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All the world’s a stage

Acting is merely the art of keeping a large number of people from coughing.{d}

Currently St Helena doesn’t have a working theatre; but we formerly had several…


We have put on this page as much information as we can find, which in some cases is not much. We would be delighted to know more - if you can help please contact us.

The ‍Jamestown Upper Theatre‍

We know there was a dedicated theatre in mid-Jamestown from November 1816 (the first poster (below) is for the opening of the ‘New Theatre’ on 21st November 1816). We know little about it, other than it having put on amateur productions and that it was destroyed by fire on 15th July 1831{1}.

Assumed location
Assumed location

We have a few images (below) and from these we deduce that the theatre must have stood somewhere near where the Jamestown Baptist Church now stands (but on the other side of the road - now occupied by houses).

Denzil Ibbetson was a talented artist, famous for his drawings of Napoleon, and was also the chief commissary officer on St Helena. When Ibbetson was not feeding the army or making drawings of Napoleon he was often to be found performing on the stage of the St Helena Amateur Theatre. As well as acting in 43 plays between 1816 and 1823, he was also theatre manager and the accountant. He is mentioned by Dr. Walter Henry in his 1843 book ‘Events of a military life’:

There was a neat little theatre in James’ Town, and the garrison and navy furnished a respectable corps of amateurs. The manager, principal performer, scene-painter, and factotum, was a worthy officer of the Commissariat named Ibbetson. He is now stationed at Gibraltar, and if he should, par hazard, ever see these pages, I beg leave to offer him my kind remembrance and thanks for the benefit of many a laugh in the James’ Town theatre. In the beginning of November this year, Henry the Fourth was got up, chiefly to show off my old patient. Colonel Dodgin, as Falstaff - and an admirable Falstaff he made, with little stuffing. He played the jolly old Knight so well, and looked the very Falstaff of Shakespeare so perfectly, that the play was encored three times in one week to a bumper house.

The ‍Barracks Theatre‍

In 1845 the island’s Baptists opened a Mission House in Jamestown, apparently to combat the widespread drunkenness and lecherous behaviour that was rife in the island’s garrison at the time. We think this Mission House was where the Baptist Church currently stands. Unimpressed by this, the garrison responded by opening a ‘theatre’ in the Barracks across the road (in what is now Pilling Primary School) - but not one that put on intellectual plays or other drama. It was more of a cross between a music hall and a tavern. The Baptists were, unsurprisingly, furious, and petitioned the military commanders to have the ‘theatre’ closed down, arguing that it was a species of amusement which has ever proved a fruitful means or occasion of dissipation and uncleanness, as well as an effectual source of hardness of heart, and blindness of mind, is a great grief to the little band of our brethren, who are labouring for the salvation of the souls of their fellow-sinners. It seems the Baptists won - the operations of the theatre were apparently suspended.

Other Theatres

St. James Bijou Theatre?
St. James Bijou Theatre?{f}

We know that one of the buildings on Grand Parade was a theatre in the 1800s. We are not entirely sure which building and when it operated, but we understand that the ‘theatre on Castle Square’ burned down in the 1860s or 1870s{2}.

We also know that the Boer PoWs operated an informal theatre in the Deadwood Camp.

Both the Paramount Theatre and Queen Mary Theatre used to exist, each seating 500 people, but both were primarily cinemas not true theatres, though both were also used for Pantomime performances. The Paramount Theatre is now a warehouse and the Queen Mary Theatre (in Napoleon Street) has since 1986 been the Queen Mary Store.

From the Records:

Whether this was a ‘proper’ theatre, or a resurgence of the garrison’s music hall/tavern closed down in the 1840s under protest from the Baptists, we do not know.

Where the ‘St. James Bijou Theatre’ (poster, right) was we have no idea. The poster is dated 7th May 1881 so the obvious answer - the unknown building on Grand Parade - cannot be the correct solution because that had burned down in the 1860s or 1870s. It also obviously wasn’t the Jamestown Barracks Theatre, again because of dates. If you know please contact us.

The Boer PoWs also set up an entertainment venue which it’s understood included theatre, though this painting by Erich Mayer actually shows a musical performance. The venue appears to be one of the huts{3}:

Modern Theatre

Often the ‘Ivylets’ treat us to a Pantomime… As there is no dedicated theatre building, performances take place at Prince Andrew School. It remains a longer-term objective of the ‘Ivylets’ to purchase and fit-out a dedicated theatre building, somewhere on St Helena{4}.

It has been proposed that High Knoll Fortmight be used for concerts or open-air theatre productions.

There are also occasional ad-hoc performances, like ‘The Wizard of OZ’, performed by Creative Saint Helena on 9/10th March 2018, also at Prince Andrew School - see photos below{g}:

World Theatre Day

World Theatre Day, on 27th March, is not celebrated on St Helena, possibly because we no longer have a permanent theatre.

For more annual events see our page This Year.

Read More

Article: St Helena Theatrical Review

Published in the St Helena Herald 21st December 2007{5}

When you are travelling in traffic on the country roads of St Helena you know you are onto something good. Passing through St Pauls we were the third of three cars and by the time we entered through the gates at Longwood we were a convoy of seven. It was clear that this was no constituency meeting.

