London is a city of culture, both high and low, but the hub of that culture is, of course, in the West End, an area drowned in theatres showing some of the finest performances of anywhere in the world. I love the theatre and visit as often as I can, and last week my nan and I were fortunate enough to attend The Play That Goes Wrong, which, I’m grateful to say, turned out to be one of the funniest shows we’ve ever seen.
Amateur theatre can be a mixed bag, that’s certainly true. Some are as highly polished as anything on the West End, and some really have an emphasis on the “amateur” portion of the concept. The Play That Goes Wrong is a completely professional performance that gently mocks what happens when a small play by inexperienced actors starts going awry. It’s actually a play within a play, as we’re watching the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society put on their play The Murder at Haversham Manor, the aforementioned play that goes wrong.
Haversham Manor is your typical murder mystery a la Agatha Christie and the greats. A man is found dead in a large house, there are only a few other people present, and one of them is the murderer. It might even be quite a good play if it had been given to a competent set of actors. As it stands, in this play, everything that can go wrong, does go wrong.
Before the show has even started, the backstage crew (actually just more actors) are sneaking across the stage, putting the final touches to the set, trying to locate the dog they need that’s gone missing, and generally preparing the actors for curtain up. It all goes downhill from there.
So begins two hours of missing props, fluffed lines, jammed doors, dodgy scenery, wrong cues, wardrobe malfunctions, overacting, injured actors and whiskey replaced with white spirit. The leading lady clearly thinks very highly of herself, the dead man is not terribly convincing, the lighting and sound guy is too busy wondering where his Duran Duran CD has gone, and the butler has had to write down difficult words on his hands, but is unable to pronounce them. The play is hysterically funny. The only other show I’ve seen that made me laugh this much was One Man, Two Guvnors.
Some of the things you completely expect to go wrong. After all, anything pinned to the wall is naturally going to fall off it, and the lift that gives access to the higher level of the stage is primed to fail, but among it there are a number of surprises, which I’ll try not to spoil now. Suffice to say, the whole thing is insane, becoming more and more deranged as the show goes on. Just when you think there’s nothing left that could possible befall the cast, something else does.
It even leaks off the stage, with an incident during the interval, and the director introducing both acts, starting the second with surprise that so many of the audience have stayed.
They always said with Les Dawson that he had to be a truly excellent pianist to be able to play so badly. Likewise Tommy Cooper was such a bad magician only because he was such a good magician. And the same is true here: these actors have to be phenomenally good to be this terrible. It’s a masterfully choreographed piece of work that requires expert timing and precision to pull off such hilarious actions.
I can do nothing but urge you to see this show. I get the feeling that, providing nothing goes wrong, it will retain its place in the West End for a very long time. Sharp, fast and wonderfully insane, it’s a brilliant concept pulled off with amazing aplomb.
The London Underground has existed in some form or another since 1863. London has since sprung up around it and the tracks of the world’s first underground railway have spread throughout the city from the centre, out to its edges. Because of its long-standing history and being present during several great upheavals in British history such as the Industrial Revolution and the Blitz, many people are convinced that parts of it are haunted.
They may be right.
We can’t say for sure that people are haunting the platforms, but what we do know is that there are certainly ghost stations. I don’t mean in the sense of a Twilight Zone station that only exists during a full moon (though I wouldn’t be totally surprised if London did have a few of them), but simply stations that used to adorn the network and that familiar map, but have since been closed, demolished, moved or simply cut off.
Some of these were closed due to a lack of use. Anyone who knows the edges of London well will know that the District Line stops at Ealing Broadway in the west and Upminster in the east. But between 1883 and 1885, the line went as far out west as Windsor. On the other side, the line carried on out until Shoeburyness, closing in 1939. There simply wasn’t the demand at the time and the lines have now been reused by the overground network, meaning that it’s unlikely the two extremities will ever be reconnected to the tube network.
The south of the network has remained largely unchanged and, actually, there are no ghost stations south of the Thames, but to the north it’s a different matter entirely. The Central line reached up to Ongar until 1994, and the Metropolitan line has had fourteen stations lopped off its western end. Where it now terminates at Amersham, it used to carry on though Stoke Mandeville and out as far as the village of Brill. The Brill station was opened in 1872 and the travelling time to get into the City of London was two hours, meaning that it was closed, and then demolished, in 1935. Amersham became the terminus in 1961 with the closure of Great Missenden, which is still in use by Chiltern Railways. Great Missenden is notable for being the stop usually used by Prime Ministers if travelling to Chequers by train.
While most of the ghost stations have since been commandeered by National Rail or demolished, leaving no trace of their former selves, a few have found themselves develop new purposes. York Road still sits empty on the Piccadilly line between King’s Cross and Caledonian Road, and while it saw little use during its lifetime and closed in 1932, it now serves as an emergency exit from the tunnels, with one passageway lit at all times, just in case. The Central line’s Blake Hall still exists but now as a private residence, and when the new Osterley station was built on the Piccadilly line, the old one became a retail unit.
The most notable of these closed stations though is Aldwych. Once a weird little offshoot of Holborn, it was opened in 1907 but by 1962 was only open during peak hours. In 1994 it closed altogether – the lifts needed replacing and it wasn’t worth it, given its lack of use – but no one was in a hurry to demolish it. In fact, while you might not know the name, you’ve almost certainly seen inside Aldwych station. It is the one that is most often used in television and films to substitute every other station. It has stood in as a backdrop for such films as V for Vendetta, Creep, Atonement, 28 Weeks Later, Battle of Britain, and last year turned up on an episode of Sherlock. It even appears in the game Tomb Raider III, and the video for The Prodigy’s “Firestarter” was filmed here. A train is kept on the track permanently for filming purposes.
Like several other stations, Aldwych is notable because during both world wars, disused parts of the station were used to store art from the city’s galleries. It’s well known, of course, that during the Blitz, scared Londoners would use the tunnels and tube network as ready-made bomb shelters, but it wasn’t just the everyday citizens. This brings us to Down Street, situated between Hyde Park Corner and Green Park. It was closed in 1932, and in 1939 the platform faces were bricked up and the place was divided into meeting rooms, offices and bedrooms. This became the bunker for Winston Churchill and his cabinet during the height of the Second World War. Safe below ground, he could control the war in absolute safety.
One final station that is no longer with us is one that I like simply because it’s named after one of the best buildings in London: British Museum. Originally on the Central line, and opened in 1900, it was threatened fairly quickly by the introduction of Holborn station, just one hundred yards away. At the time the two lines (Holborn was originally just on the Piccadilly line, but now also is connected to the Central line) were owned by different companies. A foot tunnel to connect the two was proposed originally, but in the end it was decided that Holborn was better located and so it was expanded and in 1933, British Museum closed. The surface building was demolished and, below ground, it’s only used for storage. Next time you’re passing between Tottenham Court Road and Chancery Lane, take a peek out the window and you might spot stacks of railway sleepers.
The ghost stations of London are a reminder that while the city is always growing and always improving, it isn’t afraid to make a few errors now and again. Sometimes the past has to be removed to make way for the future.