Two Grand Survivors celebrate birthdays

A very happy birthday to two Grand -in name and design – theatres which, thanks to the support of local audiences and the efforts of staunch supporters, have both withstood the ravages of time to survive and emerge as much-loved venues for the 21st century.

Swansea Grand Theatre turns 123

On 26th July, Swansea Grand Theatre celebrated its 123rd birthday.

The theatre opened in 1897 – the year Bram Stoker’s Dracula was published, the word ‘computer’ was first used, the first Boston Marathon was held, Enid Blyton was born, Brahms died, the Klondike gold rush started, the pencil sharpener was patented, the Tate Gallery opened and Queen Victoria celebrated her Diamond Jubilee!

Erected on the site of the former Drill Hall it was designed for proprietors H H Morell and F Mouillot by architect William Hope of Newcastle, built by D Jenkins and opened by Madame Adelina Patti – a locally resident operatic diva.

In 1968, the Swansea Grand was threatened with closure but, following a campaign led by its manager and artistic director John Chilvers, the theatre was saved. The Swansea Corporation (City Council) leased the building in May 1969 and bought it outright in 1979. The theatre was then refurbished and updated between 1983 and 1987 at a cost of £6.5m. A further £1m was spent on an Arts Wing which opened in 1999, and the opening ceremony was performed by Catherine Zeta Jones. The City and County of Swansea continues to own, manage and fund the building today.

Its opening ceremony on 26th July 1897 was certainly grand. Baroness Adelina Nicolini (Patti) travelled down by train from her home at Craig Y Nos to open the theatre. She arrived at Midland Railway Station, and was then taken by horse drawn carriage through the city, passing the then Star Theatre and the empty Theatre Royal, finally arriving at the Grand. The streets were lined with hundreds of well-wishers hungry for a look at the Opera Diva.


Blackpool Grand Theatre is 126

The Grand was designed on a prime site by Victorian master theatre architect Frank Matcham and was opened on 23rd July 1894. Hailed as ‘Matcham’s masterpiece’, it was reported to have been built in just nine months at a cost of £20,000 to a brief by owner Thomas Sorgensen to build him “the prettiest theatre in the land”. It is believed to be the first design in which Matcham used his cantilevered approach to the tiers , enabling a column-free wide spanning auditorium and an unrestricted view from every seat.

The theatre opened with a production of Hamlet with Wilson Barrett in the starring role. The programme was printed on pure silk and perfumed with ‘Tower Bouquet’ by a chemist in Church Street.

The opening of Blackpool Grand catapulted it into the number one circuit , able to attract famous actors, spectacular musicals and high-class opera. Stars such as Sarah Bernhardt, Lillie Langtree, Beerbohm Tree, Seymour Hicks and Mrs Patrick Campbell all appeared here before Sergenson sold out to the Tower Company for £47,500 in 1909. The Tower Company then owned the Theatre until 1968.

In the twenties the Blackpool Grand became famous for staging operetta and big American musicals like Rose Marie, The Desert Song and No No Nanette. Great stars, including Evelyn Laye, Carl Brisson, Tallulah Bankhead, Matheson Lang, Cicely Courtneidge and Jack Hulbert, appeared at The Grand in this decade and many were to continue to tour throughout the Thirties, Forties and Fifties.

The sixties saw a serious decline in the theatre’s fortunes and had it not been for achieving listed status- thanks to members of the Friends Group and the Victorian Society, would certainly have been lost. Thankfully now listed Grade II* and beautifully restored, the venue continues to delight audiences well into its second century.


Lyric Hammersmith at 125

The Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, celebrates its 125th anniversary on 20th July.

The Lyric Theatre is a rare and truly remarkable survivor. It was originally built as a music hall in 1888 on Bradmore Grove, Hammersmith by a local businessman, Charles Cordingly . It was rebuilt and enlarged on the same site twice, firstly in 1890 and then in 1895 (with additional remodeling in 1899) by the master theatre architect Frank Matcham. The 1895 reopening, as The New Lyric Opera House, was graced by an opening address by the famous actress Lillie Langtry.

Lyric Opera House – drawing from the ERA, 4 Feb 1899
An early Lyric programme

After a chequered history of seventy years of successes and slumps, the theatre went up for auction in 1965 but was only finally sold in 1968. According to some sources, the auction was won by a “Mr Richards” who bought the theatre for £26,000. However, the Council believed that they had bought the theatre at the same auction, for the same price. As a result, the theatre went back to auction and the Council eventually bought it for £37,500.

