A VISIT TO THE ROYAL AND DERNGATE, NORTHAMPTON, 2006
by DAVID F. CHESHIRE
The Royal Theatre (Original architect C. J. Phipps, 1884)
Derngate Centre (Architect RHWL Architects, 1983)
Coming from Northampton and having worked at the Royal Theatre (or Northampton Repertory Theatre as it was then known) as call-boy, scene-shifter, scene-painter and even well-paid (for the day) Shakespearean actor in the 1940s and 1950s, and having also been a regular member of the audience in the same period - and a sporadic member in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s - I was, like many permanent or temporary Northamptonians, extremely concerned when the current powers-that-be at the Derngate announced that they would be undertaking ‘comprehensive improvements’ to both the Derngate Centre and the Royal Theatre. Hopes for a successful outcome were raised when it was announced that the Arts Team at RHWL had been chosen not only to update their Derngate Centre of 1983 but also to refurbish the Royal.
During the 1970s and 1980s, and even the 1990s, the Renton Howard Wood Levin Partnership was responsible for designing some of the better new theatres and extending and refurbishing many older theatres such as the Alhambra, Bradford, the Old Vic, London and (especially) the Lyceum, Sheffield. In all of these, the new builds were inserted pretty painlessly and the integrity of the old theatres fully respected - as should obviously be the case with listed buildings.
However since the turn of the new century the team seems to have lost quite a lot of its flair. Perhaps it has undertaken too many big and complicated jobs simultaneously.
One of RHWL Architects’ recent press releases lists the London Coliseum , the Prince of Wales Theatre, the Novello Theatre, Wigmore Hall and Chigwell School Drama Centre under ‘recent projects’ and the Queens (sic), Geilgud (sic), the Sondheim and the Coward theatres, all in London, under ‘current projects.’ Also under ‘current projects’ are to be found the Northern Stage - formally Newcastle Playhouse (reopened 27 August 2006), Belfast Grand Opera House (reopened on 21 October 2006) and the Royal and Derngate, Northampton (reopened on Sunday 22 October , according to another RHWL release, but on 9 October 2006 according to the venues’ own publicity).
It is doubtful whether even Frank Matcham could have matched such a workload. Luckily he was working at a time when theatres usually just had to be spaces for staging and watching shows and buying liquid refreshment, and his work did not have to embody the ‘belief that theatres and their foyer spaces should be designed to support wider and inclusive community and educational activities’. Nor did Matcham have to make space for an area called the ‘Underground’: ‘a bold creative education centre incorporating a geode (the surprise within) …. Simple clean and unadorned outside, a formal timber structure and inner finish revealed within ‘, as part of ‘the bringing together of the…. two different strands of work presented by the two theatres, preparing the complex for its third (sic) century of performing arts, development and excellence.’ [Quotations from the RHWL press release].
As a glance through arts council england, london, news Issue No. 10 / 11.06, 60 years celebrating the arts reveals, these are all admirable aims phrased in the suitably modish artspeak currently acceptable in grant-giving circles. But should theatres really be infringing on areas better and more economically undertaken by real schools? Especially if the venue in question can only afford to employ a ‘Youth Theatre Workshop Leader (2 hours a week on a Wednesday) for two terms starting in late January’. [Advertisement in The Stage, December 7, 2006].
The net result of trying to cram in all these non-entertainment facilities is that both the Royal Theatre (especially) and the Derngate Centre have had their old personalities completely removed, resulting in a complex perfectly suited to the present state of Northampton and supporting the theory that theatres invariably mirror the ‘personalities’ of the town in which they are situated. Michael Greenberg’s memorable description of Sotheby’s New York (in a recent Times Literary Supplement article) fits the bill exactly: ‘Inelegant and corporate’ - and in this case a visual mess.
