World Theatre Day 2017: 25 wonderful theatres in East Anglia
PUBLISHED: 10:36 26 March 2017 | UPDATED: 10:46 26 March 2017
East Anglia is home to a wide variety of theatres and playhouses, and performers from across the region, the UK and indeed the world, have graced their stages.
World Theatre Day on March 27 aims to raise awareness of the importance of these venues and highlights the value and joy of the performing arts. The brainchild of the International Theatre Institute, the day was first celebrated in 1962 and each year the event features a message from a figure of world stature on the theme of Theatre and a Culture of Peace – this year the speaker is French actress Isabelle Huppert. We are marking the occasion with a look at some of the great theatres, old and new, here in East Anglia. From historic playhouses with chequered pasts to brand new multi-arts venues, there is something for every art form and every audience.
1, The Apex
Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk
The award-winning Apex opened its doors for the first time on October 8, 2010 and is known for its architectural beauty and acoustic excellence. The £18.5m venue in Bury St Edmunds launched with the pledge to provide a stage for national and local artistes and now boasts a diverse programme of live music and events - from classical concerts to comedy performances to youth theatre productions – and hosts the monthly Fat Cat Comedy Club which features comedians from the national and international comedy circuits.
It also provides a versatile space for a number of community and corporate functions and is home to The Apex Gallery which holds a range of regularly-changing exhibitions featuring works by emerging and established artists.
Singer, pianist and songwriter Joe Stilgoe performed at the venue this year and says: “The Apex lives up to its name - it’s right up there with the best venues in the UK. The people are lovely (crew, staff and the unfailingly enthusiastic audience), the building is brilliant, the sound, lights and slightly scary moving stage are all top notch, and we just love playing there. There’s even a Waterstones round the back, some great restaurants and an H&M in case you’ve forgotten all your clothes.”
2. Spa Pavilion Theatre
The Felixstowe theatre originally opened as ‘The New Floral Hall’ in 1909, in replacement of the previous Edwardian Bandstand, and soon became known as the Spa Pavilion. It was then completely re-vamped and extended in the late 1930s but the outbreak of war ensured that it was hardly used before a bomb and other damage put the building out of action in 1941, rendering it derelict.
After being re-built and opened on May 26, 1950, The Spa was a thriving seaside venue right up until the 1990’s. A gradual decline led to the closure of the theatre in 2013 but it was acquired by the current owners, NRG Theatres, in 2015 and re-opened later that year to a full house.
Speaking at the launch, Ray Anderson, director for NRG Theatres, said: “Now we have to work to continue this extremely positive and buoyant start to our ownership of this landmark theatre.”
3. Gorleston Pavilion Theatre
Opened in the summer of 1901, the Pavilion Theatre is an original Edwardian building, built in 1898, situated on the Norfolk coast.
It is open all year round, offering live shows and music including plays, pantomimes, musicals and concerts, as well a 26 week Summer Showtime.
Seating is arranged in a cabaret style at candle-lit tables.
Liz Coates, Eastern Daily Press senior reporter, says: “A real seaside treasure just a stone’s throw from Gorleston’s beautiful sandy sweep. The Pavilion Theatre with its cabaret-style seating boasts one of the UK’s longest running summer seasons.”
4. The Quay Theatre
The Quay began life in 1791 as the principal Sudbury warehouse, ‘The Great Granary’, for The River Stour Navigation Company. It experienced a chequered career after the company went into liquidation in 1913 and was being used as a store for bulldozers and cement mixers when the Sudbury Dramatic Society purchased it in December 1977. Members set about converting the building into a headquarters and theatre on a voluntary basis and it officially opened in 1981. Professional theatre companies and guest celebrities quickly established themselves as part of varied programme.
The Quay is now a separate charity and the restored building is one of the town’s showpieces - offering a wide range of high quality services and performances throughout the year.
