Unity Theatre programme for ‘What’s Next?’
Donated by Harry Landis, actor at the Unity from age 15
Unity Theatre was a pioneer of workers’ theatre. It sought to produce theatre that working class people could relate to – unlike the almost wholly middle class productions which were then current in the West End. It pioneered “Agit prop” in this country, an import from Soviet Russia which sought to agitate workers through propaganda. It has become a term to describe art with a political purpose.
The Unity was established in Britannia Street in Kings Cross in 1936. It moved to Somers Town in 1937, taking over an old chapel at 1 Goldington Street. The chapel was converted by workers for free, and it explicitly encouraged ordinary people to try their hand at acting, directing, writing etc. It started the “Crowndale Kids Klub” to draw local youngsters in. The building was destroyed by fire in 1975, the site was eventually sold and Unity Theatre trust was established which continues today. Social housing was built on the site. It has a plaque and inscription to remember the theatre.
Examining the programmes gives an insight into the culture around the theatre. For example, the programme for a production “You won’t always be on top”, in 1960 , about the building trade, is typical.
As with most theatre programmes there is advertising, in this case for holidays to the Eastern Block and folk music. The Unity had close links with the Communist Party and ran a Folk club each Wednesday evening. Folk music was authentic, working people’s music.
The second page is a dialogue which brings aspects of the Unity to life. ”Plays give you something to think about” – Unity sought to educate and entertain and reflect the working class experience – “True to life”.
The piece is written by Eric Paice, who was heavily involved with the Unity. At one time he was the nightwatchman living in a room at the back of the theatre. He went on to write for the Unity and TV and became the president of the Writer’s Guild. A very good example of how the Unity supported people’s artistic development.
By Brendan McLoughlin