THE ROYAL THEATRE
Asking a taxi driver on 21 October to take us to the Royal and Derngate, he said, ‘Oh, it’s reopened at last, has it?’ And his comment when we drew up outside the former entrance on a dark, rain-swept evening was, ‘Are you sure it has opened?’ Not an auspicious start. Along with others trying to find a way in out of the cold we hurriedly entered the Royal’s former entrance on Guildhall Road, now canopy-less presumably to indicate that it is not now really supposed to be used to gain access to the theatre
As a local resident Anne Stacey put it in a letter to the Chronicle and Echo, 4 November, 2006:
‘Having visited the newly-refurbished Royal Theatre last week, I feel so annoyed that Northampton seems to have lost yet another gem to tasteless design. What on earth is the justification for having gutted the beautifully ornate, charming foyer, transforming it into something that is about as inspiring and soulless as the inside of a cardboard box? I was under the impression that the restoration was intended to restore the theatre to its original Victorian splendour. This plan seems to have fallen far short of its goal.’
You could say that again. Her ‘cardboard box’ description is derived from the dull bare walls and the flooring which seems to cover the complex’s entire foyer area, not only this small ancillary space. It has a tobacco-spittle coloured cork-like material with a nasty (presumably non-slip) sticky surface. To make matters worse no attempt has been made to level the old floor before laying the new covering. ‘Charming’ is definitely not the word to use for this area now. It may be wondered where the genuine antique tables, chairs and mirrors together with all the other pictures and artifacts have gone. Presumably along with the antique bust of Shakespeare, Epstein’s wonderful bust of George Bernard Shaw and the walking stick (made from a branch of a mulberry tree planted by David Garrick in the grounds of nearby Abington Manor - the residence of Shakespeare’s last descendant - in 1778) and presented to Sir Henry Irving on a non-working visit to the theatre in 1903 they are safely in store somewhere awaiting careful replacement in due course.
The result as Val Knowles (formerly a member of the Royal’s wardrobe staff) said in another letter to the local paper is ‘beautifully done, the pale blue of the ceiling and the new plasterwork is very grand but now looks like most Victorian theatres look or looked and we have lost our uniqueness and a part of this theatre’s history.’
Additionally this decision reveals that Phipps did not have the eye of either manic Matcham or splendid Sprague as far as interior decorations are concerned. The result is (to put it politely) polite, with the walls of the boxes and circles covered with a particularly boring wallpaper.
The much bruited sunburner seems to have some curiously ‘contemporary’ multi-coloured glass baubles attached to it and, suffering from an extremely strong down blast of cold air from the air conditioning above the front stalls during the show, we wondered why the sunburner had not been used to house a more user-friendly system centrally.
We had booked seats in the Upper Circle (in an effort to recreate the old gallery-going days) but having been told that the Upper Circle was closed we were unexpectedly guided to the stalls through the new foyer (up and down more stairs than is surely necessary - as the nearest lift was out of order) in a very friendly manner by Donna Munday, the Chief Executive, taking time out from what must have been an extremely hectic evening, even though we had not announced in advance that we were there on special business. When we eventually reached our seats in the second row (far too near for any show, especially a Sondheim) we discovered why: even though it was only the second night of Follies, the theatre was less than full.
Probably just as well we were moved, for as Val Knowles also revealed, ‘I sat in the Gallery, now called the Upper Circle, in the promised new seats. They were unbelievably uncomfortable. When I sat down my knees hit the wooden partition between the rows. God help anyone taller than my five foot one inches…’ Even worse (and this is the fault of the set designer and director not the architects), ’Having removed the beautiful chandelier because of the sightlines, the staircase and upper level of the set was too high to be seen from the Upper Circle.’
Unfortunately these two areas of the set, on an otherwise almost bare stage, were used very regularly by what was an efficient but uninspired pro-am cast. Quite how Equity allowed the cast of an opening production of a newly refurbished theatre to be half ‘Am’ is a mystery, especially as national reviewers as well as local theatergoers maintained it was difficult to tell which were the ‘pros’ and which the ’ams’.
‘Pro-Am’ usually indicates a production of say Oliver or Carousel where there are plenty of opportunities for ‘community’ involvement through children, young people and the occasional more senior stalwart of local amateur operatic and dramatic societies.
No call for children in Follies and Equity probably did not intend the fairly well-experienced (in modern terms) thirteen Pros. (including a five-strong ensemble of one actor and four dancers - also playing parts which would have been taken by stage management or stage staff in the old days) to be outnumbered by fifteen ‘Ams’ - all of whom had considerable experience stretching back over twenty, thirty, forty and, in one case, fifty years.