Malcolm Hollister, chairman of Sudbury Dramatic Society, says: “What I love about this theatre is its intimacy. For the Sudbury Dramatic Society, when we are on stage it feels like home. It has everything you could want - a bar, great stage and good rehearsal facilites nearby. For the community, it provides good quality drama, live screenings, visits from national talent and a venue for other activities like the local history society. It is so much more than just a theatre - it is a community hub for the people of Sudbury.”
5. Sheringham Little Theatre
Situated on the north Norfolk coast, the Little Theatre offers a wide variety of plays, music and films throughout the year and hosts drama classes for young people.
The building that houses the modern theatre was constructed in 1897 and originally served as the Sheringham Town Hall. The site evolved into a local centre for the arts and silent films were shown to the public from 1914. The building was taken over in 1930 and adopted the name The Picture House; it was renamed The Empire from in the late 1950s, at which point it was converted into the theatre it is now. It closed as a cinema in 1960 and the same year it re-opened as The Little Theatre and is on a prominent corner in the centre of Sheringham.
Karen Bethell, from Cromer, says: “Sheringham Little Theatre is a delight. Not only does it play host to the country’s last surviving summer repertory season, its professional pantomime is second to none and it gives local amateur dramatics groups a chance to shine with plays, musicals and variety shows. Local children also get involved in the annual community production, panto and drama classes and there’s just a wonderful atmosphere - helped no doubt by the fantastic army of volunteers who man the cafe and take on roles ranging from usherette to programme-seller.”
6. Theatre Royal
Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk
Built in 1819, the Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds is the only surviving Regency playhouse in Britain and the only theatre open to the public in the National Trust’s portfolio of properties.
Greene King purchased the freehold in 1920 - which it still owns today - however, in 1925, in the face of overwhelming competition from two new cinemas, the theatre closed and was used as a barrel store. So it remained until the 1960s when a group from the local community raised over £37,000 to restore and re-open the Theatre Royal in 1965. The building was vested in the National Trust in 1975 and is now managed as an independent working theatre by Bury St Edmunds Theatre Management Limited. From 2005 to 2007, the Theatre Royal was renovated and restored to its Regency origins and now the intimate auditorium and decorative scheme provides visitors with a unique theatrical experience. The varied programme includes productions from local theatre groups, live music, touring comedians and more.
Karen Simpson, director at Theatre Royal, says: “Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds is a unique, special place which is a vibrant home for a varied programme of high quality performing arts in the heart of Suffolk.
“We have a fantastic team of staff, artists and volunteers who are dedicated to reaching as many people as we can, all supported by our business sponsors, local councils, charities and individuals who ensure that this Regency gem of a theatre will thrive for another 200 years.”
7. The Princess Theatre
The theatre is particularly noted for its construction in Norfolk Carrstone and it contains the largest gable wall of carrstone in existence today. It was cleverly designed as a live theatre as well as a cinema and live shows such as Fred Roper and his 20 Wonder Midgets, Private Lives and Rookery Nook were some of the opening performances in 1932.
After many years as a very successful cinema and theatre it was eventually operated as a Bingo Hall before closing and being left derelict for several years. The Borough Council of King’s Lynn and West Norfolk purchased it in 1981 and, in honour of Lady Diana Spencer who became the Princess of Wales that year, the venue was renamed The Princess Theatre.
In December 1988, the late Princess of Wales and her two children, Princes William and Harry, the Princess Royal and her two children, Peter and Zara Phillips, together with Lady Jane Fellowes, all attended a pantomime performance.
In May 2012 Hunstone Productions took over the running the building, recognising how important the Princess Theatre was to Hunstanton’s economy.
James Johnson, mayor of Hunstanton, says: “The Princess is an old fashioned style theatre and it has a special meaning for the people of Hunstanton because it goes back so many years. It has now been redeveloped and the bar has been redesigned with large windows and a terrace which boasts the best views in the world looking over the sea.”
8. The New Wolsey Theatre
This midsized Suffolk theatre was designed by the architect Roderick Ham and opened on October 31, 1979. The venue was known for performances of drama, comedy and musical plays but due to financial difficulties, the company folded in 1999 and the building was left vacant for two years.
