If I had a New Year wish, it would be for the restoration of two theatres on the North Shore, for this is a section of the city that hardly needs to lose two lively and popular playhouses. I remember each of them with some nostalgia. In Miller Street, North Sydney, is what remains of The Independent Theatre, once an active venue, presenting seasons of plays by Eugene O’Neill, Beckett and Ionesco, and performances of Shakespeare by the John Alden Company. The theatre was run and ruled by the formidable Dame Doris Fitton from 1939, until her failing health brought its closure in 1977. It was restored and then reopened twenty years later, but without Fitton’s tenacity there was no driving force and very few productions. As a result it is now owned by Wenona Girls School.
My wife and I were at The Independent for the premier of Sumner Locke Elliott’s play “Rusty Bugles”, when uniformed police arrived to stand at the back of the stalls and take note of any swear words. Their appearance created a buzz, but the actors pressed on regardless, and since it was a comedy about disillusioned soldiers busily asserting their feelings regarding the army, the police notebooks were soon full. The following day The Herald announced the play was banned, but Dame Doris defied this and the show continued for the rest of the week, until a compromise and a modest rewrite saved her from being charged and imprisoned. However, its notoriety filled the theatre, and the play had an unprecedented long run.
From the nineteen forties, until the Independent closed thirty six years later, this North Sydney theatre competed strongly against The Theatre Royal and the few other live venues in the city. It is far too late for its survival, but ever since then it has been sorely missed.
The other closure I regret was the Marian Street Theatre, and here I admit a personal interest, for two of my stage plays were performed there. It was a modest but pleasant theatre in a bushland setting at the far end of Marian Street, Killara. A lot of experimental plays were performed there, and we became first night regulars, along with friends Googie Withers, John McCallum and Morris West and his wife Joy, in the years after we returned from London. It was there I saw what I regard as the best version of David Williamson’s “Travelling North”, starring Ron Haddrick and Joan Bruce, with a warmth all the other productions and the film never captured. It was just one of many other first rate plays. In a city too short of theatres, the loss was a great shame. I believe it was partly kept financial by the head of an insurance company, whose generosity ended up with him in court and then in clink, and while we were all stunned by the scandal that erupted, it was hoped the local council might help bridge the gap until a new sponsor could be found. Apparently, and sadly, this never happened, so what had been a cultural icon for theatre lovers in Northern Sydney was lost. At least it became a Young People’s theatre, offering training to students, but apparently in 2014 the building was closed for safety reasons.
Like The Independent, the Marian Street Theatre will be missed by those of us who enjoyed the plays that were so well staged there.