Enter stage left: when Unity Theatre put the politics into panto

Established in 1936, Unity Theatre was without doubt the most important focus for political theatre of the mid twentieth century, providing a venue for new work that would never have seen the light of day on the traditional stage and offering a way into the acting world for many working-class performers who would go on to become significant figures in post-war stage, screen and television.

A5 size pink brochure front cover with sketch of characters in Babes in the pods on a yellow oval background
Theatre programme front cover: full programme reproduced below

It was, too, a central part of a now largely lost labour movement culture that stretched from socialist theatre to Sunday schools, holiday camps, cycling clubs and book clubs.

Among those to emerge from the Unity Theatre were the writer and composer Lionel Bart (best known for the musical Oliver!), Alfie Bass, Bill Owen, Vida Hope, Herbert Lom and Bob Hoskins. The theatre’s use of dramatic realism and portrayals of working class life were also to prove influential both in the alternative theatre of the late 1960s and 1970s, and in mainstream entertainment media.

The programme shown here (and reproduced in full below) is for the 1938 pantomime Babes in the Wood. Departing from the traditional settings, the Unity Theatre version included scenes titled ‘the Cliveden Set’ (named after the aristocratic Nazi appeasers grouped around the Astors) and ‘Love on the Dole’ (from Walter Greenwood’s 1933 book).

Published in 1938, when the pantomime was first performed, the programme includes photographs from some of Unity Theatre’s early successes – including a production of Ben Bengal’s Plant in the Sun, in which the American performer and activist Paul Robeson appeared, and Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty, inspired by and built around a strike by New York cab drivers.

It also sets out what the Unity Theatre saw as its success in having ‘brought thousands into the labour movement by presenting the drama of truth to people unable otherwise to see clearly through the distorted propaganda of Hollywood and Fleet Street’.

Many of those involved in the early Unity Theatre were members of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and CPGB activists were influential in getting trade union branches and others to affiliate to the theatre, which was owned by a co-operative society. Nominally, as a way to circumvent the then strict censorship rules in place for the theatre, Unity was a private club, admitting only ‘members and their bone fide friends’ – a loophole which extended to the members of any organisation that affiliated on production of their trade union membership card.

In addition to staging and providing a venue for performances, there was also a Unity Theatre School, which numbered among its tutors future theatrical Dames Sybil Thorndyke and Flora Robson, as well as Robeson, then at the peak of his international fame. Unity’s touring companies also inspired similar ventures outside London, with the Unity Theatre, Liverpool continuing today

Among those serving on its general council were political notables Sir Stafford Cripps, Professor Harold Laski and George Strauss, the Irish dramatist Seán O’Casey, the publisher Victor Gollancz and others from the world of theatre.

Paul Robeson, Flora Robson, Lionel Bart: famous faces associated with the Unity Theatre.

With the exception of a very brief interlude in September 1939, Unity Theatre continued its work throughout the second world war and beyond. By May 1947, there were 50 branches of the Unity Theatre Society and 10,000 members. This was, however, a high point, and while it continued its work until its home theatre was destroyed by fire in the mid 1970s, the growth of television, changes in mainstream theatre (not least the ending of censorship in 1968) and the shifting politics of the socialist left saw it decline in importance.

Its legacy today is protected by the Unity Theatre Trust, ‘set up as a charity in the spirit of the traditions of the theatre and its history’ to ‘advance the education of the public by fostering, promoting and increasing the interest of the public in the art of drama and in the co-related arts’.

Further reading

A History of the London Unity Theatre can be found on the Working Class Movement Library website, as part of a series of articles on Drama and Literature.

Cliveden Set in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

A copy of the script for Babes in the Wood can be found in the V&A Theatre and Performance Collections.

Website of the Unity Theatre Trust.