In 2001, the theatre reopened and is now owned and operated by the newly formed New Wolsey Theatre Company - a registered charity with a stated mission of presenting high quality, diverse and accessible work - and operated on a not-for-profit basis.
The venue seats 400 and has developed a recognisable house style of actor/musician productions, particularly through their annual Christmas rock ‘n’ roll panto.
Andrew Clarke, East Anglian Daily Times arts editor, says: “One of the jewels in East Anglia’s cultural crown. It manages to combine top quality homwgrown productions like ‘Tommy’ and it’s famous rock’n’roll pantomime with the best touring productions, while maintaining a strong link with the community and with a thriving youth programme.”
9. Ipswich Regent Theatre
East Anglia’s largest theatre opened in 1929 as a cine-variety hall and the film chosen to launch the venue was ‘The Last of Mrs Cheyney’ starring Norma Shearer and Basil Rathbone - an ‘all-talking’ picture with front circle seats costing 2s / 4d.
The popularity of cinema in the 1930’s and 40’s faded with the advent of television and even the highly successful Regent, by now known as the Gaumont, had to close its restaurant.
In the 1950s, Buddy Holly and the Crickets started off the pop music craze at the Gaumont and since then thousands of international artists have graced the theatre’s stage - including the Beatles, Tina Turner, The Bay City Rollers and Tom Jones – along with local musicians and dramatic societies.
By 1965 the proprietors, The Rank Organisation, were sufficiently confident of the future to spend £50,000 on a major modernisation and redecoration programme. But by the 1970’s, the large cinemas that had been so successful in the 30’s and 40’s proved to be less economically viable. The Regent was re-launched as a theatre in September 1991 after Ipswich Borough Council successfully negotiated the ownership from the Rank Organisation and NCP.
10. Maddermarket Theatre
The theatre was originally built as a Roman Catholic chapel in 1794. In the nineteenth century it was used as a baking soda factory, a grocery warehouse, and as a hall for the Salvation Army. However, the vaulted ceiling gave it excellent acoustics and it already had galleries on three sides so the building was quickly converted, by the Guild of Norwich Players, from a state of near-dereliction into an Elizabethan style playhouse.
Since 1921, the venue has been staging plays, musicals and other events. Now there are twelve in-house plays staged each year and visiting companies and artists provide classical, opera and contemporary music concerts, stand-up comedy, dance, theatre productions, talks and more.
11. Norwich Playhouse
A 300 seat riverside theatre in the heart of the city, Norwich Playhouse was developed in an old Georgian maltings and is a venue for theatre, comedy, music and other performing arts.
Before the Playhouse opened in 1995, the building had been the Crown Public House and the head office of the Norwich Mercury Newspaper among other things. From launch to opening, the project of creating the theatre with its open end-stage took six years and cost was £2,500,000 with 80% raised from private individuals and small businesses. Grants from the Arts Council Lottery Fund and the Foundation for Sport and the Arts made up the balance. Television personality and theatre actor Stephen Fry is a patron.
12. The Avenue Theatre (Red Rose Chain)
The Avenue stands within the grounds of Gippeswyk Hall in Ipswich and was constructed as a home for the Red Rose Chain theatre company.
The new building replaced a 1960s annexe to the rear of the Hall and its design was inspired by the type of traditional barns which may have once stood on the site. The theatre space is flexible, with capacity for up to 120 people and the venue also features a cafe/bar and a small courtyard. The Avenue opened in February 2015.
Joanna Carrick, artistic director at Red Rose Chain, says: “What makes The Avenue Theatre so special is the personal approach of our team, coupled with a welcoming, intimate space; and the way it mixes high quality with community.”
13. Norwich Puppet Theatre
Norwich Puppet Theatre was founded in 1979 by Ray and Joan Da Silva as a permanent base for their touring company and was first opened as a public venue on December 1, 1980.
