By Jeremy Miles
More than a century after it was last used as a place of public entertainment, a private Dorset theatre built by the son of tragic romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife Mary, author of Frankenstein, is to stage a new play.
And it could not be more appropriate. The pre-Halloween production, which will run from Wednesday October 27 to Saturday October 30, is Frankenstein: The Year Without A Summer - a new take on Mary’s classic gothic horror story.The play, which is being toured by the Dorset Corset Theatre Company, will be staged by candlelight and marks the first moves to reinstate a working theatre at Shelley Manor which until recently had fallen into a state of terrible neglect.
The old estate in the Bournemouth suburb of Boscombe was once the grand 19th century home of Sir Percy Florence Shelley and his wife Lady Jane. They moved there in 1851 intending to provide a home by the sea for Sir Percy’s ailing mother. Widowed at the age of 24 when her husband drowned off the Tuscany coast, Mary Shelley suffered delicate health. She died at the age of 53 just weeks before she would have taken up residence at the manor.
Percy Florence (he was named after the city in which he was born) had been only two-years-old when his father died. At Shelley Manor he kept the memory of both his illustrious parents alive. On Mary’s death a box-desk in her room was opened and found to contain the remains of Shelley’s heart which had been famously snatched from the flames of his funeral pyre by his friend the novelist and adventurer Edward Trelawny. It was placed in a casket and brought to Boscombe where for decades it sat on a plinth under a perpetually burning candle. Eventually, after Sir Percy’s death, it was removed and buried in Mary’s grave at St Peter’s Church in Bournemouth.
During the 20th century the old manor was used as everything from a wartime Home Guard headquarters to a school, art college and briefly a Shelley museum. It gradually fell into ruin. Moves were made to redevelop the site. Only tireless campaigning from conservationists desperate to preserve what they saw as a vital part of Bournemouth’s heritage saved it from the wrecking ball. Thanks to the Friends of Shelley Manor, the old house is now home to a thriving medical centre and pharmacy. The GP’s who work there are delighted with the history and its connections with Mary Shelley whose most famous story was inspired by the attempts of 18th century scientists to reanimate dead flesh. “I think we’re all excited by it,” said practice manager Gerry Rysiok.
Now attention is being turned to the theatre. Once scene of stylish soirees and genteel entertainments, it is still in the process of being clawed back from the brink of dereliction. Philip Proctor the architect in charge of the redevelopment project says he hopes the Shelley Theatre will be fully operational by next year and staging regular productions by touring companies. In the meantime he feels that Frankenstein: The Year Without A Summer will prove ideal for the half-refurbished space. “It will be staged by candlelight because the permanent electrical system has yet to been installed. With the peeling plaster and paint, it’s going to create a great atmosphere,” he told me.
Longtime campaigner for the Friends of Shelley Manor, local councillor Chris Wakefield agrees: “It’s absolutely perfect,” he told me. “The tickets are selling like hot-cakes. This really shows what the passion, commitment and hard work of the Friends has achieved. This theatre will be the jewel in Bournemouth’s crown once the renovations are complete.”
I pointed out that there’s still work to be done before a paying audience can be allowed through the doors. When I visited the theatre myself to take photographs in early September I had to a borrow a hard-hat and high-visibility jacket before being allowed in.
But Cllr Wakefield is insistent that everything will be all right on the night. “There’s still a bit of work to do and We’ve got some cleaning to contend with but the building will be completely safe. The only issue as far as I can see is that it may be a bit cold. There’s no heating. Though with 150 people in there it’ll probably get quite warm. It’s not a huge space and originally the Shelley’s heated it with just two open fires. Whatever happens I can assure you they won’t be doing Frankenstein in hard-hats.”
*Frankenstein:The Year Without A Summer will run at the Shelley Theatre in Beechwood Avenue, Boscombe, from Wednesday 27th to Saturday 30th October at 7.30pm each night. Tickets are available from the box office at the Regent Centre in Christchurch. 01202 499199 or online at www.regentcentre.co.uk
Inspired by experiments to restore life to the dead
Dorset Corset is a professional theatre company based in Shaftesbury . It specialises in productions based on classic literature and containing a fusion of physical theatre and live music.
With backing from Arts Council South West, Frankenstein: The Year Without A Summer was written by Helen Davis and directed by Helen Watts. It features three actors - William Kenning, Gary Trainor and Natalie Farmer - and is set in May 1816 when Mary and Percy Shelley travelled to Lake Geneva to stay with their friend, the infamous Lord Byron.
It was there, late at night by candlelight, that Mary talked with gruesome fascination about the medical experiments of the 18th century and the horrors of restoring a corpse to life. Byron threw down a challenge to Mary to create her very own supernatural story.
Inspired by reality and driven by fiction, Frankenstein: The Year Without A Summer tells the story of Mary’s strange but compelling tale. This play finds the company working with Arts University College Bournemouth and graduates from their Costume with Performance Design course.
During an extensive Autumn tour, in addition to their four night run at Shelley Theatre, Dorset Corset will also be presenting their new play at a number of other Dorset theatres. These include Bridport Arts Centre on October 6, The Royal Manor Theatre, Portland, on October 7; Broadmayne Village Hall on October 23; The Digby Hall, Sherborne on October 31; The Regent Centre, Christchurch on November 2; Dorchester Corn Exchange on Nov 7 and Shaftesbury Arts Centre on November 13.