This exhibit tells the story of the changing fortunes of Britain's theatres over the last 100 years, and the role Theatres Trust has played in protecting theatres for everyone
Oxford Music Hall
Like many theatres of the nineteenth century, the Oxford was twice destroyed by fire, but was re-built on each occasion to a high standard; a third internal renovation was carried out in 1893 for conversion to a variety theatre.
By the 1920s, following a run of unsuccessful productions, it was forced to close. The building was demolished and replaced by a Lyons Corner House, which is currently occupied by a clothing store.
Grand Theatre, Plymouth
Plymouth Grand Theatre opened its doors on 26 December 1889 with a performance of Cinderella, or The Desperate Demon’s Direful Doings and Cupid’s Careful Cautious Cooings. This commenced with the line, ‘You little imps, what’s all this row and riot…? I’ll knock your heads off if you do not keep quiet’. The show proved so popular that demand outstripped supply and many hopeful spectators were turned away.
Although in its heyday the Grand attracted stars such as Henry Irving and Charlie Chaplin, it suffered from the competition of other theatres in the area, and was turned into a cinema shortly before the First World War. In 1941, bombing damage closed the theatre, and although plans were made to restore it to its former glory up until the 1950s, it was sold in 1963 and demolished to make room for a block of flats. Today, all that remains is the derelict adjacent public house that shared its name.
Theatre Royal, Leicester
In Leicester, the last two years of the 1950s saw two of its longstanding landmarks demolished. First to fall was the Grecian-inspired Theatre Royal, which opened in 1836 and maintained theatrical performances throughout its 120 year existence. The interiors featured gilt ornaments, festoons of flowers and exotic birds, and a grand brass chandelier. When closure was first threatened in 1956 an appeal was launched but to no avail: the last performance was staged on 1 June 1957, and the building was demolished the following January. A bank now stands where the theatre once was.
Two years later came the destruction of the Palace Theatre, which was designed by Frank Matcham, Britain’s most prolific theatre architect. Built in 1901, the Palace was the largest regional theatre at the time and could hold 3,500 spectators. For years it hosted both variety acts and films, but by the 1950s the repertoire had shifted to singers, comedians and, eventually, striptease. In February 1959 it was announced that the theatre was to close, and within weeks it had been sold and demolished.
Frank Matcham (1854-1920) was the architect of more than 80 theatres - and worked on many more - during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a period considered as the golden age of theatre building. He was responsible for many prominent theatres including the London Coliseum, London Hippodrome, Hackney Empire, Blackpool Grand, and the Grand Opera House in Belfast. Some of his theatres were demolished in the 1950s and 1960s, but around 50 that he designed or contributed to survive to this day, the majority now protected as listed buildings.
Designed by Frank Matcham in 1912 in the neo-classical style, the Chiswick Empire was an impressive building which sported a sliding roof that delighted audiences despite its tendency to rain dust upon spectators. Fire broke out within the first year of operation, but the building was quickly restored, and the Empire went on to survive two world wars.
In 1959 the council sold the Empire building to developers, who demolished it and within weeks had built an office block in its place. A local paper recorded that ‘the Chiswick Empire died with dignity’, noting that after the last performance the ‘darkened theatre was deserted, alone with its memories’. Although sentimental, these lines indicate the high regard paid to the Empire by the local community.
The Empire operated primarily as a variety venue, but in the 1950s new owners chose to replace the stalls seating with tables and chairs for a 'European-style' cabaret. This proved unpopular with locals, and in March 1960 the decision was made to close the theatre. The Empire’s end came sooner than expected when unpaid electricity bills saw the power cut off two days early, and the sold-out final shows were never performed. Two years later the building was sold to developers, and the demolished Empire was replaced by a government office.
St James's Theatre
When John Braham, a famed opera singer, first proposed the construction of a theatre on the site of an old hotel-turned-warehouse, he faced significant opposition from the owners of adjacent properties and competing West End theatres. Despite their petitions, the St James’s Theatre was built in just six weeks and opened in 1835 – although the exterior was not completed until the following summer. Various alterations to the building were made over the next 70 or so years. Initially slow to prosper, the theatre found success in the later nineteenth century and early 1900s, but was hit by considerable damage during the Second World War.
The decision in 1957 to demolish the St James's Theatre and develop the site was controversial from the start, but despite a national campaign led by Vivien Leigh that garnered support from the likes of Winston Churchill, the demolition went ahead, and the theatre was replaced with offices. It seemed that nothing could be done to save the theatre.
The following years saw the creation of a Council for Theatre Preservation in 1958 (under the patronage of the Society for Theatre Research), publications in 1959 by Richard Findlater and the Arts Council calling for better protection for theatre buildings, and in 1962 the formation of the Theatres Advisory Council, which monitored theatre buildings and did much to raise awareness of their plight. As the 1960s progressed, the country was beginning to realise that theatres required special protection.
Granville Theatre of Varieties
The destruction of the Granville proved a turning point in the fight to preserve the nation’s theatres. Designed by Frank Matcham, the theatre opened in 1898 and was located in a cramped space on Fulham Broadway. Following the decline in popularity of variety after the Second World War, the theatre was converted to a television studio and from 1955-68 adverts, dramas and gameshows were filmed there.
After standing empty for three years, the local council gave permission for the Granville to be demolished and replaced with a modern block. Protests from the Fulham History Society were ignored until the wrecking crew revealed the beautifully preserved blue and gold interiors to the world, prompting widespread disbelief that nothing could be done to halt what was now perceived as cultural vandalism. The Greater London Council immediately initiated a thorough examination of all surviving old theatres in London, and the Save London’s Theatres Campaign was launched.
Formation of Theatres Trust
In 1976, following the outcry over the Granville Theatre’s demolition, the Theatres Trust Act was passed into law.
1959 Richard Findlater calls for the creation of a National Theatre Trust in a paper for the Fabian Society
1962 Theatres Advisory Council established
1971 Loss of Granville Theatre of Varieties leads to the establishment of the Save London’s Theatres Campaign
1975 David Crouch, MP for Canterbury, agrees to present a Private Members Bill
1976 Bill is backed by all parties and receives Royal Assent on 22 July
1978 Act extended to Scotland in the Theatres Trust (Scotland) Act
An early success for Theatres Trust was London’s Fortune Theatre. This was the first completely new theatre built in the West End after the First World War. The work of Ernest Schaufelberg, it represented a radical departure from the Matcham school of design.
In 1982, plans were made to demolish the Fortune and replace it with office blocks and a smaller basement theatre, but local organisations joined forces with the Trust to oppose it and planning permission was refused. Susan Hill’s thriller The Woman in Black has played at the Fortune since 1989.
Today the Dominion Theatre is perhaps best known as the former home of Queen jukebox musical We Will Rock You. However, in 1989, there was a real risk that one of the country's largest theatres could be lost forever.
The owners sought to develop the site of the theatre into a high class tourist hotel and offices, but Theatres Trust canvassed professional organisations and rallied its supporters to object to the planning application. Planning permission was refused and the building is now protected under Grade II listing.
The King's Theatre, Southsea
The King’s Theatre was built in 1907, designed by Frank Matcham, and survived the heavy bombing of Portsmouth during the Second World War. But by the 1990s the theatre was in steady decline: as revenue and audience numbers fell, so too did the physical condition of the building. By 2000, with the end of the lease looming, many feared that the council would choose to demolish the theatre. Local supporters formed Action for Kings Theatre Restoration (AKTER) and, with the help of Theatres Trust, were successful in saving the theatre for the town. Since 2001 £2 million has been spent on restorations and the theatre is thriving once more.
Shanklin Theatre, Isle of Wight
Built in 1934, this theatre replaced an Institute for local residents which had previously sat on the site.
In 2010, with the support of Theatres Trust and English Heritage, the theatre was granted Grade II listed status. This provided protection from demolition and Theatres Trust supported the Friends of Shanklin Theatre to take the venue over from the local council which was considering alternative uses for the site.
Swindon Mechanics' Institute
One building that has been on the Trust’s Theatre Buildings at Risk register for a number of years is the Grade II* listed Mechanics’ Institute in Swindon. Today, groups may seek to reclaim at-risk public institutions by transforming them into community hubs, but the Swindon Mechanics’ Institute can boast that it has served the community since its construction in 1855.
Built in the Tudor Gothic style, the Institute was originally created for workers on the Great Western Railway and housed a theatre, market, library, and health clinic for the use of those who would otherwise have had little access to such services.
Today, the Mechanics' Institution Trust hopes to restore the building to include a theatre and cinema for the local community.
Can you help?
In 2016, there are 36 theatres throughout the UK on the Theatres Trust’s Theatre Buildings at Risk Register. Theatres Trust works with many community groups, theatre owners and local authorities to help secure a future for these buildings. Please join our campaign to save them.
This exhibit was created as part of Theatres Trust's Open up! Archive Project, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.