"On the stage of the Alhambra"
The American Circus at the Alhambra Palace (1858)
Public DomainThe American Circus at the Alhambra Palace (1858)

The Alhambra was a popular music hall which dominated London's Leicester Square.  It opened as 'The Royal Panopticon of Science and Arts' in 1954, and was renamed the Alhambra after a brief closure in 1856.  The name came from associations with the Moorish palace in Granada, Spain, and was adopted by several other theatres and cinemas in Britain.  In 1882, a fire in the dead of night completely devastated the original building.  The rebuilt theatre, which opened in 1884, adopted a simpler style and no longer reflected the grandeur of the original, Moorish Alhambra.  The theatre finally closed in 1936, and the Odeon Cinema now stands on its site.

The Alhambra was used for circus and dance, but most of all for music hall acts.  The music hall was one of the most popular entertainments of the Victorian era, with stars including Dan Leno, Fred Karno, Stan Laurel and Charlie Chaplin all taking their turn on the stage.  Combining song, comedy, magic, circus and vaudeville, the music hall had appeal for people of all ages and classes.  Born from the entertainment saloons popular in the 1830s, music hall in theatres began in earnest during the 1860s.  This form of entertainment remained immensely popular throughout World War I but declined during the interwar years; however, its legacy remains in seafront entertainments and variety shows which continue to tour regional theatres.  

The stalls audience at the music hall
Public DomainThe stalls audience at the music hall - Credit: Victorian London

At the turn of the century, music halls existed in both the rich and poor areas of London, although the quality of their acts and accommodation were of vastly different standards.  The Alhambra was one of the city's most glamourous venues, although it had its less respectable undercurrents; many men were said to have been drawn by the attractive corps de ballet, and its infamous promenade was rumoured to be the resort of courtesans.  

Audiences dressed in evening wear, with the wealthiest patrons taking seats in the stalls - originally set out like booths with tables for dining - and boxes.  Attention, particularly in the more tightly packed seats in the circle and gallery, wandered freely between the stage and the general conversation.  A large orchestra played live from the pit, whilst the mechanics of the stage were operated from spacious wings.  From a wooden fly floor above the stage, stagehands could raise and lower scenery, trapeze or cloths into position on bars hung from lengths of rope.  A second space beneath the stage allowed access via trapdoors in the floor of the performance area.  Sound effects were created with devices such as a thundersheet - essentially a large sheet of metal shaken to create a deep vibration.  

Although D'Oyley Carte's New Savoy Theatre opened in 1881 with electric lighting, and other major venues were quick to follow suit, replacing the traditional gas and lime lighting which had illuminated the stage.  Colour effects were achieved by shining lights through dyed silks; these were replaced by today's plasticised colour filters in the mid 20th century.  On page 16 Carter describes Fevvers as 'transfixed the while upon the arching white sword of the lime light'.  Quicklime, heated with an intense flame, was originally used in theatres to create a bright beam for spotlighting individual performers.  Although replaced by electric lighting in the late 19th century, star performers are often said to be 'in the limelight' and followspots are known as 'limes' within the theatrical lighting industry.  If Fevvers is indeed in the limelight, then the Alhambra is behind the times.  On a sidenote, a famous brand of followspot is the Super Trouper - inspiration for the Abba song of the same name, in which the lyrics run 'Super Trouper, lights are gonna blind me, shining like the sun'.