In 1922 the Liverpool Playhouse and its repertory company faced difficult times. For a while there had been optimism when a rising star of the theatre world, Nigel Playfair, took the reins from 1921-22 but it was short-lived as his London commitments took precedence and by the time he departed the theatre had a £4000 deficit (about £250,00 in 2022). There was a real possibility that after eleven years the repertory theatre would have to close, but the agreement of a small group of supporters to guarantee funds enabled it to risk one more season. The board of directors felt that for this to be a success they needed a young, enterprising producer who could devote all his time an energy to the theatre. The name of William Armstrong was suggested, as he had impressed many people when he acted with the company in the 1915-16 season.
Armstrong, though flattered by the offer, had misgivings. He had left a career in music to act and had never had responsibility of producing and doubted his capacity to succeed in the role. He accordingly declined the offer, but his suitors pressed their case and eventually he agreed to come to Liverpool. At the time he was touring with the renowned actress Mrs Patrick Campbell, playing alongside her in Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. She was astounded that he could possibly want to leave her to be a producer. “I could have made a great actor of you” she admonished, “and now you’re throwing away your chance, and you’re going to be a little man who sits in an office and makes lists.” He arrived with the company for the 1922-23 season and would stay with them until 1944.
William Armstrong’s lengthy stewardship of the Liverpool Repertory Company, saw them established as one of the most successful and admired in the country. He knew that financial security could only be achieved via the box office and this may have meant that his choice of plays was less radical than some companies. However, he sought to balance artistic and commercial objectives and, in his own words “tried to give Liverpool plays which it would not have seen except for our existence. We tried to break away from the plays done by the ordinary touring companies”.
If the company’s reputation for developing new playwrights was in question, Armstrong’s role in developing some of the country’s finest actors was not. A look through the players during his time reveals future giants of stage and screen such as Robert Donat, Rex Harrison and Michael Redgrave. (and others such as Liverpudlian Brian Oulton who would become familiar faces on screen).
Poor health led to his stepping down in 1944. He continued to produce plays in London for some years and then became director of the Birmingham repertory company. He died at his Birmingham home on 5th October 1952 aged 69.
Armstrong was born on 30th November 1882 in Edinburgh. He studied music at Edinburgh University and taught for some years before taking up acting. He made his professional debut at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1908. During his time in Liverpool he lived not far from the theatre at 18 Huskisson Street L8.
William Armstrong [left] pictured with actor Wyndham Goldie
Armstrong's home while with the Playhouse.
There is an excellent and thorough entry for Armstrong in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. My two best sources are Grace Wyndham Goldie's history of the Liverpool company, The Liverpool Theatre Company 1911-1934 [Liverpool University Press 1935] and the more recent work Liverpool Playhouse: A Theatre And Its City compiled and edited by Ros Merkin [Liverpool University Press 2011]. Armstrong is mentioned in both Rex Harrison and Michael Redgrave's autobiographies. [Redgrave is much more appreciative than Harrison - the latter saying he learned little about acting from his time under Armstrong - perhaps he should have paid more attention ?]
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