foundations of a new theatre.
Throughout the following summer, autumn, winter and spring, these dedicated men and women – nine out of ten of whom had never before built so much as a rabbit hutch - sweat and toil. They shift hundreds of barrow-loads of earth and sand, lay 65,000 bricks, mix ton after ton of mortar and concrete, erect a forest of makeshift scaffolding, raise massive steel girders to to dizzy heights on home-made lifting tackle, plaster and paint vast areas of brickwork…
To meet their target of opening in a year, members had to work every night of the week, all day Saturday and Sunday, often well into the night with car headlamps for floodlights. Summer holidays were sacrificed, as were the ladies’ smooth hands and elegant fingernails. Gumboots, overalls and old gloves were the accepted fashion, blisters and bruises the standard accessories…
On April 6th, 1951 – a year and one week later – they open the doors to an astonished but delighted audience. The play (“The Circle of Chalk”) is presented on a temporary stage, built within the auditorium. It is tiny, has no wings and there are no dressing rooms for the cast.
But no one minds. The impossible has been done.
Women were laying bricks, and, according to Brian Hodges in 1971, could lay 3,000 bricks a day. Julia Roden recalled in 1991, on the fiftieth anniversary of the first performance:
We were working in twenty foot trenches, with no shoring and no hard hats -it's a wonder no-one had an accident. (Birmingham Voice, 14th February 2001)
Birmingham City Council gave an interest-free loan of £1,500. In summer 1952 a side wing was finished, and the year after the major task of building the stage-house was begun. Once again, the booklet gives the best description:
First, the cellar had to be dug out by hand. No ordinary cellar this – a gigantic hole, 50 ft. long, 30 ft. wide and 14 ft. deep; eight hundred tons of earth to be broken up and dug out with pick and shovel.
Bad weather and underground springs turned the site into a mudbath, trebled the weight of every shovelful of earth. Torrential rain – and the lack of suitable timber for shuttering – caused the side of the pit to cave in – again and again. On each occasion, tons of earth crashed down on newly completed foundations, burying them in a mountain of clay.
Up to their knees in smelly mud, members had literally to smash their way through a two-foot layer of re-inforced concrete, remnants of a static water tank built during the war. And still the rain fell!
As the months squelched by, enthusiasm gave way to depression, depression to grim determination. By late autumn, when the play season began, less than half the cellar had been dug out.
Twelve months later, the battle of the stage-house cellar was over. Brickwork was up to ground level on all sides (35,000 bricks) and, albeit under three feet of water, there was a concrete floor. There remained the enormous job of building the superstructure but, after the auditorium and cellar, laying another 60,000 bricks seemed child’s play! The final task of raising steel roof trusses some forty feet on makeshift tackle gave rise to several “moments”, as did the laying of the asbestos roof sheets. This involved perching astride the roof trusses with a sheer drop of fifty feet to the cellar floor.
In 1955, the old stage-house, which had been in a state of near-collapse since its foundations were removed by the cellar excavations, was pulled down and, a few weeks later, “The Ghost Train” was presented on the new stage.
Further building work, made possible by a second £1,500 loan from the City Council, has added another two-storey wing and a large foyer….
Julia Roden again:
Because we were amateurs, we had to use a stronger than normal mix of mortar to make the brickwork more solid and because we hit three springs in the basement, the walls down there are extra thick. one health and safety expert who visited us said that if the bomb ever dropped, our basement is where he would like to be!
It is truly remarkable that after ten years a theatre had been built in Acocks Green entirely by unskilled, unpaid labour. By 1971, there was a wardrobe of 2,000 costumes, and eight plays a year were performed, produced by different producers and using up to 30 different members from the pool of 130 each time. In the 1970s, a studio theatre and bar lounge were added. Today, ten plays are produced, six in the main Veitch Theatre and four in the Signature Theatre. Hall Green Little Theatre is a charitable organisation, run by members and volunteers. Members can undertake all areas of the work: directing, acting, scenery, props, lighting, wardrobe, front of house or office work.
In 1979 an appeal was launched to create a new extension, the Signature Theatre. Anyone who gave £1 could sign a brick.
In 1967 the Private Film Society attached to the theatre came to the notice of the newspapers, because members could view films which were not on general release. In the same year, there was a disagreement about the type of plays the theatre should present. This led to the resignation of Richard Drinkwater, the Artistic Director. The need to attract larger audiences also led to the installation of improved central heating and a new lounge bar. In 1974 a petrol bomb was left at the entrance. This was extinguished with a pot of tea and a bucket of water!
The theatre has had two presidents: Lord Olivier and Sir Derek Jacobi, who keeps in touch and visits occasionally. According to Julia Roden:
He's rather different from Sir Laurence Olivier, our only other patron, who agreed to do it on the understanding that we never asked him to do anything else.
A page on the BBC website gives some more information:
For current productions visit: http://www.hglt.org.uk/