London's Unity Theatre was established in 1936 by the Rebel Players who, after many years of performing on street corners, on lorries and in community halls, converted a church hall in Britannia Street, London into a workers' theatre.
The mainstay of the new theatre's artistic policy was the use of dramatic realism to educate, to encourage political action and to allow working class political and cultural expression. The name Unity Theatre was chosen to reflect this strategy. For over forty years, the theatre specialised in the portrayal of working class life from a left-wing perspective.
Unity's organisational structures were based on communist principles: a management committee, elected at an AGM by club members, had oversight of a network of sub-committees responsible for the different aspects of the organisation. In addition to its productions and drama workshops, the theatre offered training in other aspects of the entertainment industry to working class people from London's East End. Unity also provided a wide range of social activities, including lectures on politics and drama, summer schools, film shows, dances and a string quartet. Many of its members went on to work in the commercial theatre, film and television as performers, writers, producers, technicians, administrators and agents. Some Unitarians became well known, including Lionel Bart, Alfie Bass, Michael Gambon, Bob Hoskins and Bill Owen.
One of the first plays to be performed in the Britannia Street theatre was the burlesque-style comedy Where's the Bomb, written by Robert Buckland and Herbert Hodge, both members of the Taxi Drivers' Union, in which a sacked aero-engine fitter is offered a job writing patriotic stories on toilet paper. Another early production was Jack Lindsay's On Guard for Spain. This work, in the form of a mass declamation - a type of choral speaking popular in German workers' theatre - was performed in July 1937 in Trafalgar Square at a rally in support of the International Brigade.
By 1937, the cramped Britannia Street theatre was seen as inhibiting the club's development and a lease was secured on a disused Methodist chapel in Goldington Street. Using the help volunteered by a wide range of London trades unionists, the conversion was completed in two months. The new theatre had a much larger stage than the typical little theatre of the time, a sophisticated lighting system and workshop and office accommodation. In addition to the increased facilities, the larger premises also provided a greater financial potential, including the ability to offer block bookings to affiliate organisations, making it possible to guarantee an income before a production opened.
The Goldington Street theatre had six full-time staff, four acting companies and the Unity Theatre Society boasted three hundred active members. The first work to be performed in the new theatre was the play Aristocrats, by the Russian author Nikolai Pogodin, in which prisoners are transformed into model citizens by the experience of working on the White Sea Canal. Another early production was the Living Newspaper, Busman, based on the London bus drivers' 1937 ‘Coronation strike' and written collectively by the strike's leaders. In the following year, Unity's panto Babes in the Wood, an attack on Chamberlain's policy of appeasement, broke new ground by satirising not only Hitler and Mussolini, but also impersonating the Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain on stage.
Another important highlight from the same era was the appearance of Paul Robeson in the Unity production of Plant in the Sun, an ensemble piece of social realist drama based on a strike in the shipping department of a New York sweet factory. In his excellent book, 'The History of Unity Theatre', Colin Chambers explains that, although at the height of his fame, Robeson refused to be treated differently to the other members of the cast, who were expected to help with cleaning duties, and asked to be given a place on the sweeping rota. This request was discussed by the appropriate committee who, fearing that the dust would affect his unique voice, reluctantly voted to declined the great star's request.
In this period of its history, the members of Unity were also predominantly members of the Communist Party. Although the party did not fund the theatre, many of its branches both in the capital and nationally became affiliated and individual members were instrumental in persuading other organisations within the labour movement to affiliate. The leadership of the Communist Party was sensitive to the value of culture and to the role that works such as On Guard for Spain and Babes in the Wood could play in drawing more people towards radical theatre and politics. During the 1930s, the influence of the Communist Party had been strengthened by the effects of the capitalist recession, by the popular condemnation of fascism in Spain and the rise of the Soviet Union, perceived by many on the left as an alternative to capitalism. However, the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact created political tensions within the labour movement and at the same time increased the degree to which the Communist Party and Unity Theatre were viewed with suspicion by the government. As the level of mutual distrust increased, Unity members feared that they could be arrested and the theatre closed down.
