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A Gothic Tale…with a happy ending

The Shelley Theatre’s renaissance is a tale as could have been written by its creator’s parents, reports Brian Cormack

The Shelley Manor site with the medical centre on the right and apartments to the far left

As home to one of Britain’s most famous literary families and a hub of Victorian cultural activity, it is fitting that Shelley Park is again a focus for the creative arts in Boscombe. This year the Shelley Theatre hosted its first spring season for 150 years, a mix of amateur and touring theatre shows, new work, music and dance nights, cabaret, variety shows and Ink Mountain, a journey through the guts of the building that combined performance and illustration lead by Dorset artist Hazel Evans.
The piece encapsulates the new vision of Shelley Theatre as a place where people can ‘come and play,’ according to Jon Dunne, director of the Charles Higgins Partnership, which owns the building and developed the original house as a medical centre opened in 2009.
‘It’s both for the community and of the community,’ he says. ‘If people want to come along, meet other people, have fun and get involved we’d love them to volunteer and join in what’s happening. Ultimately, the idea is for this to become a production house and so we’re encouraging performers and producers to use the spaces here to develop new work to premiere here and then take away on tour under the Shelley Theatre banner.
‘We’re not from the theatre world so nobody has given us the knowledge that we can’t do that.’
The original 1801 cottage on the site was one of the area’s first buildings. It was bought and renovated in 1849 by the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s only surviving child, Sir Percy Florence, as a retirement home for his ailing mother, Frankenstein creator Mary Shelley – who would surely appreciate the building’s reanimation.

Sir Percy Shelley

Although Mary died before she could move in, Sir Percy and Lady Shelley loved the area and Mary was buried with her husband’s heart in St Peter’s Church in nearby Bournemouth along with her parents – political philosopher William Godwin and proto-feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft. Settling into the renamed Boscombe Manor, Sir Percy had the theatre built in 1855 and soon established it as one of the most splendid private theatres in England, a place where he was able to write, produce and perform in his own plays. He was even known to paint the scenery.
That same can-do spirit inhabits the building to this day as the various efforts to raise money for toilets, flooring, windows, dressing rooms and any number of other items of expenditure attest.
‘Shelley Theatre Trust is an arts charity set up to run the theatre,’ explains Jon. ‘It pays £1 a year to rent the Theatre from the owners. Although there will be some National Lottery funding, the plan is to pay for the renovation by trading activities. In other words, the more often people come here and see a show, drink at the bar, eat at the restaurant, the more refurbishment work we’ll be able
to do.
‘Long term the plan is for the arts offering to be paid for by legacy funding. If we can secure a number of legacies from interested parties who can stipulate what the money can be spent on then the interest from that capital will be used to maintain and improve the Theatre and what it offers.’
The autumn season includes a rolling programme of two plays – probably an Ayckbourn and Noel Coward – old time music hall and a French cabaret evening. It marks another sizable step towards the completion of an incredible comeback for one of Britain’s neglected literary landmarks that, following the departure of the Shelley family, during the 20th century served variously as a girls’ school, Home Guard headquarters, technical college and, until 1998, as an art college.

The Shelley Theatre stage set for an all-female production of Frankenstein viewed from Lady Shelley’s bedroom

By the turn of the century it was under very real threat of demolition after Bournemouth Council took it back from the College of Art and Design. Various efforts were made to save the building until in 2005 it was sold to the Charles Higgins Partnership, which specialises in mixed-use developments such as Sturminster Newton Medical Centre, which has a Co-op and The Exchange arts venue.
As dynamic as the plans for Shelley Theatre are, it has been a long haul to even get it open to the public again.
‘We have had to fight hard every step of the way to prevent this project from being hijacked by a variety of suitors,’ says Jon. ‘What we want to create is a Shelley Theatre family, one that will be open to ideas and opinions from all quarters. We see ourselves very much as custodians and are working openly and honestly to secure the long term future of the Theatre by making it more than simply a theatre so that it will continue to operate along similar lines long into the future.’

