Dramatic Leicester - By Dr D McNeil
It was said that the cinema killed the theatre and that television would kill the cinema. In the “old” days, when television was still in its infancy and only came as ‘black-and-white’ and was a large box which occupied a corner of a living room, Saturday evening was sacred – to the cinema. Only once, in my undergraduate days and in the midst of the Sound of Music epidemic, did we fail to find something on we wanted to see.
There comes a time, however, when one grew tired of American cars spontaneously bursting into flames every time they approached a cliff, of American film plots being repeated ad nauseum and, in the absence of a television set, we finally turned to the live theatre. But what live theatre? By the early 60’s television and the cinema had nearly destroyed all theatres outside London. Cinemas were due to go the same way shortly after. The theatre I first went to in Leicester was the Living Theatre.
The Living Theatre was created in 1961 by a group of actors who were looking for somewhere to set up shop, somewhere where there was likely to be little competition, somewhere where they could follow their dreams. That somewhere turned out to be a condemned building in Great Central Street, the St Nicholas Schoolrooms. At the time these were scheduled for demolision to make way for the St Nicholas Circle underpass. The actors set to work, decorating, installing and generally converting every- thing to turn them into a 160 seat theatre themselves. Financially it was not a success; even though everybody associated with it was on the same wage. It opened about 24th April 1961 and closed in the week of 15th January 1963, after which the building was demolished. However, Leicester was not the first choice of that group. Why so? What was theatrical life like before television in Leicester?
I turned to the internet; for anyone interested there is an excellent series of highly detailed articles there by David Garratt. I had known of three old theatres – the Theatre Royal, the Royal Opera House, and one which I thought was called the Floral Hall, which turned out to be the Palace Theatre. I deliberately ducked the issue of ‘variety theatres’ – they had long gone by the 1960’s. Essentially the histories of these three theatres have two common themes – they were very large, and they were all built in the eighteen hundreds.
In turn: the Theatre Royal was built on Horsefair Street and 90
opened on 12th September 1836, when it was named the New Theatre. At that time it sat 1,250 to 1,300 customers. Later it became the Theatre Royal. Its interior was remodelled in 1873; its curved stage was replaced by a proscenium arch in 1881, and electricity was introduced in 1905. It was first closed in 1956; a rescue attempt failed, and the doors finally shut in 1957. Its site is now occupied by the Santander Building.
Next, the Royal Opera House; this was built in 1877 on Silver Street, and opened its doors on 6th September that year. It could seat 2,550 people, including the gallery which was accessed by a separate entrance on Cank Street. It seems that the floor of the pit could be raised to the level of the stage when it was required, though it appears that this only ever happened on one occasion. It first closed on 21st February 1959, re-opened later that year for a pantomime, and finally closed on 11th June 1960. Malcolm Arcade now stands where once play-goers flocked.
Last came the Palace theatre, and the solution to the mysterious Floral Hall. The Floral Hall itself was built as a skating rink in 1876 on Belgrave Gate, but it was discovered that it was lacking skates. It was then converted to a circus venue with 2,000 seats and opened on 15th December 1876. This failed. It re-opened as a theatre in 1878, failed, and various attempts to revive it also failed. It closed in 1900, leaving only a cinema with its name which went the same way in 1959.
The Palace Theatre was built on part of its site and opened on 17th June 1901. It was converted to a cinema in 1930, when the seating capacity was reduced to 1,883. It was converted back to a theatre in 1937 together with and ice rink, and went into history on 21st February 1959. It is now a car park and a parade of shops.
The first part of this saga dealt with the arrival of the Living Theatre in 1961, together with the fact that Leicester was not the first choice of venue for it. It so happened that at the time of its arrival three large theatres in Leicester had just closed, but the city was not without theatres altogether; two venues were still operational – De Montfort Hall and the Little Theatre.
De Montfort Hall is one of those all-purpose buildings which can be used for nearly everything. Indeed, one wit accused it of being a converted airship hanger. Originally the ‘ground’ floor was level and could be used for dances, whilst with chairs it could seat about 2,000 for a concert, a play, a degree ceremony or any other purpose requiring an audience. It has an organ built in 1914 which has 6,000 pipes. It must be said that the original seats were not all that comfortable, and recently the seating arrangements have been changed into a tiered system which allows the audience a better view of the stage.
The Little Theatre is what it says – very small in comparison with the goliaths which were closing all round it. It is the home of the Leicester Drama Society, and can seat some 349 people. It is self-sufficient and requires no council funding. Originally the Leicester Drama Society, formed in the early 1920’s, had no permanent abode and had to hire venues to put on performances. In the early 1930’s it acquired the reckabite chapel (the foundation stone of which is on the wall of a corridor just behind the foyer) which was then converted into a theatre and opened in 1932. It has operated as a theatre ever since.
So, what happened to the Living Theatre personnel after its closure? For a start, its existence seems to have awakened the city council to the fact that the theatre-going public were no longer well catered for. The three extra large theatres that closed were losing money because their audiences were declining (that of course is not reflected attendances on last nights), their buildings were old and probably needed costly repairs, and the actors’ wage bill was increasing. Smaller, newer, less expensive buildings were required. So the city put in a stop-gap – a ‘pre-fab’ theatre which became known as the Phoenix. That name originated of course in the idea of the new theatre arising from the ashes of the old. It opened in 1963 and several members of the Living Theatre joined its company. It seated 266 people.
By 1973 a more permanent establishment was built in the new shopping centre – the Haymarket Theatre. The two ran in parallel, the Phoenix becoming the Phoenix Arts Centre, till
1987 when the city council could no longer fund it. It was saved from destruction by the Polytechnic, which was later to become De Montfort University, and used for modern art, film and live performances. Threatened again with closure in 2009 it was again taken over this time by Leicester College, and, under the name of the Upper Brown Street campus, was used to teach drama, music and sound. At this time the name ‘Phoenix’ had been used for a new cinema elsewhere and the name had to be changed to avoid confusion. In 2015 it became the Sue Townsend Theatre.
In the meantime the Haymarket, opened in 1973 with a capacity of 753 seats and with a studio seating 120, became the principal theatre for the city. It lasted until 2006, by which time a new goliath had appeared in the ‘cultural quarter’ – the Curve. The Haymarket has since been refurbished and has recently re-opened.
Of the Curve I need say little. It opened in 2008 and has a seating capacity of 902 in the main theatre and 350 in the Studio.
But this is not the whole story, for, hidden away in the YMCA building there is another theatre, now the oldest in the city, which really did not come to the fore until the 1980’s. This is the Y theatre. It was originally part of the YMCA organisation, acting as a lecture theatre and known as the Association Hall. By the 1920’s it was hosting concerts and dinner dances. For a while at that time it even hosted the Leicester Drama Society whilst they searched for a more permanent venue. By the 1930’s it had become known as The Playhouse.
In both world wars it provided food, bed and entertainment for the soldiers, over a million using its services in World War 1 alone. However, after the second world war it went into decline until it was rescued in the 1970’s and re-opened by Prince Charles in February 1981. At that time also, the YMCA became a housing association, and is still linked to the theatre.
Would we have had all this without the Living Theatre? Who knows?