The New Albion theater is, to put it kindly, one of London’s lesser theaters in one of London’s seedier neighborhoods, attracting audiences more likely to throw rotten produce than to applaud and call “Bravo!” at the end of a performance. Widower and father Emlyn Swithen Phillips is the stage manager of the New Albion, having left his family’s furniture-making factory for more creative endeavors, and this delightful read is his diary of the life, and lives, of the New Albion during the fall and early winter of 1850-1851.
The theater is home to a Dickensian cast of characters (and, for one performance, Dickens himself), with varied levels of acting talent, as well as resident playwright Ned Farquar Pratt, an often-drunk and unstable spirit tasked with providing the cast with new material to perform. The Christmas pantomime, or panto, is Pratt’s current project, and when it becomes clear he can’t deliver, theater owner Thomas Wilton brings in Colin Tyrone as an apprentice playwright. Phillips chronicles the shenanigans—some funny, some tragic—that ensue over the next few months which both pull the cast members apart and bring them closer together.
The situations are classic Victorian: the precarious lives and squalid living conditions of the underclass, be they playwrights or street thugs; the threat of censorship from the Lord Chamberlain’s office; and the clash of entertainment vs society’s supposed high moral standards. Characters are colorful and true to the time, and readers are afforded a glimpse into the backstage lives of performers and theater staff that show the resilience, and the weaknesses, of human nature. Brenna’s writing is engaging, and his tale brief enough to hold the attention of today’s readers with shorter attention spans. New Albion could be the gateway story for a new generation to discover the longer Victorian classics.