Situated inside a converted medieval church, the theatre is one of only three building-based puppet theatres in England. Home to a family of puppets spanning over 35 years, they produce new shows for families and children which play in Norwich before touring the UK and internationally.
The venue also hosts an ongoing programme of craft based workshops for children with special sessions for adults.
14. Norwich Theatre Royal
The ‘New Theatre in Chapel Field’ was opened in January 1758 - only the second purpose-built theatre in England. The building was licensed as a theatre in 1768 and in the early 1820s, after a slump in theatre going, William Wilkins built a new Theatre Royal on the site. It was opened in 1826 and had cost £6,000. The venue then underwent various name changes and renovations, flourishing until 1934 when it burnt down.
A new Art Deco styled theatre was built which opened in September 1935 and during World War Two, a couple of incendiary bombs dropped onto the theatre roof but were quickly extinguished.
In 1970, the city council undertook the re-modelling and re-furbishing of the theatre, using architect David Percival. The completed theatre was then handed over to the newly-formed Theatre Royal Trust and the theatre did well until 1989 when the trust launched a development appeal to fund re-furbishment.
Some work was carried out in 1991 but eventually the theatre was closed in March 2007 for a ten million pound refurbishment, re-opening in mid-November of the same year. The 1,300 seat auditorium was upgraded with new seating, improved legroom, better ventilation, new decorations and lighting and better technical installations.
Brian Godfrey, Norfolk, says: “The Theatre Royal in Norwich is a lovely theatre. My family has been going for a long time and I am a member. The staff are welcoming and helpful, there are some brilliant shows and the cast members are top quality - you can’t really fault it. It’s as good as any West End theatre, right here in Norfolk.”
15. Haverhill Arts Centre
Haverhill Town Hall, now Haverhill Arts Centre, was built in 1883 as a gift to the town by local philanthropist Daniel Gurteen. It was conceived as a place for the inhabitants of Haverhill to go and enjoy choral music, or be improved by it. The stage was mainly designed for choirs and it housed a proper pipe organ which has since been removed.
During the 1950s and 60s the hall was a thriving centre for social activities then in the 1970s it became well known for its bingo events and pantomimes. In the early 1990s, St Edmundsbury Borough Council converted the building into an arts centre designed to present a range of live entertainment, plus cinema and community activities - the renamed Haverhill Arts Centre opened on December 1, 1994.
Now operated by Haverhill Town Council, the Grade II listed building provides a wide ranging programme of arts and entertainment along with a café and exhibition area; it is also home to The Haverhill Local History Centre.
16. Sewell Barn Theatre
Sewell Barn Theatre is located in the grounds of Sewell Park Academy on Constitution Hill in Norwich.
It was originally the barn of Clare House which was owned by Philip Sewell from 1864 to 1906. When he died, he left his estate to the city of Norwich and Clare House became an Open Air School for city children suffering from respiratory complaints and the barn became their washroom, restroom and handicraft centre.
Since then the old hay barn has seen many uses. During the 1st World War it was used as a theatre where Catton residents put on a concert for troops and eventually it became a bicycle shed for girls of a school located in the grounds. Clare House was demolished in 1970 and out of the rubble rose the foundations of part of the new Blyth Jex school, now the Sewell Park College.
In 1974 Norwich schools became the property of the county and councillors suggested that the barn might make an admirable small theatre.
The auditorium features raked seating on three sides of an open acting space and the unusual staging helps to draw the audience deeply into the performance.
17. Ipswich Corn Exchange
In July 1882 the hoardings round the new Ipswich Corn Exchange were cleared away and it was officially opened on July 26, 1882 by then Mayor Frederick Fish. It operated at as market until 1972 when it was decided to remodel the building for meeting, exhibitions, shows and other spectator events. The refurbishment cost £800,000 and The Grand Hall is now used for live shows by touring companies and local groups, dances and dinners, and an annual beer festival. The Robert Cross Hall is used mainly for craft fairs, exhibitions and late night musical entertainment.