When war was finally declared in September 1939, Unity, along with all other theatres, had to close its doors, but reopened later the same month with the revue Sandbag Follies. In the early years of the war, Unity Theatre members also worked with the air-raid shelter committees in the capital to organise a wide range of entertainment. Then in 1941, following the invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany, the government reluctantly turned to Unity Theatre for help to provide the cultural material needed to celebrate their new ally. Unity rose to the challenge by producing, among other things, the 1942 revue Get Cracking, focusing on the need both to increase war production and to back the Soviet Union, and from 1942 onwards, Unity groups also performed in factories and to all sections of the armed forces.
Shortly after the end of the war, the theatre celebrated the 1945 Labour electoral victory with the revue Swinging to the Left, and also produced the Living Newspaper play Black Magic, endorsed by the Ministry of Fuel and Power, about the post-war power crisis. In March 1946, Unity organised a conference entitled 'Theatre and the People', arguing for direct state funding for the theatre at all levels, and in the same period, the national membership increased significantly. By May 1947, there were 50 branches of the Unity Theatre Society and 10,000 members. However, the political accommodation with the Attlee government was short-lived, and the 1948 revue What's Left, satirising the Cold War and Britain's increasing economic dependence on the USA, signalled its end.
In addition to this satirical revue, other works from this period reflected immediate concerns. The Bikini Fable, set at Bikini Lagoon during an atom bomb test, is typical of this type of production. Drama based on the history of the labour movement was another popular theme: for example, The Dockers' Tanner, developed from an earlier work about the 1889 dock strike, was performed at the time of a contemporary strike by London dockworkers and pointed to a growing unease about the government's retention of wartime labour laws to control industrial unrest. Unity's post-war repertoire also included British premieres of works from socialist countries. An early production was The Enemies by Maxim Gorky. A message in the programme from the Soviet ambassador, Y. Zaroubin, expressing the hope that the production would cement relations between Britain and the Soviet people, appears to echo the political anxieties of the period. Unity players also travelled to Soviet Bloc countries, including visits to a number of international youth festivals, to perform appropriate material. According to Chambers, the repertoire on one visit to Poland comprised of a production of O'Casey's play The End of the Beginning, excerpts from Twelfth Night and a version of Unity's Old Time Music Hall in which Lionel Bart sang 'Any Old Iron'.
In the opening years of the Cold War, World on Edge, a Living Newspaper about the Suez Crisis, came to signify the increasing divisions within both the labour movement and the theatre membership. Although the production was ostensibly about the Suez Crisis, the work included a scene in which an Egyptian and an Eastern European refugee met and compared their experiences. This implicit criticism of Soviet action in a Unity Theatre production reflected wider concerns within the labour movement about the suppression of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising and created unease within the membership. There were protests by the audience during some of the performances, and by popular demand, discussions were sometimes held at the end of the show. The work appears also to have resulted in a shift in the political influences within Unity Theatre and a decline in support from the Communist Party leadership.
By the mid 1950s, competing political perspectives among the membership, together with the artistic disagreements that had always characterised the theatre's management style, became increasingly harmful and Unity Theatre was in severe financial difficulties. This situation was aggravated by the increasing popularity of naturalist drama, making both working class characters and themes widely acceptable in the commercial theatre. In addition, the new radical writers and producers working in television began to use the political and social topics that had traditionally been the domain of Unity Theatre as subjects for television drama.
By contrast, Unity's repertoire remained unchanged. The theatre continued to present revues, plays, revivals of earlier work and also a number of classics, including Shaw's Androcles and the Lion and the British premiere of Brecht's Mother Courage and her Children. This highly acclaimed production starred Unity stalwart Helena Stevens as Mother Courage and was directed by Heinz Bernard, who also went on to direct Unity's 1961 premiere of The Visions of Simone Marchard, written by Brecht with Leon Feuchtwanger.
