Palace of varieties

By the 1950s, the Palace Theatre was the only theatre left in Reading. Despite heated protests it was demolished a decade later and replaced by a new theatre. With one stroke of the architect’s pen, pantomime as we knew it died.

The new theatre had a round stage, which did not lend itself to pantomime. And what was panto without the suspense of waiting for the fire curtain to rise and the leap of your heart as the band hidden in the pit swung into action while red plush curtains swished silently into the wings?

In my childhood we were pretty hard up so going to the Palace was a rare treat.

With a choice of sitting in itchy red plush seats in the more expensive stalls, or going to perch on backless, concrete tiers in the gods, it was one of those times when being hard up had its advantages. I loved being so high; 1 had a bird’s-eye view of the private boxes hanging over the stage. If there was no one to stare at in the boxes, I could feast my eyes on the beautifully decorated ceiling and swags of gilded plaster leaves
and flowers in all their Victorian splendour.

Every year on Boxing Day, Mum and Dad would take my sister and me to the Palace to see a pantomime. I was six the year Jock and the Beanstalk was featured. I’m sure I was eager to see it, because going to the panto was the high point of our Christmas, but when the giant roared ‘fee fi fo fum, I want the blood of an Englishman’ offstage, accompanied by heavy footsteps, I disgraced myself by throwing a blue fit and they had to take me home.

One summer, Dad was flush from working overtime and, as we were a bit older, suggested we went to see a variety show.

One of the acts was a man without any arms and we thought he was brilliant. He could do all sorts of things with his feet, including playing a mouth organ. For the climax of his act he took a cigarette out of a packet, put it in his mouth, took a match from a box, struck it and lit the cigarette. Near the top of the bill was a magician. After doing a couple of tricks he enlisted a young boy from the audience and persuaded him to kneel down and put his head in a guillotine. After a dramatic drum roll the blade flashed down with a thump. I couldn’t look, but when everyone started clapping I peeked from between my fingers and was relieved to see the boy’s head was still on his shoulders. But to my horror, his trousers were down around his ankles.

When the council planners first began making threatening noises about pulling the Palace Theatre down, Dad checked the paper and saw there was a revue on that week. He said he would treat us to tickets because it might be our last chance to visit the theatre. He was fond of making gestures and splashed out for seats in the stalls.

As we settled in our seats the band, heavy on violins, swung into a romantic number. The red plush curtains slid silently to the wings and a gauze curtain teased us briefly before rising. And there, in a series of niches around the stage, were half a dozen nude women posing artistically!

My sister and I were on the edges of our seats waiting for the singing and dancing, because we had made plans to try out some of the steps when we got home, so we didn’t catch on for a moment or two. As the penny dropped and my sister asked in a loud voice why the ladies didn’t have any clothes on. Mum and Dad hurriedly hauled us out of our seats and into the foyer.

As they walked two grumpy children home, Mum nagged Dad because he hadn’t checked the programme properly, and all poor old Dad could say was what a waste of his hard-earned money!

Di Rayburn, Bracknell, Berkshire