(Per)forming the Victorians: Theatricality and The Leyshon Brothers Bonded Warehouse


Last Friday – After an epic game of Locate-Your-Friend in London Bridge Station (seriously, how many exits does that place HAVE?) – I tripped my way along the cold, wet, and dark streets of London Town to the secret entrance of The Leyshon Brothers Bonded Warehouse. Now before we go on, there’s something I should explain. I love London, and I love dressing up, so when I get the chance to combine those two things I am pretty much the happiest historian on the planet. London has so many amazing venues that try to recreate history as entertainment, and on any given night of the week you have the chance to be transported back to the 1940s, or the Moulin Rouge, or even the dark streets of Jack the Ripper’s Whitechapel. The creators of these nights are from a wide range of backgrounds, from clubs and theatre companies, to events specialists and pubs, each attempting to recreate something new out of the idea of something old for their audiences.

I’ve been luckily enough to go to a number of different themed nights, and am well aware that The B&H Group has pretty much cornered the market on what Londoners want from a historical recreation. Good décor, costume guidelines, and music that reminds you of the period, but isn’t so far moved that you feel alienated. There have been a couple of venues that have tried to ape B&H’s success with limited results, so I was more than a little apprehensive as I walked down Tooley Street, towards the large green doors of the Warehouse itself. However, after whispering my secret password to the bowler-hated doorman (received by email the night before, along with location) and stepped over the threshold, all my fears vanished in a breath.

The Leyshon Brother Bonded Warehouse is a marvel.

Set in caverns of brick lined arches, at one end there is a purpose built low-ceilinged pub, only reachable by an upward sloping cobbled passage. You can only get there after passing a selection of dimly lit carnival and Victorian fayre-styled stalls – I won at darts, and the level of pride I took from this show of sporting prowess still hasn’t died. Tiny dark tunnels lead off the main avenue to secret drinking holes and dens, all evoking the same spine-tingling excitement that this is place where villains lurk around every corner. At the opposite end, and through another short tunnel, is the music hall. Bedecked in faded red velvet and with a small low stage offsetting the bar, it ran three shows – the bits I saw were a fantastic mix of a strongman, a burlesque act, a comic singer and a chairman. All the main parts of Victorian music hall bill from the 1850-1900s. The performers were dressed in Victorian costumes, as were the patrons, and the entire atmosphere of the evening was one of highly raucous and enjoyable entertainment. It was, quite simply, one of the best night out I’ve ever had in London. As an adopted Londoner, and as a music hall historian, I couldn’t fault it. It was theatricality at it’s best.

And it got me thinking: why is it that we reach into the past for immersive theatrical experiences? What is it about the perceived historical memory of the Victorian period that modern day Londoners connect to? A ticketed specialist event guarantees that the large majority of the audience will all share a mutual love of the evening’s theme, that, to them, there is something about this period of history that they want to inhabit – even if it is only for one night. Creating a performance of the Victorians, in a city that is still so connected to that time by urban geography and social interplay, was never going to be difficult. The nineteenth century is still heavily present in our cultural memory and has been the subject of some fantastic recent reinterpretations, with the BBC’s Ripper Street being my current total and utter favourite. So it shouldn’t be surprising that a Victorian themed night would draw in crowds. But they only stay if that theme, or recreation, seems accurate to their perception of the past. That is what makes The Leyshon Brothers so successful; they have taken an empty disused space and turned it into a portal of historical play.

A wise man once told me of Peter Brook’s 1960s statement “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space, whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.” This idea of action and perception – that any action by one party, which is perceived by another, can be called theatre – removes the concept of barriers between performer and audience, and in the case of the Bonded Warehouse, between the audience and the past. Evenings like The Leyshon Brothers can be seen as a form of LARPing, making all of those inhibiting the chosen space both performer and audience, and vice versa. Although I’m not entirely sure the trendy hipster audience would want to admit any sociological link between these nights, historical reenactors, or even die hard cosplaydians. Brook’s theories on theatre and social interaction lead him to be viewed by many as the ‘father of fringe’, and I would argue that The Leyshon Brothers should also be seen as a form of fringe style theatre. They mix together amateur and professional performers in a whole immersive space, one where the fourth wall has ceased to exist. But most excitingly for me, they allow the history to come to life and to be experienced first hand. It was a brilliant night, and one that I would recommend to any lovers of the nineteenth century, London, and gin.

As a final NB for those interested, Peter Brook now runs his theatre company out of an old Parisian Music Hall. The theatricality of this period is a sirens call to everyone it seems.

*The Author is sad to report that The Leyshon Brother Bonded Warehouse is closing down, due to Authority poking it’s nose in where it has no business. But you can still join their mailing list and hope they find a new home very soon!