REGINALD WOOLLEY was a master of low-tech theatre. He may have used electricity to light his shows but you felt as you watched his evocations of palaces and forests, mountains and caves for the postage-stamp stage of the Players Theatre Club, in Villiers Street, London, that he might have been happier with gas or even candles.
At any rate he loved to work in the past, and where better for a designer of such meticulous regard for a period before his own, than at that celebrated haven of Victorian conservation beneath Charing Cross station where the rumblings of the trains became so much a feature of the nightly variety bill, known as Late Joys?
From it Sandy Wilson's The Boyfriend was brought into the world 40 years ago and Woolley had a hand in it. Woolley not only attended its birth, but had been present at its conception since he commissioned it. How it grew from a filler of part of the variety programme to become one of the greatest international musical hits of the post-war era is now the stuff of legend: and it was not only Woolley's brilliant sets and costumes which helped it to triumph. It was also the tone of his decor, its small scale, modest but precise understanding of the 1920s when he was a schoolboy, and the simplicity and economy with which he brought us the finishing school known as the Villa Caprice, the carnival ball at Nice and of course the plage. Having been run up on a shoestring at the Players and earned its promotion via the Embassy, Swiss Cottage, to the West End, the production still cost only pounds 2,000, with Woolley's sets and costumes among the cheapest items.
When it moved to Broadway, however, and Woolley with it, the cost rose to nearer pounds 60,000. What had been got together from stock beneath Charing Cross station and created on a sewing-machine or in the work-room had to be copied and reproduced in every particular by New York's leading scenic studios and costumiers. And Woolley, in his first taste of high-tech theatre, had to make drawings of everything he had done.
During his half-century at the Players as its resident designer he worked on a number of West End musicals or shows destined for the West End, like The Crooked Mile (1950), Johnny the Priest (1960), House of Cards (1963), and Sandy Wilson's Divorce Me, Darling (1965).
But he was always happiest on his own small Villiers Street stage with the Late Joys, and particularly with the annual pun-ridden Victorian pantomime in which he would transport us with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of imagination to an assortment of fairy lands with topical allusions. He never saw reason why decor should draw attention to itself as long it drew attention to the extravaganza in hand and did so without extravagance. If he did get a notice, he frowned, fearing that he might have overstepped the mark.
He was the last of a triumvirate (with Gervase Farjeon and Don Gemmell) who kept the Players Theatre on the map from 1939 as one of the merriest underground playhouses in London during the Blitz and as an honest-to-God example of traditional theatre, now in new premises almost adjacent to the old, and replicated with a Woolley-like precision. He will be greatly missed, not only as a nightly presence in the theatre but also as a stickler for a dramatic tradition which it (and he) fought for against all the tides of fashion.Reuse content