The V&A's new Theatre Galleries: An encore for lost treasures

As the museum prepares to raise the curtain on its new galleries next week, Charlotte Cripps gets a sneak preview of the star turns waiting in the wings

Wednesday 11 March 2009 01:00 GMT

It took 90 hours of conservation just to get the burgundy Christian Dior dress that Vivien Leigh wore in the 1958 production of Duel of Angels into a fit state for its showcase at the new Theatre and Performance Galleries of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

With one week to go before the galleries open to the public, original Sex Pistols T-shirts are still in their protective covers, and Michael Annals' set model for Long Day's Journey into Night, at the National Theatre in 1971, is not yet properly lit. Stretched across a mannequin is Mick Jagger's flared cream jumpsuit with metal poppers, designed by Ossie Clarke for the Rolling Stones' 1972 European tour. Brian Eno's flamboyant black silk costume, with feathered sleeves, worn on stage and on the inside cover of Roxy Music's 1973 album, For Your Pleasure, adorns another.

The galleries are currently reached via a temporary wooden door, and inside technicians are still busy stringing up Victorian marionettes with invisible wire. Visitors are to be greeted by a giant latex rhinoceros, which made a brief appearance in Ionesco's Rhinoceros at the Royal Court in 2007, and will at some point perish and disintegrate.

Elsewhere, a cancellation notice dating back to 1811 names and shames the unreliable actor Mr Berry as the culprit behind a cancelled performance at Edinburgh's Theatre Royal. There's an impractical but beautiful tutu, designed for Balanchine's Bugaku, worn by the choreographer's muse, the ballerina Suzanne Farrell, with overlapping chrysanthemum petals that make it impossible for the dancer to see her feet. There's even an original wooden Star Trap, a device through which actors would be shot at high speed on to the stage at their own peril. They were commonly used from 1800 onwards, but were banned in the mid-20th century for safety reasons.

The V&A's new Theatre and Performance Galleries replace the Theatre Museum in Covent Garden, which closed in 2007. When its bid for £2.5m from the Heritage Lottery Fund was turned down, leading figures from the theatre world, including Judi Dench and Vanessa Redgrave, led a campaign to save the site. Eventually, the V&A, which owns the collection and housed it, undisplayed, before it was transferred to the new Theatre Museum in 1987, stepped in and found space to rehouse it in a fresh way back in South Kensington.

The 250 objects are devoted to theatre, and also include memorabilia from the worlds of ballet, rock and pop, opera and pantomime. The display is designed to take visitors on a journey through the creative process of performance, from the initial conception to opening night – rather than a chronological trip through the origins of theatre and its development. "Nobody knew what to expect, but the response from colleagues in the museum has been very positive," says head curator Dr Kate Dorney. "The last hugely successful display we did in here, which explored British theatre design, largely through set designs, saw 140,000 visitors in a year."

She has been working with a team of 11 curators for the past two years, sorting through all the objects in the V&A's Blythe House Archive to find new material. The aim has been to make "an easier story for the public to follow" than the previous display at Covent Garden, with more posters, set models, designs and costumes.

These include the painted tabard worn in 1951 by Richard Burton in Henry V at the RSC, created when there was a post-war shortage of fabric; an original 1956 poster for Look Back in Anger at the Royal Court; and a horse headdress, made from leather, silver foil and wire, worn during the first performance of Equus at the Old Vic in 1974.

Although the V&A acquired the original artwork of the Rolling Stones lips and tongue logo last year, with help from The Art Fund, rock and pop memorabilia is a little thin on the ground. There is, though, one of Pete Townsend's smashed electric guitars, and an old- fashioned "surround sound" system known as the Azimuth Coordinator, which was used by Pink Floyd in the 1970s. "We've been collecting since the 1970s, but gradually rock and pop items just became too expensive. We couldn't compete with private collectors. Now that people are aware that we collect them, hopefully they will approach us with items," says Dorney.

Other rare objects include a rotating hook used circa 1905 by the then-famous acrobat Pansy Chinery in her teeth-spinning act, in the days before Health and Safety. There's also a signed stage skull from Richard Eyre's 1980 production of Hamlet at the Royal Court, starring Jonathan Pryce, which was left anonymously on the Theatre Museum's doorstep.

Documents on show include the orchestral score for Jesus Christ Superstar, marked with alterations made during rehearsals in the 1970s, and the 1964 stage licence for Loot, detailing the changes the Lord Chamberlain's office demanded before the Joe Orton play could be considered fit for public consumption. The Spotlight casting directory of 1927 is left open at the page devoted to the stage star Evelyn Laye, whose career spanned 60 years.

There is also an Adam Ant make-up display from the early 1980s, alongside his Prince Charming outfit, a ukulele owned by – who else? – George Formby, and last and, only in dimension, least, Tom Thumb's miniature cotton-and-flannel waistcoat from around 1850, which is only a little higher than the label-holder itself.

The V&A's new Theatre and Performance Galleries open on 18 March (

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