Hungarian dances breath passion and life into the old Shelley family theatre

The Shelley Theatre: the way it was during its years as part of a school
The Shelley Theatre: the way it was during its years as part of a school

What a treat it was last night to sit in Bournemouth’s hidden gem of a theatre at historic Shelley Manor and hear an evening of music and readings.This extraordinary performance space was originally built in the mid 19th century by Sir Percy Florence Shelley – son of the tragic romantic poet Sir Percy Bysshe Shelley.

The theatre is an addition to the country home by the sea that he had bought for his mother Mary – author of the classic gothic horror novel Frankenstein. Sadly Mary, who died in 1851, never lived to see the grand Boscombe Manor but Sir Percy, a keen thespian and playwright, took up residence with his wife Lady Jane and soon added the theatre  to the property.

Through the mid to late 19th century his many friends in the arts regularly performed there, including Robert Louis Stevenson who lived nearby and is reported to have written and directed a number of plays with Sir Percy. In its hey day it must have been marvellous but, as is so often the case, the passing of an era saw the theatre threatened with destruction. During the 20th century the old manor was used as everything from a wartime Home Guard headquarters to

Jack Maguire. Photographed by Hattie Miles in 2012

a school, art college and briefly a Shelley museum. Finally it fell into disrepair and neglect. That could so easily have been the end.

After several years of dereliction, the main house was recently renovated and acquired the name Shelley Manor in honour of its creators. Now a medical centre with an adjacent development of flats, it still has its theatre. It is gradually undergoing full renovation thanks to well-wishers and volunteers and is once more a thriving performance space. The walls are still stripped back to the original brick, the facilities basic, but it is now warm, comfortable and particularly good seating plus a fine low stage. It is getting there!

Last night’s performance had nothing to do with the Shelley family but was excellent nonetheless. It was staged as part of Bournemouth’s Arts by the Sea Festival.  An evening in which writer Jessica Duchen read for a concert adaptation to her novel ‘Hungarian Dances’. The story of a gypsy violinist set against the political and cultural upheaval of the 20th century, it was illustrated by music influenced by folk and gypsy traditions. It was performed with passion and gusto by former Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra co-leader violinist Jack Maguire and pianist Barbara Henvest, another veteran of the BSO. The programme included music by Bartok, Brahms, Kodaly, Hubay, Vittorio Monti and others. Special guest was former BSO principal cellist Joseph Coos who, interviewed on stage by Duchen, shared memories of his extraordinary escape from Hungary during the 1956 revolution.

The Shelley Theatre is a remarkable ongoing project and a tangible link to the historic manor’s past. I understand that the GP’s who work at the medical centre are delighted with the building’s history and particularly its connections with Mary Shelley whose most famous story was of course inspired by the attempts of late 18th century scientists to reanimate dead flesh.

For a time many Shelley artefacts were held at the manor including Sir Percy Bysshe Shelley’s journal and even his heart – plucked from the flames of  his funeral pyre by his friend the novelist and adventurer Edward Trelawny. Shelley was drowned in a sailing accident in Italy in 1822 when his son  Percy Florence (he was named after the city in which he was born) was only two-years-old. His death left Mary Shelley a widow at the age of just 24.

At Shelley Manor the younger Sir Percy determined to keep the memory of  both  his illustrious parents alive.  On Mary’s death a box-desk in her room was opened and found to contain the remains of Shelley’s heart. It was preserved at the manor for many years, held in a casket on a plinth beneath a perpetually burning candle. Eventually, after Sir Percy’s death, it was removed and buried in Mary’s grave at St Peter’s Church in central Bournemouth.

Author: Jeremy Miles

Writer, journalist, photographer, arts and theatre critic and occasional art historian.

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