1969 Awaiting demolition

Everything pointed towards the closure and demolition of the theatre. However, a local campaign started to save the Lyric- well, some of it. The campaign argued that the auditorium was of such a high standard that it should be dismantled and reconstructed within a new structure a short distance away in King Street, a much more central and visible location in Hammersmith’s centre. The campaign gathered momentum and eventually succeeded.

The epic work of reconstructing the original auditorium within a new structure is a very rare occurrence today – and even more so over 50 years ago. But with patience, planning and perseverance the work continued, and by 1979 the Lyric Theatre’s new building welcomed the original Lyric’s 550-seat auditorium, opened by HM the Queen.

Lyric auditorium as reconstructed
Lyric auditorium as reconstructed

In 2018 the auditorium’s glorious plasterwork was restored and refurbished to a high standard, as you can see in a detail photo below.

Lyric auditorium as reconstructed

Today, although closed due to COVID-19, the Lyric is thriving as a vital part of its community, and I hope that the theatre enjoys another 50 years of success ahead!

Anyone wishing to explore the removal of the original auditorium plasterwork can see a comprehensive range of fascinating photos at the arthurlloyd.com website here


Gaiety Theatre, Isle of Man, celebrates 120th anniversary

The Gaiety Theatre celebrated its 120th anniversary on 16th July.

Located in the Isle of Man, was another Frank Matcham work; it was a complete renovation of an earlier structure, opening on July 16, 1900. The theatre enjoyed success until the First World War decimated the tourist industry upon which so much of the island’s infrastructure depended. A slow decline continued through the decades, until in 1971 the theatre was slated from demolition; it was saved at the eleventh hour thanks to a vigorous local campaign. The Council’s purchase of the building signified a brighter chapter in the theatre’s checkered history.

The theatre underwent significant improvements but also commenced a decades-long cycle of painstaking restoration, guided by the Theatre manager of the day, Mervin Russell Stokes, who was later made an MBE for his contribution to the project. It was he who, with help, arranged for the funding and closely supervised the work done, carrying out some of it himself, always with a view to strict authenticity, even down to having the original paint colours, wallpaper and carpeting recreated in order to bring the theatre back -as near as possible- to its original appearance.

The Centenary celebrations were able to present a fully-restored gem of a playhouse which is a true jewel in the crown of the island’s community.

Photo by Claire Schreuder

Theatres at Risk Capacity Building Programme announces award recipients for Year Two

The Theatres Trust have unveiled the recipients of awards in the second year of their Theatres at Risk Fund

Six theatres will receive a total of £67,500 worth of support donated by Historic England, The Pilgrim Trust and The Swire Charitable Trust.

All of the recipients are on the Theatres at Risk Register 2020, and each is at a different stage in their journeys to recovery.

The awards were established to help theatres on the At Risk Register to access the right skills and knowledge to enable them to move forward.

The success of last year’s inaugural awards (read about it here) has led to progress being made for all the first year recipients.

Recipients this year are:

Brighton Hippodrome, a Grade ll* listed building, the UK ‘s finest surviving example of a circus theatre, designed by Frank Matcham in 1901.

Derby Hippodrome, a rare survivor of an early theatre built both for cinema and variety. Grade ll listed, it was severely damaged when a previous owner weakened the structure by driving a bulldozer through a supporting wall in a callous attempt to get it demolished by damaging it beyond repair. Thankfully, he didn’t succeed-but there is much to repair before this structure is safe again.

Walthamstow Granada, a Grade ll* listed cine-variety theatre is in the process of being restored after purchase by Walthamstow Council (previously the only London Borough without a theatre) as part of their Borough of Culture celebrations. (Read more about the Walthamstow Granada here).

Groundlings Theatre, Portsmouth is listed Grade ll* and received the largest share of grant money to further a new survey of the building and assist in business planning.

Leith Theatre has lain empty since 1988 but is now in the process of renovation after a ‘nick of time’ rescue against demolition.

Streatham Hill Theatre is the last theatre designed by celebrated architect W G R Sprague and has lain empty since 2017. The Friends Group have successfully fundraised to finance a viability study for the theatre ‘s future and this grant will support that funding.

For more information about the awards, visit the Theatres Trust website here


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