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Unity Theatre

A Brief history and traditions of Unity Theatre

Unity Theatre grew out of the agitprop street theatre in the East End of London in the early 1930's.

Once established, in a converted chapel in Kings Cross (built entirely with voluntary labour), Unity became the inspiration for a national upsurge in drama on social and political issues, since it was the only theatre in London throughout the 1930's, 1940's and early 1950's producing plays on these subjects.

Alongside shows specially created for Unity, it drew on the repertoire of world theatre, including innovative productions of works by Clifford Odets, Sean O'Casey, Lope de Vega, Jean Paul Sartre and Arthur Adamov. It was the first theatre in England to stage a play by Bertolt Brecht and it helped popularise the plays of Maxim Gorky.

Unity's strength lay with its audience drawn mainly from the trades unions and organised labour movements, but amongst its supporters were many eminent personalities e.g. Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, Sybil Thorndike, Beatrix Lehmann and Paul Robeson whose appearance with Unity, followed by international acclaim for the political pantomime Babes in the Wood, marked the peak of the theatre's fame.

With the outbreak of war, Unity was the first theatre to open in London once the ban on public entertainment had been lifted and it maintained a permanent repertory of plays, satirical revues and musicals throughout the five years of hostilities. It also sent out small groups of performers who, often in hazardous conditions, provided valuable shelter and factory entertainment for those winning the war at home.

Unity emerged from the war at the head of a national drama movement that was concerned with the lives of working people. Soon however, many of the developments pioneered by Unity, such as vernacular drama, Living Newspaper and biting satirical shows, were accepted by the theatrical mainstream and television.

Many well-known theatre people - Lionel Bart, Alfie Bass, Michael Gambon, Bob Hoskins, David Kossoff, Warren Mitchell, Bill Owen and Ted Willis among them - learned their skills at this influential theatre which was the working people's most sustained and successful contribution to British drama and one of the most important and enduring initiatives in popular culture this century.

Unity Theatre was destroyed by fire in 1975.



Members of Mandy Actors UK who have worked for Unity Theatre

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