Andrew Clarke, East Anglian Daily Times arts editor, says: “A handy, easily adaptable venue which works just as well for comedians, classical works and rock bands. It allows the audience to get close to the acts and create a real atmosphere.”
18. The Garage
This intimate theatre opened in 2004 and was originally the Theatre Royal scenery store. Now it has been transformed into a performing arts centre for new drama and local musical talent, plus studios for youth classes and events.
In 2006 The Garage launched the Arts Award programme across the east, running it for a number of years until the Norfolk and Norwich Festival took over. The venue also became the regional host for the National Theatre Connections festival with Norwich Playhouse and in 2009 developed Blueprint, a region-wide arts volunteering project. It then moved into music development and started hosting Slam nights – an open mike night for young people.
The Garage’s year round programme also includes open access performing arts classes, projects, live performances and support for the development of new creative work.
Speaking on the 10th anniversary of the project, The Garage’s chief executive Darren Grice described it as an “incredible journey.”
He said: “It’s been an evolution. It’s been an experiment. It’s been driven by a really strong desire from everybody here to really get beneath how you make a venue like this part of its community and how you engage the community.”
19. The Cromer Pier Pavilion Theatre
Cromer boasts one of only five UK seaside pier’s with a full working theatre and it is famous for its Cromer Pier Show.
The theatre has also hosted many well-known artists and was featured in the film Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa.
There has been a pier in the Norfolk town since 1391 and the site has seen hundreds of years of destruction and rebuilding. In February 2012, it was announced that £8m of work was set to begin on revamping Cromer pier and the town’s Victorian sea defences.
The Cut offers Halesworth and the surrounding countryside arts, music, theatre, dance, comedy, cinema, workshops and exhibitions.
Its story began in March 1998 when a newly formed artists’ co-operative called PanTeknikon began to organise exciting one-off exhibitions and performances in the derelict old maltings on New Cut. In 1999, a group, soon to be known as New Cut Arts, started the journey to transform the building into a working venue. In 2003, and following years of fundraising and development, the late Sir Alan Bates officially opened the complex as The Cut. The public art space now hosts awards, festivals and a wide variety of performances.
Andrew Clarke, East Anglian Daily Times arts editor, says: “A wonderful community venue created out of a semi-derelict industrial space. Built and run by the people who use the space. The Cut is an incredibly important part of Halesworth’s arts world.”
21. King’s Lynn Corn Exchange
King’s Lynn, Norfolk
The Grade II listed facade of King’s Lynn Corn Exchange, originally built in 1854, now fronts a multipurpose venue which hosts a variety of events including comedy clubs, live music and pantomimes.
The building was largely dilapidated in the 1990s and a project to restore and enlarge it was undertaken. The venue was reopened in 1996 after a £4.4million rebuild with a brick extension at the rear to accommodate back-of-house facilities and a Box Office and Coffee House in the foyer.
22. St. George’s Theatre
Great Yarmouth, Norfolk
Commissioned to build a place of worship in 1714, the architects, John Price of Richmond, modelled Gt Yarmouth’s new church on St Clement Danes by Sir Christopher Wren. The result is now recognised as one of the finest examples of Baroque Church architecture outside of London.
After its deconsecration in 1959, the chapel fell into disrepair and is reported to have narrowly escaped demolition. In the early 1970’s, a group of dedicated local people and an amateur dramatic society worked to establish the redundant chapel as a centre for the arts and a theatre.
Many performances took place right up until 2006 but the building was forced to close due to severe structural defects, including an unstable tower. Its deteriorating state resulted in the chapel being declared ‘at risk’ by English Heritage and the local authorities, until funds were found in 2009 for its restoration and conversion.
The newly refurbished arts venue reopened in 2012 and now hosts a variety of shows and events year round.
Liz Coates, Eastern Daily Press senior reporter, says: “Set in Great Yarmouth’s urban heart St George’s is a former Grade I listed chapel. The building has been given a multi million pound makeover and is a key piece in the regeneration of historic King Street. Its flexible space sees it host the town’s beer festival as well as a full programme of arts offerings.”