Unity continued to perform challenging foreign dramas, particularly those associated with liberation struggles, and work by new writers, irrespective of the commercial risk this involved, were also produced. Unity's political commitment, coupled with its status as a theatre club, made it possible to stage works that had been banned by the censor. In 1952, for example, Unity staged Strangers in the Land. The play, by the new writer Mona Bland, had been banned from public performance by the British censor, because of its portrayal of the Malayan plantations at a time when Britain was fighting a jungle war against communist-led guerrillas. Unity's continuing political links also allowed the theatre to secure premieres of important work by left-wing authors. With the help of the French Communist Party, for example, Unity secured the right to produce the first English performance of Jean-Paul Sartre's Nekrassov. The play ran for four months in 1956 and was both a political and a financial success; however, this was an exception and the theatre continued to be plagued by financial insecurity.
By the beginning of the 1960s, the Goldington Street theatre was badly in need of repair. Unity launched an appeal to buy the freehold of the existing building, and there were also plans to build a new theatre. The appeal gained the backing of a large number of Unity's supporters, including Dame Sybil Thorndike and Joan Greenwood, and a number of fund raising events were organised. When enough money was eventually raised to purchase the freehold, it was celebrated by a show called It's Ours and the site was renovated, but the political conflict and financial uncertainty continued.
In the late 1960s and early 70s, Unity Theatre became an important venue for the alternative theatre movement, including the groups Belt and Braces, 7:84 (England) and Rough Theatre. The new groups tended to have a broader political perspective that, in addition to class politics, encompassed gender, race and ecology. During this period in the theatre's history, Dramagraph presented the world premier of David Halliwell's play Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs. Another notable production was Harold Muggins is a Martyr. The play, a collaboration between John Arden, Margaret D'Arcy and Cartoon Archetypal Slogan Theatre (CAST), was a satire on Britain under Harold Wilson in which the main character, Harold Muggins, the proprietor of a rundown cafe, is forced to pay protection to gangsters who symbolised the influence of the USA.
The theatre's repertoire became a mixture of old and new. The revue Waiting for Lefty was revived during this period, and Belt and Braces performed an updated version of the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists called The Reign of Terror and the Great Money Trick. There was also a move to a more community-based approach. By the early 70s, the theatre was open to children from local adventure playgrounds over the Easter holidays, and some plays were staged that focused on the history of the locality. Other works covered contemporary political issues, including Paul Thompson's documentary play South Africa 70, staged at the time of the Springbok rugby tour, and All the Way with Elbie Jay, one of a number of works protesting against the Vietnam War. Unity also continued to encourage new work, and it was after the performance of a new play, The Cocoa Party, written by Unity activist Helena Stevens under the name of Ruth Dunlap Bartlett, that a fire broke out in the auditorium during the early hours of 8 November 1975. The building sustained serious damage, and over the following years, a number of attempts were made to raise the money to revive the under-insured theatre. One of the most significant was probably Socialist Theatre Groups for the Rebuilding of Unity (STGRU). The initiative failed, and after a number of battles by various competing groups concerned to guard Unity's interests, the site was eventually sold to the St Pancras Housing Association in 1988. Unity Theatre's legacy is now protected by the Unity Theatre Trust who, in addition to administrating a grant-award system for drama and related art forms, maintain the theatre's archive and have produced the DVD The Story of Unity Theatre that explains the theatre's history.
For over forty years Unity Theatre was important as a venue for political theatre, for working class drama and as an arena for new and challenging work by British and foreign writers. The influence of the groundbreaking work done by the tiny, semi-professional theatre and its band of committed supporters has left a considerable heritage. During its lifetime, Unity Theatre provided many working class people with a route into the entertainment industry and prepared the way for artistic developments in the areas of satire, musical theatre, drama, film and television.
Resources about London Unity Theatre in the library collection
Colin Chambers, The story of Unity Theatre (1989) - Shelfmark: H41
Malcolm Hulke, Here is drama: behind the scenes at Unity Theatre, London (1961) - Shelfmark: AG Unity Theatre (London) Box 15
People's theatre: the story of Unity Theatre (no date) - Shelfmark: AG Unity Theatre (London) Box 15
The library also has a collection of archive material from the London Unity Theatre which includes scripts, minutes, bulletins, correspondence and other papers.