In a series of articles about the venues we like to visit for our entertainment, we reveal some of the finest Theatres in Essex.
Over recent months you may have reflected upon the buildings and venues you hold dear. It is this very reason the creative industries want to get them open for you to enjoy again. How much we may miss places such as these will determine how quickly we will be willing to return to them. To once again be entertained by the good and the great, many of them come through our doors at The Backstage Centre for pre-production and rehearsals, will be a tremendous day.
Venues around the world have met adversity with new hope, and considerable expense to welcome back audiences. This zeal for welcoming spectators has never been more important than right now as lock down measures begin to relax.
For theatre-going audiences across our region, and in the West End, the sense of belonging has made the buildings what they are today. We may have our favourites, or the show that has become synonymous with its physical setting. In this first article we consider the theatres in Essex and what we know and understand about them.
Nestled alongside the Central Library and museum, the Thameside Theatre exterior is typical of a time. The style of design emerged during the 1960’s as new building concepts were now applied to theatres. Creating spaces that would be of a variety of uses to their users. Accommodating just over three hundred patrons, the theatre is on the third floor with four dressing rooms. As a true community space, it has a long association with the audiences, who are predominantly local to the area. As well as provide a home to local dance schools and theatre groups, the venue has a rich history of variety entertainment and of course their famous Pantomimes.
For twelve years Tilbury actor Damian Williams built quite a reputation playing Dame in the annual pantomimes at the Thameside.
Thurrock has produced a number of performers, musicians, comedians and entertainers over the years.
Today, the theatre has had to face a difficult year, as has most of our nation’s venues, and as everyone starts to build back business, we will see how people working together can help make this happen as painlessly as possible. It’s what theatre does best, teamwork.
Following an early attempt to create a theatre from a derelict cinema on Station Lane which was converted into a theatre in 1953 and naming it the Queens Theatre in honour of Her Majesty, the building eventually deteriorated, and The London Borough of Havering Council built a new theatre on Billet Lane, which was designed by Hallam and Brooks.
Sir Peter Hall opened the five hundred seats building in April 1975 with a production of ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat’.
The Queen visited the building on its fiftieth anniversary in 2003. Fifty-six years after its opening, the Theatre secured an Arts Council England Creative People and Places funding award of £1 million for a four-year programme of arts engagement in Havering as part of a consortium. In 2020 the Theatre won the prestigious London Theatre of the Year Stage Award.
In recent years The Queens Theatre has featured new works from Essex writers. ‘Essex Girls’ and Boys’ staged new work from local award-winning playwrights as part of the Theatre’s Essex on Stage programme. This included a premiere of ‘Stiletto Beach’, a new play by Sadie Hasler (Pramkicker/Fran & Leni) and ‘So Here We Are’, from Luke Norris (Dr Dwight Enys in BBC One’s Poldark).
Like many theatres across the United Kingdom, The Harlow Playhouse was the result of ardent campaigning for a proper venue. After thirteen years the Theatre Working Party successfully saw the foundation stone get laid in 1970 and the four hundred seat theatre opened in 1971.
Harlow Playhouse is owned and operated by Harlow District Council, and supported by Arts Council England, Harlow Playhouse Charitable Trust, Harlow Health Centres Trust and Harlow Playhouse Supporters.
Some of you may remember the Arts Centre, the first theatre in Basildon, which opened its five hundred seat auditoria in 1968 in a temporary facility behind the then temporary council offices, on the site of what is now the Westgate shopping area.
Renamed ‘The Towngate Theatre and Arts Centre‘ in 1976, it provided a varied programme and created one of the most successful youth theatres in Essex, the Basildon Young People’s Theatre Scheme. It was from meeting at BYPTS that years later Essex-based film Company New Town Films was created, and their third cinematic adventure ‘Community’ received acclaim and recognition around the world as a thriller/horror new classic.
Built as a temporary theatre it ended up lasting a further 12 years before the new building replaced it, as part of the Basildon Centre, in April 1988.
Chelmsford Theatres include the Civic Theatre seating 504 over two levels, and its neighbour The Cramphorn Studio, seating 165 which offers
‘a programme of smaller professional touring theatre, music productions, dance and lunchtime concerts, as well as being the home of The Chelmsford Picture House renowned for its innovative mixture of art house, world and mainstream film and live screenings.‘https://www.chelmsford.gov.uk/theatres/about-us/cramphorn-studio/
The theatres became closely associated with their local amateur and theatre workshop scene, which created two landmark organisations for the City; the Chelmsford Theatre Workshop (C.T.W.) and Chelmsford Amateur Operatic and Dramatic society (C.A.O.D.S). In November 1969, Peter Hughes directed the first play by Chelmsford Theatre Workshop, Bill McIlwraith’s black comedy ‘The Anniversary’, earlier in 1920 C.A.O.D.S. were formed and produced a Gilbert and Sullivan production of ‘HMS Pinafore’. Both organisations continue to this day.