23. Marina Theatre Trust
The original theatre started life in the 1870’s as a roller skating rink, where the owners erected a make-shift stage and renamed it ‘The Rink Theatre’.
The ‘Rink’ was converted into the Marina in 1897 and the basis of the current theatre building was then erected, largely on the foundations of the original. It operated as a live venue until 1929 when the onset of cinema made the future uncertain.
Briefly used during the Second World War as a temporary mortuary and a reception centre for evacuated children, the theatre began to struggle in the late 1960s with the introduction of colour television and finally closed in 1984.
After being bought by Waveney District Council in 1985, the Marina underwent a huge renovation and almost four years after its closure, re-opened as the new Civic Theatre and Cultural Centre in Lowestoft with a concert given by 1970’s rock and roll star Rick Wakeman.
In 2011, the theatre again faced an uncertain future but was saved due to the formation of the new Marina Theatre Trust. The following year the Trust announced plans to extend the theatre’s public areas to include the creation of a ground floor Café Bar, new office facilities and improvements to the venues loading area.
Since then, the Marina Theatre has staged a host of West End musicals, top class comedians, plays and other events, including the residency of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
24. The Auden Theatre
Located in the heart of Gresham’s Senior School grounds, this theatre offers a unique, intimate and versatile space for both school shows and professional performances in a modern and purpose-built facility.
A fully-equipped and professionally-run venue, the Theatre hosts a diverse and expansive programme of productions throughout the year, and serves as an important local outlet for visiting artists. It is also one of the main venues for the Holt Festival held every July.
25.The Corn Hall
The Corn Hall is an impressive Grade II listed building which was originally built as a corn exchange but now operates as a thriving arts venue offering a wide range of entertainment, activities and big name acts.
It is run by the Diss Corn Hall Trust. It is also a partner organisation in the Diss Heritage Triangle project which secured grant funding of £3 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund, local authorities and other major grant bodies. The project will see the Corn Hall return it to its former glory with a sympathetic new extension incorporating a redesigned courtyard, a larger foyer, box office, bar and café. Work is due for completion in 2017.
Kerry Kirby, director of Diss-based media marketing agency Splice Creative and former chair of Diss Business Forum, says: “It’s an incredibly exciting time for the town and in particular for those businesses in the Heritage Triangle as the final stages of the Corn Hall development come together. Diss is a vibrant market town and a great place to live and work so I’m really excited about what the Corn Hall has in store for us all. The interior looks fantastic and I can’t wait to sit back and enjoy one of the first performances within this rejuvenated historic building.”
26. Snape Maltings
With a history as an industrial site stretching back over 175 years, the roots of Snape Maltings as it exists today were planted by the composer Benjamin Britten and the landowner, who both recognised the potential of the striking Maltings buildings and their stunning location.
In 1965, after 120 years, the malting of barley ceased, and the site was purchased by Suffolk farmer George Gooderham. Meanwhile Britten had founded the Aldeburgh Festival and, following its success, was looking for a larger venue. In 1965 he leased the largest building at Snape Maltings and converted it into the 830-seat Snape Maltings Concert Hall, which was opened by HM Queen Elizabeth in 1967. The Hall suffered serious fire damage two years later, re-opening in time for the festival in 1970.
From 1967 to 2015 there were parallel developments on the site, with the Gooderham family gradually creating an independent retail complex and Britten and his successors expanding beyond Snape Maltings Concert Hall to create a musical campus that would enable his vision of a place for not only an international performance programme but also work with young artists, education and community engagement. The retail and residential complex went under the banner of Snape Maltings, while the organisation running the music and arts activity became known as Aldeburgh Music, making clear that the work was the year-round expansion of the ideas and vision at the heart of Britten’s Aldeburgh Festival.
In 2015 the Gooderham family put its part of the site up for sale and Aldeburgh Music purchased it with help from Arts Council England. Following this, the two organisations have come together under the name Snape Maltings to create a unified site.