The History of Theatre in Leatherhead

Old Leatherhead Theatre EntranceThere has been a history of theatre in the Leatherhead area since Tudor times, with Henry VIII and his cultured palace at nearby Nonsuch Park. Barnstormers would frequently act out melodramas in village halls around the little town.

In 1890 the Victoria Hall opened in the High Street. Until 1910 this was home to many a blood curdling melodrama.

The coming of silent movies saw conversion to a picture house, then the "talkies" and a boom period during World War two. In the late 1940s there were two attempts to realise the theatrical potential of the building. These were not entirely successful, but saw the basement convert to the "Green Room Club". A taste of things to come…

In 1950 Hazel Vincent Wallace and her friends were searching for a home for the London based "Under Thirty Theatre Group". They saw the already dilapidated Victoria Hall and were enchanted by it despite a failure to notice the damp walls, leaking roof, three tiny dressing rooms or negligible front entrance. Young, full of enthusiasm and equipped with £2000 capital, they set out to create a theatre that would lead the country!

In 1939 a large cinema with over 1,000 seats had been constructed in Church Street. Run by a local family, The Crescent Cinema prospered until the 1960s.

However facing growing competition from television, it was then that the owners decided that the cinema would need to close.

The "Under Thirty Theatre Group", now known as "Leatherhead Theatre Club" had by this time grown a fine reputation for quality productions. Hazel Vincent Wallace was tremendously successful in enticing famous actors from nearby London to appear in her little theatre, which had to operate as a private club, due to fire regulations and lack of safety curtain. Performances in this 300 seat venue were consistently sold out, with many members unable to gain access.

By the mid 60's, the Victoria Hall had become so dilapidated, that further repair was no longer practicable. Theatre club membership had grown to an amazing 14,000, but the management and members were aware that without new, larger premises, theatre in Leatherhead would soon have to cease.

A phone call out of the blue started the chain of events, which changed the history of theatre in Leatherhead. With the cinema approaching closure the owners telephoned Hazel, saying that they planned to demolish the cinema, redevelop the site with shops and offices and construct a small theatre for her company. The property trust's kind proposal was not quite large or elaborate enough to meet the need. Realising this, they graciously agreed to donate £90,000 towards the construction cost, let the company design their own theatre and raise additional funds. So began a concentrated period of frantic fundraising, planning and construction. The total construction cost was in the region of £330,000. Hazel and her team were concerned that the fundraising activity should be no longer than 3 years. The public appeal raised £220,000.

Roderick Ham was engaged as architect with a brief to draw up a scheme utilising the outside walls and roof of the old cinema. These can still be seen today. The side walls, roof trusses and part of the original stage were retained. The cinema boiler room was enlarged and office space added to the East Wing.

Working closely with the management team, Roderick devised an innovative design with open foyers rising around the bulk of the auditorium. Although seating 530, 200 more than the old theatre, no one would be as far from the stage as in the former building, because of the steeply raked auditorium. The vision for the building was that it would be a complete cultural centre, not just a theatre. An art gallery, coffee bar, restaurant, bar and youth theatre were all components of this. Actress Dame Sybil Thorndike and her husband, Sir Lewis Casson kindly agreed to give their support to the theatre and took a keen interest from the outset.

In September 1969, after much work, crowds gathered, church bells rang, and fireworks were set off. The great day had come and Princess Margaret opened the Thorndike Theatre. A true night of celebration for Leatherhead, the community and the arts! This recently Grade II listed building was truly innovative in its time and even won an award from the Royal Institute of British Architects for its design.

Many have commented that the Thorndike's open walkways and exposed concrete finish were an influence on the later design for the Royal National Theatre in London. Nearly 30 years of quality productions, youth theatre, music, art exhibitions, food, drink and community participation followed the opening.

Historically regional theatre has struggled for funding. Despite continuing hard work, in 1997 the Thorndike finally ran out of money. The stages and foyers fell silent. Four years of darkness followed as this wonderful cultural centre drifted into dereliction. Leaking roof spaces, blocked drains, flooding & pigeon infestation gnawed away at the fabric of the once proud & influential Thorndike Theatre.

In April 2001, Pioneer People signed a 15-year lease on the Theatre. There followed an ambitious and extensive refurbishment programme, including a complete re-wire, installation of new boilers and new sound and light systems in the auditorium.

By November 2001, although far from complete, the Theatre was ready to host it's first event in 4 years - "Curtain Up", a review of musical numbers from major West End musicals. The event was a sell-out success and raised over £5,000 for Romanian orphans.

The community was delighted. Theatre had returned to Leatherhead.


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