Lost Moseley: Break a Leg: Theatre in Moseley

Wednesday, 26th April 2017

Author: .

Cannon Hill Puppet Theatre’s John Blundall with his “Parker” puppet
Cannon Hill Puppet Theatre’s John Blundall with his “Parker” puppet

“Birmingham’s South West suburb of Moseley is the Midland’s equivalent of Hampstead in London. Within a quarter of a mile of each other reside four of our best known playwrights, and the area contains no less than five drama groups.” This was how The Moseley Paper, a competitor of this magazine during its early years, previewed the Birmingham Solo Theatre Season of March-April 1978.

Drawing “largely on the talent of Moseley”, the festival took place at the Fighting Cocks. Janice Connolly was a regular at the pub, playing in her bands The Surprises and The Evereadies, and performed solo theatre shows with ‘I Won, Didn’t I?’ and ‘You Might as Well Live’. Janice would go on to become a successful comedian and actress with her “Kings Heath housewife” character Barbara Nice, and appearances in Coronation Street and Peter Kay’s Phoenix Nights. Janice is the founder and artistic director of the Moseley-based Women and Theatre. The award-winning company began in 1983 and helped with the discovery of comedian Shazia Mirza.

The late Victoria Wood also performed in Moseley before finding fame. The greatly missed comedienne played at the Prince of Wales “upstairs on a woefully out-of-tune piano as part of the early Moseley Festival in the 70s”. Mike Leigh worked at the Midland Arts Centre in 1965 as an assistant director and experimented with acting improvisations to build story and characters. The evolution of this approach would lead to an illustrious career including Abigail’s Party (1977) and Mr Turner (2014).

The Pub Theatre Company staged regular productions at the Cocks (as well as other local pubs) from around 1973, beginning with the work of Ted Hughes and Samuel Beckett. Birmingham has little in the way of regular pub theatres at the present time, the notable exception being the Old Joint Stock on Temple Row West.

Local drama had taken to the stage much earlier with the creation of Moseley Theatre on Alcester Road, Balsall Heath in 1777. The building was made entirely of wood and burnt down the following year. The New Dramatic Company emerged from the Moseley Parish Youth Movement of the 1940s and became the first drama group to stage a production at the city’s Old Rep. By the 1980s the company had changed their name to The New Pilgrim Players and were also performing at Moseley and Balsall Heath Institute, having acquired the use of the venue’s cellar for rehearsals.

The MDCC Theatre Company – originally created as the Moseley District Council of Churches Drama Group – formed in 1961 and is still in existence today. Staging open-air productions in local churchyards and the garden of Moseley’s Toc H (Christian movement), the group developed a following in Pembroke during the 1970s, and also performed at Warwick Castle and in Frankfurt. They played closer to home in the MAC’s amphitheatre with Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’. MDCC also performed mummers’ (traditional English) plays in local pubs at Christmas time.

Mystery plays (Biblical stories) were held for the Moseley Festival, and ‘Cain and Abel’ and ‘The Flood’ were staged in St Mary’s Churchyard during the summer of 1980. Stan’s Cafe performed at Moseley Road Baths in 1993 and used the space around and in the pool.

Slightly wooden performers could be found at the Cannon Hill Puppet Theatre, based at the Midland Arts Centre from the 1960s and created by the late Birmingham-born John Blundall. Working on early Gerry Anderson productions, Blundall carved various puppets for television including Parker from Thunderbirds.

Blundall had always intended to leave his collection to his home town and, after his Cannon Hill venture closed in 1992, he attempted to create a further theatre and museum in Birmingham. His efforts were in vain and the collection was welcomed in Glasgow with the opening of the World Through Wooden Eyes museum. The Cannon Hill Puppet Theatre was described as “one of the major puppet theatres in the world” and is a significant artistic loss for our city.

With thanks to the Moseley Paper, Birmingham Post, Prince of Wales pub & Norman Hewston’s A History of Moseley Village.

“Moseley Mysteries” listing from 1980“Pub Theatre” listing from the 1970s