The Backstage Centre were delighted to hear about an exciting redevelopment project headed Mercury Rising, and in
‘….2019 the theatre building closed for extensive refurbishment and transferred to Mercury at Abbey Field, for a short season with new Creative Director Ryan McBryde presenting productions of Oliver! and Cinderella from a big top. Ryan works alongside Joint Chief Executives Tracey Childs (Executive Producer) and Steve Mannix (Executive Director).’
Theatre in Colchester has a relatively long history, trailing back to the 1930’s and the Colchester Repertory Company was formed in 1937 by Robert Digby and Beatrice Radley.
In 1963 David Forder, a well-known figure in theatre circles at the time, became the Manager and was tasked with building a more significant role on Colchester’s arts scene.
Five years hard work and the building of their reputation allowed the Colchester New Theatre Trust to be formed in 1968, it was from this that a site was found and The Mercury Theatre, designed by Norman Downie, opened on 10th May 1972.
The theatre was opened in October 1912. It was named the Palace of Varieties in November that year and later renamed The New Palace with a small annexe at the back of the stage was built to facilitate back-projection for cinema. Originally able to squeeze one thousand five hundred people, it now seats just over six hundred.
In 1957 the Palace Theatre Club was created with the intention to protect the interests of the theatre and raise funds for it. In 1969 the Palace Theatre suffered a major financial crisis and was closed, however a petition by the Palace Theatre Club led to its reopening in 1970 and the establishment of the Palace Theatre Trust. After extensive redecorations in 1973 and 1986 and the addition of the adjacent building to the theatre as the Dixon Studio in 1980, in March 1999 the theatre was closed again, but was reopened in 2001 under new management. The theatre was closed in 2002 when the management left without explanation, however it reopened again in 2003 under the newly formed Southend Theatres, the result of a merger of the Cliffs Pavilion and the Palace Theatre.
HQ Theatres & Hospitality is the second largest owner and operator of provincial theatrical venues in the United Kingdom. Formed in 2006 as a collaboration between Qdos Entertainment and Hetherington Seelig Theatres. In August 2006, HQ Theatres was chosen by Southend-on-Sea Borough Council to run the operation and management of the Cliffs Pavilion and Palace Theatre venues in Westcliff-on-Sea, continuing the brand of Southend Theatres. In October 2007, Qdos Entertainment announced a major expansion, acquiring Hetherington Seelig Theatres and becoming the UK’s third largest and fastest growing owner and operator of provincial theatrical venues. In addition to Southend Theatres the group also operate the Orchard Theatre in Dartford, and the Watford Colosseum.
In our recent feature you can read about their latest transformation as part of the Trafalgar Leisure group.
The Palace Theatre’s larger, and younger sibling is the Cliffs Pavilion at Station Road in Westcliff-on-Sea. It seats 1,630 and specialises in a variety programming, No.1 tours and music concerts.
Work began on the original Cliffs Pavilion during the 1930s. It was intended to be a 500-seat theatre incorporating the art deco style of the times. With the outbreak of World War II, however, the building work halted. The site remained boarded-up until 1959, when the original building was levelled.
It was then moved to one side and slightly closer to the edge of the cliff to form the basis of the present Cliffs Pavilion, which opened in 1964.
The Backstage Centre and all our partners and collaborators recognise how vital theatre is in introducing audiences, young and old, to a live experience. We would welcome stories from the venues featured in this article about how they have come through the Covid impact and operationally how this may have impacted on the way they now work.
With so much discussion around hybrid entertainment concepts, where a blended experience can be accessed – Live or Online -, we ask is this likely to remain for the foreseeable future? Let us know your thoughts on this?
In the next article in this series, we will be looking at how cinema took hold across the county. From the new medium of a silver screen that gave Westcliff-on-Sea’s Palace Theatre a lease of life in 1912, to the multi-plex explosion from the 1990’s and throughout the 2000’s, we will see that many of the buildings you may regularly walk past were once filled with thrills and laughter.
We will also reveal some of the films which have been filmed in Essex in recent years, and where these were located.
Author: Brian Warrens, Director of The Backstage Centre