Centre Stage column with David Bown

When visitors come to the Harrogate Theatre they will quickly become aware of the buildings history.
When visitors come to the Harrogate Theatre they will quickly become aware of the buildings history.
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I’ve just walked back to the theatre from the memorial service at the Cenotaph, unlocked an empty theatre, and climbed five flights of stairs to my office to write this piece. It was a very thoughtful short journey and as I sit at my desk in this remarkable building I’m always mindful of the history that surrounds me.

Harrogate Theatre opened to the public on January 13, 1900. The then Mayor of Harrogate, Mrs James Myrtle, presided over proceedings and introduced a fundraising event for the returning soldiers of the Boar War to a packed 1,400 house.

The following week was a production of Dick Whittington, which is the offering this Christmas in 2016.

The theatre was privately owned and run by William Peacock over its first three decades, not even the First World War could halt its rise to success. I have a number of programmes dating back a hundred years demonstrating that the Opera House, as it was then, thrived as a major venue on the touring circuit, hosting international hits ‘direct from London and presented by the Daly’s Theatre’.

The advent of cinema saw the theatre experience its first of many wobbles in the twentieth century. Peacock’s response was to form a repertory company, The White Rose Players. This was a group of actors employed on a permanent basis to perform a play in the evening while rehearsing the next production during the day, allowing for a quick and frequent turnover.

It proved a very successful formula with as many as 40 plays a year being performed.

In 1935 Peacock handed over the reins to his two daughters, with a degree of satisfaction I suspect. They rode out the Second World War with hits like Elizabeth Sleeps Out, produced here in 1941 by the hugely successful actor/writer Leslie Howard, who co-starred with Bette Davis in the film The Petrified Forest in 1936.

The Second World War over and moving into the 1950s the emergence of television began to have a negative influence on theatre attendance. Hollywood star Sonia Dresdel (who was born in Yorkshire) arrived in an attempt to revive its fortunes, but to no avail and in the late fifties the theatre closed.

The borough council stepped in, purchased and saved the theatre. They set up The Harrogate (White Rose) Theatre Trust to run the artistic side of the operation while they maintained the fabric of the building. That relationship exists to this day.

The actual building has gone through a number of transformations in its 116-year history. When it first opened it was a state of the art theatre, boasting electric lights as opposed to gas, hot running water and the capacity was a staggering 1,400.

What is now the balcony used to sweep right back into the roof with rows and rows of benches.

As plays and performance styles evolved, influenced by the arrival of cinema and television, then numbers dwindled and the large Victorian arenas became no longer fit for purpose.

Auditoriums got smaller to accommodate more intimate audiences watching increasingly naturalistic plays and acting.

In the 1970s Harrogate Theatre underwent one of its most significant transformations. The architect Roderick Ham steered a reconstruction of the theatre that witnessed the back wall of the auditorium brought forward to create a light and sound operating room in the ‘gods’, reducing capacity from what was at the time 800 to the current 500.

The theatre then went through 30 years of funding struggles and a degree of physical neglect until the 2007 refurbishment restored this beautiful building to its original livery, with an overhaul of the main auditorium and most of the public spaces.

I don’t want this theatre and the arts in Harrogate to go through another 30 years of struggle and neglect.

Harrogate deserves a theatre fit for the 21st century that resides at the heart of its community.

With that in mind we have started to explore a new phase of large scale refurbishment that we hope will also reinvigorate Oxford Street, creating a vibrant cultural hub that witnesses the local, national and international animation of Harrogate Theatre.

We desperately need a fully accessible building and facilities that can reach out to all parts of our community or we will become increasingly irrelevant in a changing cultural landscape.

Imagine a beautifully restored, totally accessible and stunning centre piece that creates a vibrant cultural hub for the town, just as it did in 1900. That’s where the theatre is heading – we hope you can join us on this journey.

The first step would be to come and see Dick Whittington this Christmas, 116 years on from its first performance.

What a wonderful start to a new and exciting phase in the life of Harrogate Theatre.