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Brighton Fringe 2011

Kemble’s Riot

George Dillon

Genre: Drama


The Old Courtroom


Low Down

Ever been to a riot? In 1809 Covent Garden had 66 consecutive nights of rioting. Experience theatrical uproar during a new play by Adrian Bunting. Big business messes up and tries to make the people pay, sound familiar? You will have never seen anything like this in a theatre before. If you care about theatre-riot.


I don’t know if in its former incarnation The Old Courtroom was ever witness to the collective haranguing of a Friday night Brighton mob, but it certainly was this week. The place is a great venue for this historic account of a series of riots that took place in John Kemble’s theatre at the start of the 19th Century.

We were ushered to our seats with the explanation that we should pick up different programmes depending on which side we chose to sit. Immediately we were branded as being on The King’s Side or The Prince’s Side – in the end the names were irrelevant, we just knew whowere the opposition.
Suddenly, actors amongst us started chatting about how they were looking forward to Kemble and Mrs Siddons (the sibling duo)’s portrayal of ‘MacBeth’.
Mention of the unmentionable illicits the bad luck that it predicted however and half way through the famous Act I scene (beautifully tinged with melodrama by George Dillon and Alex Childs) the theatre catches fire and is burnt to a cinder.
So starts the chain of events that will lead to the riots. The scene shifts to describing the new elaborately designed theatre with all mod cons – lamps instead of hundreds of candles and a vast crew to lay on the most spectacular entertainment for the paying public. However, Kemble admits that the previous theatre had not been insured and herein lies the rub! The paying public had been used to a price set a century before and the fact that the cost had rocketed in order to pay for Kemble’s mistake, caused a mixed reaction.
Egged on by our respective ringleaders – passionately led by Julie Nash and Steve North, we added our voice to the sides for and against the increasingly pompous theatre manager. The argument had little place to go – it was reasonable to expect that change costs, versus the public shouldn’t be expected to pick up the tab for one man’s mistakes. But the resonances with current events were all too clear and as a fellow audience member so beautifully put it, ‘although the argument didn’t develop, my character did’. And the fun of being in a room where and entire group of people were allowing themselves to get more and more involved with chanting and singing, was great entertainment. As Kemble resorted to underhand tactics, so these two factions united, which acted as a nice shift into the next wave of anarchy.
I would have liked to see the man at the centre of the furore be given a small voice of humanity, if only to cast light on a more sympathetic side of his character. But his mask never dropped from one of outward show and it was left to the more empathically sketched Sarah Siddons to show the softer side of the family.
But overall, it was a very good night out and the audience were clearly fired up by this unifying theatrical experience.


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