The ground floor bar is carved with quotes from Mary Shelley

As well as the Main House, now with (somewhat incongruously) raked seats from Bournemouth’s ill-fated IMAX cinema, there is the Pavilion Studio performance space, The Loft room and The Mulberry Tree café/restaurant that can also be used for exhibition space and performance in the round. Outside, by the Shelley Park tennis courts, are two walks of pleached limes with space for a clamshell stage at one end with cable ducts already laid. The space can also be configured to use the building itself as a backdrop.
The artistic programme has been overseen by Jonathan Rogers whose CV includes stints at the Arts Council, Royal Opera, RSC and National Theatre. He has also worked with commercial theatre heavyweights Cameron Mackintosh and Robert Stigwood.
‘For now we are a touring theatre, but not for much longer – the idea of us as a production house is extremely tempting,’ he says. ‘I am determined we will not be getting by on a diet of film and not-professional productions, although both will have a home here.

Magician Chris Keward entertains guests at the launch of the Shelley Theatre’s first spring season for 150 years

‘This is a prime venue and it must have a varied mix in the programme to appeal across the board. We are talking with a lot of different groups and people from the community that have expressed interest in working with us. Not everything will work, but it’s important we keep trying. The invitation is there – come and play.’
The summer season was made up of shows produced specially for the Theatre and already local theatre groups including Arena, Doppelganger, Drama Productions and Rock Entertainment Group have produced work at the Shelley. Shot At Dawn, a new play by Bournemouth-based screenwriter John Foster, was premiered there.
The new venue manager is Matthew Vass-White, who brings with him some seventeen years of theatre management experience and an undisguised enthusiasm for the task ahead.
‘I look forward to consolidating the theatre’s position as a key part of the area’s social scene,’ he says.
‘The Shelleys left such a mark on Bournemouth, but I don’t think the story is as well known locally as it should be,’ adds Jon. ‘However, there is huge interest internationally. The Bodleian Library spent £4.5 million on the last third of the Shelley Papers.’

All Saints Singers entertain guests in what will be the café area

Indeed. The Abinger Papers, the bulk of which had been held at Shelley Manor by Sir Percy and Lady Shelley, included Mary’s hand-written draft of Frankenstein with corrections by Percy Bysshe, was bought by the Bodleian in 2004 through a public appeal and exhibited in 2011 in London and New York with letters, literary manuscripts, rare books and pamphlets, portraits and relics.
The Bodleian also examined the few remaining artefacts from the fabled Shelley Rooms Museum, a private collection of ephemera relating to Percy Bysshe Shelley that had been on show at the art college from 1979 until it closed, but found little of interest apart from a model of Shelley’s boat that it is hoped will one day be displayed at the Theatre.
Perhaps more than anything, the Shelley Theatre today feels like the place of possibilities Sir Percy intended it to be. There are plans big and small, all of them flexible, and the enthusiasm of those involved – a mix of naivety, business acumen and artistic ambition – is nothing if not infectious.
‘This isn’t a just place where people come to receive entertainment, it’s a place that people make their own, but it can’t all happen at once,’ says Jon Dunne. ‘It has to be managed growth. If we were simply given a big cheque to carry out all the work, whatever we achieve here would have no soul. We want to secure a solid, viable future for the arts at the Shelley Theatre for generations to come.’ ◗

Sir Percy Florence Shelley was nothing if not prolific. His first play, He Whoops To Conquer, was staged on 28 January 1856, and followed by a banquet. Subsequent titles, including A Comedy of Terrors, A Model of a Wife and The Wreck Ashore, were performed at supper theatre evenings and attracted the likes of Robert Louis Stevenson. The best-known actors of the age, Sir Beerbohm Tree and Sir Henry Irving both trod the Boscombe Manor boards – it’s said Irving even performed for free!
After Sir Percy was made President of the Bournemouth Amateur Dramatics Society in 1876, one resident objected to his endeavours and reported Sir Percy for selling tickets without a licence. It went to court and Sir Percy was fined a shilling – the production had been for charity, as had many others including shows in aid of the Bournemouth Sanatorium.
Lady Jane was also a consummate actress, but her true passion lay in managing the legacy of her father-in-law. She assembled a wealth of Shelley relics and housed them in the Shelley Sanctum, a room (now restored) with a domed ceiling that produces an eerie effect on the human voice.

 

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