Like Equity’s acceptance of ‘Pro-Am’ in general, this was a strange decision in a town where the local rep (as in many other places) had fought for years to make it clear that its company was indeed ‘pro’ not ‘am’.
As there was a ‘slight’ delay (unheard of in the old days) we had plenty of time to admire Henry Bird’s extraordinary Sipario Diponto of 1979. Although it was a pity it had not been dusted. Indeed the presence of this dust and the already scuffed paintwork elsewhere in the auditorium suggested to our neighbour that it was all part of the set for a dilapidated theatre awaiting demolition.
While the interval provided plenty of opportunity for getting lost in the anonymous white circulation area, we saw no sign of the controversial Harlequin mural by Osborne Robinson. He was Head of Design at Northampton Repertory Theatre for an amazing fifty years and was a designer with a national and international reputation as well as being hugely popular and admired locally. Val Knowles, however, did manage to find it ‘covered by a velvet curtain’ as though it was an obscene painting in a Victorian gentleman’s mansion.
The irony of the retention of Henry Bird’s safety curtain, and the elimination of Osborne Robinson’s general and personal additions to the Royal (except for his hidden Harlequin) was undoubtedly lost on the architects. Bird was also a busy local artist specialising in murals and occasional stage designer (see article by Roger Pinkham in Theatrephile No. 6), but he had little time for Robinson’s style and method and would have been delighted to find that he now dominated what is left of the Royal.
Indeed, in his article on Bird, Pinkham neatly summarised the reason for the apparent disdain for Robinson’s work during the recent refurbishment: ‘To be a local artist is by no means unenviable, even though such figures tend to be ignored in wider surveys. If they receive any publicity at all it is usually only at a local level. Seen from the metropolis they may seem quaint and we are keen to ignore them.’
The auguries were again not propitious. When we got into a taxi on the next night to visit what turned out to be an exciting and amusing concert of Sir Malcolm Arnold’s music by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Barry Wordsworth: ‘Where to?’ ‘The Royal and Derngate, please’. ‘Is that open again?’ When we arrived in another equally gloomy Guildhall Road: ‘Are you sure its open, Sir?’ ‘Yes, here are our tickets.’ ‘Where is the entrance now, then?’ ‘Down Swan Lane’. ‘Strange idea.’ On the way down Guildhall Road passing the old warehouse incorporated into the centre in 1983 we noted that, even though no lights were on, the windows were filthy and the frames were cracked. Presumably it had been decided to wait until work had been completed on converting an enormously ugly 1930s’ block (on the other side of the narrowest street in Northampton) into luxury apartments before cleaning them. However, it was pleasing to note that the glass in the large windows and entrance doors smashed by vandals in the early hours of 28 September had now been repaired.
The foyer is now a vast, impersonal space with (it would seem) elements taken from every type of post-1945 foyer, with special attention having been given to German concert halls of the period, not of course forgetting that trendy late twentieth-century feature : an expanse of unplastered, cheap brick.
The various spaces and areas had apparently worked very well during the two days of the many and varied activities of the Arnold Festival, but what will they be like when normal shows are staged? And how will they all be kept clean?
Again an unfortunate delay and so plenty of time for concertgoers to try and balance on the rather frail looking retro-contemporary chairs and stools in the area then acting as a bar , but which by now should be a restaurant.
Once the auditorium doors were open and our seats were found - unfortunately only those seats on the right hand side of the stalls had a notice guiding ticket-holders to them - it was possible to ascertain what works had been undertaken in the auditorium. The rows of seats have been reconfigured, not to patrons’ advantage, as the space allowing movement from one side to the other had been removed, and the only means of internal circulation was to go along the rows.
Rob Lane neatly summed up several people’s first impressions in the Chronicle and Echo (October 23): ‘I was fortunate enough to see The Manfreds play at Derngate last Monday night. They were brilliant and it was an excellent show. I was keen to see the improvement that had been made to the theatre after the fourteen months closure. I was a little disappointed. Its industrial grey paintwork was drab, violet backlighting a nice touch, but not really necessary. The floor in the foyer and bar area looked like it was straight out of the 1970s, a hideous mix of weird cork-like patterns and black stripes, soft tiles too, so you could already see indents where ladies had walked in high heels. Neon lights ran along the entire bar area, very Vegas (and by Vegas I mean tacky.) The toilets didn’t flush, soap dispensers placed between the basins mean that the liquid soap had dripped onto the floor, and what must be Derngate’s pride and joy, electronic paper towel dispensers, had run out of paper towels.’
