Artform Spotlight: Victorian Theatre #1 with Don’t Go Into The Cellar!

When thinking about Victorian culture, many of us will undoubtedly bring to mind examples of classic literature – Dickens, Hardy and the Brontës to name but a few. Perhaps we also think back to those school textbook images of wide skirts and top hats? What many of us may be less familiar with is the look and feel of classic Victorian theatre. However, much of the popular fiction that many of us read today, particularly the genres of horror/ghost stories, adventure, detective and science fiction, all have their roots in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Birmingham-based performer and writer Jonathan Goodwin has always found the late 19th century a fascinating subject, and from a young age, he enjoyed watching the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films on BBC2, as well as the horror films of Universal and Hammer. A passionate reader, he also immersed himself in the stories of Conan Doyle and Bram Stoker. Jonathan jokes that he must have been born with these Victorian interests already planted inside him.

In 2010, Jonathan was performing in Edinburgh and began pondering why the type of theatre he was so passionate about didn’t appear to exist in the UK. It was at this point that he decided that it was up to him to fill the gap in the marketplace. At the time, Jonathan was also starring in a production of Confessions of an English Opium Eater and was heartened by the number of people who were coming to see the show, leading him to be further convinced that audiences would have an appetite for traditional Victorian popular fiction in theatre. And so, Victorian theatre company Don’t Go Into The Cellar! was born.

Jonathan was joined by fellow 19th-century enthusiast Gary Archer, who designs the sound and lighting of their shows, and is responsible for the overall appearance of the work while Jonathan continues to write and perform the shows. Despite the years they have spent refining their talents, the company remains true to their original ambition of dealing in gripping stories that involve larger-than-life characters in thrilling situations.

‘Our aim always has been to make our work as authentically Victorian as possible. If an audience from the late nineteenth century were to see one of our shows, ideally, they wouldn’t be able to tell we were from the future!’

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Because of their passion for Victorian-style theatre shows, Don’t Go Into The Cellar! are well aware of the links between today’s stories and those enjoyed by the Victorians. One of the key features of Victorian tales is melodrama – with its compelling narrative voices, high drama and strong emotional characters.

Another classic Victorian element that the company make full use of is multi-role-playing performance. Like his Victorian predecessors, Jonathan has a wonderful ability to switch seamlessly from one character to another onstage. As an actor, this often means he is required to go from one extreme emotion to another via two characters – a phenomenon that he suggests could be described as ‘a case of heightened realism’.

As a performer, Jonathan has drawn inspiration from some of the great character actors of the past. In particular, Peter Cushing remains one of his favourite performers. Jonathan says this is because of Cushing’s ability to imbue his roles with believability, however absurd the premise. Cushing always preferred the term ‘fantasy’ to ‘horror’, a belief that Jonathan also subscribes to.

‘The shows I write and perform in are designed to make audiences forget about the present day and the manifold worries of modern living. We deal in pure escapism. I feel that given the state of the world right now, people like us are needed more than ever.’

Experienced touring performers, Don’t Go Into The Cellar! love meeting new people and exploring different venues, however briefly. Covering thousands of miles across the UK every year, they often only get fleeting glimpses of the surroundings they visit as they are busiest during the autumn and winter seasons meaning they often arrive and leave the venues after dark. Like many touring companies, they thoroughly enjoy chatting to audience members after performances and cherish the sight of smiling faces – something they see as a testament to the enjoyment their work has brought the local community. Some of their favourite responses are when audience members comment on the believability of their performances. For instance, when playing Oscar Wilde, Jonathan received many compliments, with audience members commenting that it was as if Oscar Wilde had been brought back to life and was there, on stage, in front of their very eyes.

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Pre-lockdown, Don’t Go Into The Cellar! were touring up and down the country, performing up to 140 shows per year, with twenty different productions for venues to choose from. They were also scheduled to join Live & Local on a rural tour of community village venues. Due to recent events, however, the company have had to move their performances online and have created a Sunday Down The Cellar season of live broadcasts. These take place two or three times a month, and, for one night only, Jonathan performs a new show. The reaction has been fantastic and is meant that the company’s work has been accessible to a worldwide audience. The live performances are free to see, but audience members are invited to make a donation of the cost of a theatre ticket and can donate through their Go Fund Me page. This ensures that they are able to tide themselves over during a period which has been difficult for many artists and performers. The live events can be accessed via their YouTube and Facebook pages.

Don’t Go Into The Cellar! have several exciting projects lined up for the future. When restrictions on performers and theatres are lifted, they plan to film and commercially release a series of short performances entitled Night Terrors. They have begun a collaboration with MX Publishing – the world’s leading publishers of original Sherlock Holmes material – and there are also plans to publish one of Jonathan’s scripts later in the year; a show based on one of Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories. In other words, keep your eyes peeled for Don’t Go Into The Cellar! We hope to have them join us on a Live & Local tour as soon as possible.

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