Friday, May 22, 2020

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

Put your hands together for Mr Matcham…

During the pandemic, with its various attendant prohibitions on gatherings and unnecessary voyages out, the Resident Wise Woman and I have enjoyed numerous streamed and recorded performances by the likes of the National Theatre as welcome substitutes for the real, live thing. At various times of our lives, the live theatre has been important, and these offerings have been very welcome. But there is nothing like the atmosphere of a live performance in a proper theatre, and once or twice recently I’ve caught myself remembering some of the notable nights out we’ve had in months and years gone by.

Something triggered a memory the other day of my very first visit to the theatre. I was a small boy, and I’d read somewhere about theatres, and seen, I think, an illustration of one in a book. Whatever the book was escapes me now, but the illustration was of a magical place, all gilded decoration, glittering lamps, red velvet, and baroque curlicues – though I would not then have known what a curlicue was, let alone what the term ‘baroque’ means. But I had this image of a theatre in my mind, and when I was told I was going to go to the theatre I hoped it would be somewhere like that. I’m not sure how old I was (eight? nine?), but I know I was (already, so young!) not unprepared for disappointment. It couldn’t, could it, be quite as ornate, as glittering, as wonderfully other and different, as the theatre in the book?

But it was. The interior of the Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham, was every bit as extraordinary, from the crystal lamp hanging in the centre of the ceiling to the red plush on the seats, from the golden putti on to the balcony fronts to the intricate decoration around the proscenium arch. Little did I know that I was in a building designed by the doyen of theatre architects, Frank Matcham. Matcham, who died in May 1920, had a hand, as builder or rebuilder, in some 150 theatres. It was what he did, mainly, and he did it very well. Not only was he brilliant at this kind of late-Victorian and Edwardian baroque fantasy decoration, but he also understood the theatre. He knew that the whole audience needed to be as near the stage as possible, and that seats with views interrupted by pillars were a pain. He was up with the latest in theatre technology, from electric lighting to crash bars.¶ He could work on a large scale or (as at Cheltenham) on a restricted site. He knew how to make a theatre adaptable – Cheltenham’s theatre, originally built as an opera house, has an orchestra pit that can be covered to fit in more stalls seating when (as is usually the case these days) the show needs no band.

As you can tell, I’m a fan of Frank Matcham. But back in the sometimes absurdly destructive years of the 20th century, many did not share my enthusiasm.* Matcham’s fancy decor (sometimes baroque, sometimes classical, sometimes Italian Renaissance) and traditional theatre layouts fell out of favour and many of his buildings were demolished. I’m glad that a number – the King’s Theatre in Glasgow, the Richmond Theatre, London’s vast Coliseum, Cheltenham’s little Everyman, and some 20 others – still survive and are now much loved.† Matcham’s theatres are, as they say in the business, dark now. But they’ll glitter again, and audiences will be doubly grateful for them, and they’ll resound with laughter and applause.

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¶ Crash bars: the bars on theatre exit doors that open when you push them; Cheltenham’s theatre was the first building to have them fitted.

* An excellent article in The Guardian cites a telling comparison made by architectural historian Andrew Saint. Matcham’s fate has sometimes been like that of Charles Dickens; the novelist was sometimes sneered at by academics (especially F. R. Leavis – but there have long been Dickens supporters in academe) for being popular or lacking in seriousness. Dickens’ reputation is safe these days; that of Matcham is too.

† Matcham’s other buildings include Blackpool’s Tower Ballroom and the magnificent County and Cross Arcades in Leeds.

Photograph: Copyright © 2020 Everyman Theatre Cheltenham 


Hels said...

I was a ballet student for 12 years and mostly studied and performed in functional (read unattractive) buildings. But late Victorian theatres with red velvet and gold decoration were a reality that everyone knew about. I have never visited Cheltenham, but I have seen others. 50 years later, they are still exciting.

bazza said...

My wife and I are great theatre goers, I've got about 300 programmes going back to the sixties of everything I've seen. We too have been watching the National Theatre online. We enjoyed One Man, Two Gov'nors and Tamsin Grieg's Malvolio.
Very often the actual buildings of London theatres are a sheer delight!
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s abnormally antic Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Philip Wilkinson said...

Bazza: Yes. Both those two were great – One Man... left my laughing muscles aching. I didn't enjoy Frankenstein quite as much, but I'm glad I saw it. I'm steeling myself for A Streetcar Named Desire.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Hels: I do agree! I've enjoyed theatre in modern buildings such as London's concrete National Theatre hugely, but these Victorian buildings do work really well. Another highlight: watching opera in the mid-18th century baroque theatre in the castle in Česky Krumlov, in the Czech Republic – with the original scenery. Magic.

triskele27 said...

The Grand Opera House in Belfast is another Matcham jewel.
It's renovation, after neglect and bomb damage, helped jump start Belfast's nightlife which had been devastated by the Troubles.
It is now closed for restoration and it will be wonderful to see it again when we escape lockdown!!!

Joe Treasure said...

I experienced this wonderful building often and from various angles, including the stalls and the gods, but also the orchestra pit and (as a member of the Young Everyman Group) the bar, though never, as far as I remember, the stage. I seem to remember the facade had been horribly redesigned before my time and was later restored (?)

Philip Wilkinson said...

Joe: Yes. The facade was messed about with (maybe in the 1950s or 60s, I forget) and was restored, at around the time of the millennium, when the front of house area was also upgraded, and other work done. I've only been on the stage once, as the guest of staff members, and what surprised me was the very small wings area. There's really not much room to swing a cat, and the SMs must have a tough time doing scene changes that involve large props, furniture, etc., as I don't remember there being a lot of room to get stuff ready before taking it on stage. But when one is on the stage, the audience really don't feel very far away – the auditorium feels intimate.