The technical failures have probably been remedied and the violet backlighting (making it look as though the concert was being sponsored by Silk Cut) can presumably be changed at the flick of a switch on a computer control board. But the other aspects of the refurbishment will be difficult to change. Of course, Donna Mundy responded immediately to Mr Lane’s complaints by saying that she has ‘been inundated with compliments about how good the theatre looks’. She also claimed that ‘we haven’t used grey anywhere in the building’. Well if it was not designated ‘grey’ on the colour charts - it certainly seemed to be grey on the circle fronts.
The Chronicle and Echo also printed a lot of compliments but noticeably all from younger members of the audiences so it is obviously a generational thing: one person’s trendy retro is another person’s dowdy ‘old hat’.
One thing Mr. Lane did not notice (perhaps he was not in the stalls) - the carpet in some places is still held down by good old gaffer-tape. You obviously don’t get much for £15.5 million in 2006, once you’ve paid for the design team professionals and even the workers - especially the scaffolders. Perhaps there is more evidence of the Royal and Derngate investment on and at the back of both main stages.
David F Cheshire (1935-2010) was author of bibliographies and studies of the Music Hall and Ellen Terry, publisher and co-editor of the popular theatre research journal Theatrephile, and frequent contributor to Theatre Notebook, Sightline, The Ephemerist and The Stage. For more information on Northampton theatres, see the
David F Cheshire (1935-2010) was author of bibliographies and studies of the Music Hall and Ellen Terry, publisher and co-editor of the popular theatre research journal Theatrephile, and frequent contributor to Theatre Notebook, Sightline, The Ephemerist and The Stage.
For more information on Northampton theatres, see theNorthampton page at the site dedicated to Arthur Lloyd, and these books:
Richard Foulkes, Northampton Repertory Theatre: some questions and suggestions, Northampton, Leicester University Centre of Adult Education, 1977.
Richard Foulkes, Repertory at The Royal: Sixty-Five Years of Theatre in Northampton 1927-92, Northampton, Northampton Repertory Players Ltd, 1992.
Aubrey Dyas Perkins, Adventure in Repertory: Northampton Repertory Theatre, 1927-1948, Northampton, Northampton Repertory Players Ltd, 1948.
Ernest Reynolds, Northampton Repertory Theatre, Northampton, Guildhall Press, 1976.
Lou Warwick, Theatre Un-royal; or, They Called Them Comedians - a History of the Theatre, Sometimeroyal, Marefair, Northampton, Northampton, The Author, 1974.
Lou Warwick, The Mackenzies Called Compton: the story of the Compton Company, incorpaorated in the history of the Northampton Theatre Royal and Opera House, 1884-1927, Northampton, The Author, 1977.
Lou Warwick, Drama that Smelled; or, the early drama in Northampton and hereabouts, Northampton, The Author, 1975.
Lou Warwick, Death of a Theatre; a history of the New Theatre, Northampton, Northampton, The Author, 1960.
Like David Cheshire, I have an abiding interest in Northampton theatres, from being house manager under Willard Stoker, W Bland Wood and Tom Osborne Robinson at the Royal. They gave me my first job in arts administration, in 1971 when I was House Manager for a year, joining them when aged 18, from the being assistant stage manager at the Victoria Theatre, Salford.
Total administration staff: two! Fortnightly repertory for 19 in-house productions in this 660-seat theatre. Later, I admired the programming of the Derngate’s second general manager, the former circus showman Robert D Moore. He made the Derngate one of the most artistically accomplished presenting theatres in England, offering the best international ballet and dance companies. The Royal Theatre and Derngate were managed separately until 2000: the producing theatre by Northampton Repertory Players Limited (established 1927), and the touring house directly by the local authority. Then, Northampton Borough Council, the buildings’ proprietors, merged their operations, thus paving the way for the 2006 refurbishment, including enhanced integration of circulation spaces. For recent developments, see this story in The Stage.
Dress Rehearsal at Epidaurus, by Tom Osborne Robinson, 1958: