Frank Matcham – the greatest theatre architect

London Coliseum
Frank Matcham c.1900
Buxton Opera House

Frank Matcham, the greatest British theatre architect, died 100 years ago on Sunday, 17th May.

If you’re not familiar with his name, you will probably be familiar with his work – if I mention the London Palladium, The London Coliseum, The Victoria Palace, as well as many theatres up and down the country (including Buxton Opera House and Richmond Theatre) and most notably a string of Empire variety theatres for the Moss circuit. Frank Matcham was the doyen of theatre architects of his time, creating theatres across the land, during the golden age of theatre construction from 1890 to around 1912.

London Palladium
London Palladium

Astonishingly, at the time his work was rather looked down upon, with theatre and music hall being “mere” entertainment, but thankfully the passage of time has fully underlined his pre-eminence as one of the greatest architects of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods.

Of the approximately 120 buildings that he either designed or remodelled, tragically only 26 remain today. Many were destroyed by wartime bombing, but even more (such as the Metropolitan Edgware Road) were wilfully bulldozed during the changing entertainment scene of the 1950s and 60s when theatregoing traditions faded away. Variety died, and TV was the box they buried it in.

Matcham was renowned for his professional punctuality, bringing jobs in on time and to schedule. His richly-detailed designs were opulent, with a grandeur and elegance, fully-flourished and embellished with all manner of decorative plasterwork that made his theatres a feast for the eyes before the curtain had even gone up. He was also a pioneer in the use of steel frameworks for his theatres, which gave his auditoria the strength to eliminate the need for pillars, allowing unobstructed views from every seat in the house and excellent sightlines, another Matcham trademark. Often larger-scale designs, often seating over 2,000, his auditoria were also known for their remarkable feeling of intimacy which was vital for variety shows – the medium for which he built so many of his theatres – and one of the many reasons they are still so rewarding to visit today.

Better informed and more scholarly writers than me have written many biographies of Matcham, so I shan’t add to the already sizeable pile*. Much has been written about the man and his designs too, but I would like to take a rather different tack.

As someone who has been privileged to manage a Matcham Theatre, I would like to discuss his skill as an engineer of flow in the spaces he created.

Victoria Palace

I was fortunate enough to spend some years managing the Victoria Palace, built by Matcham in 1911 on the site of the old Royal Standard Music Hall. This was built was a variety house, for twice nightly variety (three shows Wednesday and Saturday – in total, sixteen a shows a week!), and the front of house areas were opulent and gilded as any other Matcham beauty. After just a few days there, what impressed me so much was how the theatre actually worked. Regular readers may recall that I have already written about there being a dome in the ceiling of the auditorium which was on runners and effectively “rolled off” to allow the hot air to escape after each matinee or first house. Remember, this was before any type of air-conditioning had been imagined, and with twice nightly variety, the ingenious Matcham gave us a way to regulate the auditorium temperature – vital in those long hot summers that we occasionally got! (and believe me, the Upper Circle in summer could feel like sitting in a microwave!). You can find my earlier article here.

Victoria Palace

Matcham’s skill as an engineer was undoubted; what dawned on me quickly was how smart he was as an engineer of flow. Getting 1500 people in and out of a theatre is not a quick and easy job, and the Victoria Palace’s creative design was a gift to those times when a swift turnaround was needed.

Here’s an example – I was managing the show BUDDY, which had back to back shows on Friday at 5.30 and 8.30, As the show ran 2 hours 45 (give or take a few minutes) I was intrigued to see how fast we would manage taking 1500 people out of the theatre and immediately bringing in another house of 1500 at top speed. Thankfully Matcham had already provided for this in his design, and of course this is what the V-P was built for, twice nightly with a 20-minute turnaround, and it’s certainly where it came into its own!

Here’s how it worked – with a full house of 1500 in watching the first performance, patrons would start arriving for the second house while the first one was still running. Thanks to the way the theatre was designed, we could open the main stalls bar directly from the street to take a few hundred stalls patrons, check their tickets and get them buying drinks (and using the bar toilets as needed). We could do the same for the Dress Circle patrons, checking tickets and getting them into the Dress Circle bar. We could then fill the foyer areas, and in this way we could probably accommodate about half of our full house capacity within the theatre, with the remainder thronging on the street outside.

At 8.20 the first house would come down and that audience (from all levels) would then be channelled out of the left hand side of the building through a large bank of exit doors just off the auditorium which took the crowds onto a side street. Staircases brought the upper levels down to their own exits on the same side. By keeping certain doors closed we could regulate the flow of patrons like a heart valve pumps blood – in one way, out the other. So with the first house exited left, we could then check, clear, reset and reopen the house within minutes.  It was one of those all-hands-on-deck moments that are so exhilarating in theatre – 1500 gone, 1500 waiting, and the clock ticking. Thankfully, audiences were usually keen to be seated which meant that an 8.35 start was often achieved, at the latest 8.40.

Its only when you see the clarity of design thinking in action with a full house that you really appreciate the brilliance of an architect like Matcham. I know that so many theatres are not half as well thought-through, which can occasionally make them a nightmare to manage.

As someone who has had the privilege to manage a Matcham, I can safely say it was like driving a Rolls Royce.

It is at this point that I must “come out” to you all. I am a member of the Frank Matcham Society, a large group of admirers of the man’s work, who regularly visit, enjoy and write about the craft, skill and panache of this master architect.

Richmond Theatre “To Wake The Soul By Tender Strokes of Art”

In recognition of the Centenary anniversary, The Matcham Society have produced an excellent, comprehensively detailed 110-page book by Michael Sell, covering all of his theatres, and is well worth reading. You can find details of the book (ISBN 978-1-9163618-0-5) through the Society.

And you can find details of the Frank Matcham Society here

Frank Matcham’s surviving theatres are listed and rightly so – they will never be equalled for engineering, decoration, design, intimacy, elegance and comfort. For those of us who have served the theatregoing public, we have daily cause to be grateful for the skill and planning of – to my mind- the greatest theatre architect of all time.

*For those interested in reading more, a very comprehensive article about Frank Matcham and his work can be found here


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