Aladdin of the Blue Lamp, 2007

Indeed it was the much anticipated, much awaited production of Aladdin of the Blue Lamp, showing for one night only! A long time in the waiting this was the first production by the Parish of St. Matthew’s Pantomime Troupe since the fall of the curtain on Snow White back in 2006. This had been the biggest gig on the St Helena Theatrical calendar for some time. Tickets were hard to come by and there were reports of thousand-fold inflation in desperate last minute eBay bidding.

They came from far and wide and queued in the cold Longwood night for a seat in the St. Mark’s Church Theatre. If they didn’t roll in the aisles with laughter it was only because they were packed too tightly on the wooden benches. So tightly were they seated that there was no legroom for those over 5ft 5in. It has been rumoured that the seating arrangements were being trialled for configuration into the Standard Class of St Helena Airways. Those who were forewarned came forearmed; a small cushion had the immediate effect of an upgrade to Plantation Class.

Bishop John warmed the crowd with a series of carols, which became increasingly interactive. It had been leaked to the Theatrical Press that this was in fact a ‘taster’ of a soon to be launched fitness DVD. Fitness by Candlelight: A fitness and toning regime for men women and children, lead by Bishop John (Pre-order www.amazon.sh). As the leg muscles of the theatre goers began to ache the cast had a last read of the script, although some malicious accounts report that they were actually writing the final act. Then, as Governor Gurr and Bishop John rounded off with a carolling duet the stage was set, the light switched off (dimmed) and the production began.

There were those in the audience who came believing that they were too sensible to laugh at a man in drag, or primary school underwear jokes. Maybe they didn’t all laugh, but they defiantly roared their delight. From start to finish the production was an absolute scream. Fr. Chris played a flamboyant Widow Twanky with ballooning breasts and plenty of advice for the women. Assisted in her laundrette by the twins, Ping and Pong (the less said about their father the better) it was her son Aladdin played by Samantha Ellick who fell in and out of luck with evil uncles and genies with baggy trousers full of eastern promise. Falling in luck lead to falling in love, with the luscious Princess Hotlips, whose chest size was rivalled only by Widow Twanky herself. An apparent unscheduled intermission was hosted to great effect by standup comedian and cast member Bill Drabble, each joke winding its way to violent applause and raucous laughter. As the production continued fears that it may have peaked too early were laid to rest. The cherry of the theatrical script was the skilful and hilarious intermingling of St Helenian character, and characters, into the comedy and into the plot. Genies could design, build and operate the most improbable palaces overnight, but quaked at the mention of an airport. For a short while a Nigel Kirby character made an appearance ‘in a blinding flash of light’ alas, no guitar.

There have always been those who said that Fr. Chris was raised by a pantomime troupe before joining the priesthood, and the intermission people were starting to believe it!

Governor Gurr and Bishop John may have thought they had seen the last of the stage when they duet-ed Good King Wenceslas. However, at the insistence of the cast they competed with the children volunteers in a song-and-mime gag. Spirited performances were given by both of them. A Mars bar well earned! In the back stage press debrief Governor Gurr (née Candidate Gurr) revealed that he now understood why the FCO Interview Panel had dedicated a quarter of their interview time to ascertaining his theatrical ability.

Memorable though it was, the script was further enhanced by the often time shrieking aloud of the stage directions as the performance was shepherded by its dedicated cast from comedy start to comedy finish. After the performance, Christmas cheer and Christian goodwill spread around the stalls just as fast as the tea, savoury bites, baked cakes and mince pies. Three cheers to the cast, stage hands and caterers of Aladdin of the Blue Lamp, and a Merry Christmas to them!

Sadly, my Diocesan Almanac does not confirm another performance of the St. Matthew’s Troupe in 2008. However, my tout has been promised a good commission and has his ear to the ground. In short this was a first class, second-rate piece of theatre and everything a Christmas Pantomime should be. Industry rumour that the production has been nominated for a Lawrence Olivier Award for Best Parish Pantomime has not yet been confirmed. One thing is certain, this was not the dark underbelly or grim average of local theatre, this was The Brightside.

Contributed Anonymously
Reprinted by kind permission of The Stage


{a} This image is usually attributed to Denzil Ibbetson, however according to our researches the theatre wasn’t burned down until 1831 but Denzil Ibbetson left St Helena in 1823{b} William John Burchell{c} Robin Woodruff{d} Sir Ralph Richardson{e} This image is probably Copyright to some TV production company or other, but as it is one of the most widely shared images on the Internet we assume it’s OK to use it. If you represent the TV company and want royalties for your image to add to the $billions you have earned from the show, please contact us…and we’ll find another image.{f} Dr. Richard Cresswell; for a time a doctor in Jamestown, 1881{g} Creative Saint Helena


{1} Due, in part, to there being too little water available in The Run, as a result of which, Governor Dallas had ‘fire plugs’ installed throughout the town.{2} Both main theatres burning down may seem suspicious, but actually before the arrival of electric lighting, theatre fires were sadly all too common.{3} The sign reads Tot Nut en Vermaak, which translates as For Work & Entertainment.{4} It has been suggested that this might be combined with converting the old Paramount Cinema building into an Arts Centre.{5} @@RepDis@@