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Saturday 8 November, 2008 - SPRI Lecture Theatre
(Doors open 7:00pm; Ross voyage sets sail 7:30pm)

An Epic-Heroic-Magnetic-Melo-Drame!

Produced under the direction of Horatio Blood and Dr Huw Lewis-Jones

On Saturday 8 November the lecture theatre at SPRI hosted a special gala performance of the play 'Captain Ross', a favourite of the London theatres in the 1830s. Based upon a recently discovered original script and combined with popular songs of the period, the play was recreated in miniature upon a toy theatre, with a number of actors providing the colourful characters with their voices.

The play is a celebration and fictitious reworking of Captain John Ross's second voyage in search of a Captain Rossnorthwest passage, which left London in the summer of 1829. By 1833, it was assumed that Ross and his entire party had perished amongst the ice, but perfectly on cue the explorer was saved. He returned to England to be met with a rapturous reception.

Within a few weeks of his heroic return a number of London theatres were arranging fashionable theatricals in his honour. 'Captain Ross' opened at the Pavilion Theatre on the busy Whitechapel road late in 1833, and soon it was playing in theatres across the country. Other spectacles and gala performances were also mounted and Ross became the 'Lion of the Season'.

All tickets for the performance, priced at 10 Guineas (£10.50), and limited to 80 persons, were sold out.

For more details about 'Captain Ross' please contact Dr Huw Lewis-Jones,

This premiere performance was harmoniously supported by Cambridge Reed Organs, with cast and crew victualled in Ices by Caprilatte.

English Toy Theatre

'Captain Ross' was performed on the Neptune Theatre, an authentic miniature stage, by the doyen of the Deptford dockside, drainpipe poet and gallery gadabout, the impresario Horatio Blood, the juvenile delinquent of the juvenile drama.

The English Toy Theatre – or Juvenile Drama – dates back to 1811 when a London stationer named William West published the first cheap theatrical prints as souvenirs of the spectacular melodramas and pantomimes being performed on the real London stage at the period. The idea quickly spread like wildfire among the boys (and toy theatres were essentially toys for boys) who clamoured for these cheap prints of characters and scenes – costing 'a penny plain and twopence coloured' – designed and destined to be cut-up and performed in miniature wooden theatres enabling innumerable domestic performances of the latest plays to be re-enacted in the drawing room before a sympathetic audience of family and friends.

The mania lasted for half a century. After the 1860s no new plays were published but much of the old repertoire was kept in print by a dwindling number of theatrical print publishers and the tradition continued unbroken until 1944 when Miss Louisa Pollock, the very last in the line, shut up her father's famous shop in Hoxton for ever.

Through the brilliantly coloured proscenium arch is a kingdom of dark forests, rocky shores, rugged caverns, prismatic grottoes, oriental palaces and exploding windmills; populated by sailors, soldiers and other impoverished heroes endlessly engaged in desperate combats in order to confound the knavish trickery of smugglers, pirates, highwaymen and brigands with roving eyes, wandering hands and dastardly designs on unsuspecting village maidens.

Its sentiment is unsophisticated, its art enchanting, its vision romantic and its effect magical. For almost two centuries this English popular art has exerted its hold upon the romantic imagination. And none fell under its spell more than Robert Louis Stevenson, whose buried boyhood memories of these paper dramas, with their remote inns, storm-tossed ships, carousing pirates, lush tropical vegetation and eccentric hermits, were unforgettably excavated years later for Treasure Island.

Characters from Captain Ross