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Life on the London Stage is a new exhibition at London Metropolitan Archives which uncovers the lives of some of the actors and actresses recorded in our archives, capturing both professional and personal details that provide a glimpse of the challenges and joys of theatrical life since the days of Elizabeth I.

Drawing on a wide variety of photographs, prints and documents, we have brought together a collection of stories which illustrate different aspects of the lives of London’s performers, from those who achieved great success to those who endured poverty and hardship.

Documents recording the life of Edmund Shakespeare, William’s forgotten brother, appear together for the first time presenting the seemingly tragic story of the young actor who followed his older brother to London.

Ledgers and letters document the lives of some of London’s most celebrated stars, including Kenneth Williams, Dame Ellen Terry and Eliza (Madam) Vestris. The houses associated with Nell Gwyn, surely one of London’s greatest rags to riches stories, are presented alongside Sir Laurence Olivier’s bespoke orders from one of the capital’s most prestigious boot makers.

There are also those who were recorded by London’s authorities for less salubrious reasons, notably the actor Gabriel Spencer who fought a series of bloody duels in 1590s Shoreditch and Marie Lloyd, who alarmed the Victorian authorities with her music hall routines.

Of course, alongside the famous names that live on through generations are huge numbers of working performers who have graced the London stage since the first theatre was built in London in 1576 but are largely forgotten today. They are remembered here in our displays of programmes and playbills.

The Life on the London Stage exhibition runs until 6 December 2017.

Discover more

You can find out more about historic sources for Music Hall and Theatre held at LMA in our information leaflet Sources for the history of London Theatres and Music Halls at LMA (220KB)

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