The History of The Playhouse Theatre Northampton
In 1850 Clare Street did not exist but the edge of a field ran roughly along the line it now takes. The Drill Hall was built in 1859 which led to other building and the date displayed on the music school at the Kettering Road end of Clare Street shows its foundation stone was laid in 1878.
This building is first shown as being owned by shoemaker John Wooding in Kelly’s Guide of 1884 but the 1896 Guide shows it as being Harry Howard, Boot and Shoe Manufacturers.
By 1900, 115 had become George Johnson and Co, Letterpress and Lithographic Printers. Frederick Brinklow, Metalworker is shown as being at no. 121. That Company is still operating in the yard next door.
Brockhall's Coachworks downstairs was established by Mr. C.T.Desborough in 1920 to build motor vehicle bodies and for repairs. A Miss Sear, a teacher of the pianoforte, is shown at the same address!
Brockhall has been in the building for nearly 100 years. The Company is now run by C.T. Desborough’s two sons. The upper floors were initially used by the company, but since the nineteen thirties they have been sublet for a number of purposes. The area had a lot of homeworkers and, for many years, they would bring their completed boots and shoes to no. 115 for payment. As the Boot and Shoe trade declined after the war, the second and third floors were used for a variety of purposes. For a time local undertakers would order coffins and store them here until they were needed.
In November 1950, a new Drama Society, ‘The Regency Players,’ gave a performance of ‘The Torchbearers,’ at the Exeter Hall.
In 1953 The Northampton Theatre Guild was formed from three local groups; Northampton Players, the Phoenix Players and the Regency Players. The headquarters were in the Garibaldi Pub, which was then on Wellingborough Road.
The Co-Op owned Exeter Hall, on the south side of Kettering Road, and The Theatre Guild then shared it with the Co-Operative Players and other community groups for a number of years.
In March 1961, at a performance of ‘ The Mark of Cain,’ by P.J. Baker, the Theatre Guild announced plans to acquire a theatre of its own, proclaiming that it, ‘wished to perform better shows in more comfortable surroundings!’
The owners of 115 Clare Street had agreed in principle to a five-year lease with the Theatre Guild responsible for the conversion of the two upper floors. To finance its scheme, the Guild opened a ‘Little Theatre Fund'. Donations were invited in three ways. The lounge floor was to be covered with lino tiles which could be bought for half-a-crown each and then be initialed by its sponsor. Cash loans repayable in instalments were requested or you could endow one of the 86 seats in the auditorium. (The seats were obtained from a Brighton Cinema which was being refurbished). Letters were written requesting one guinea to sponsor a seat, and some very famous names responded.
Amongst those who ‘named’ a seat in 1961 were:-
Sir Michael Redgrave, Sir John Gielgud, Sir Ralph Richardson, Dame Peggy Ashcroft, Dame Edith Evans, Anna Neagle, Dorothy Tutin, Richard Attenborough, Barbara Jefford, Celia Johnson, Terence Rattigan, Kenneth More, Paul Schofield, Joyce Grenfell, Brian Rix, Stephen Murray, Allan Melville, Peter Brook, Peter Hall, Stanley Holloway, Van Johnson, Anthony Newley, Eric Sykes, Russ Conway, Harry Secombe, Ivor Brown, James Hayter, Peter Saunders, Henry Sherek and Cliff Michelmore.
This scheme was so successful it was repeated some years later (at £10 per seat) and sadly most of the original nameplates were replaced and have now been lost.
The conversion was designed by a local structural engineer, Raymond Hegarty, and some thirty members were divided into five teams, each responsible for a specific part of the work.
ATV (the local commercial television station at the time) ran a news item about the conversion and, although the footage was wiped, it is known that it showed some fittings and items of electrical equipment that were obtained from the demolition of the New Theatre in Abington Street.
ATV’s children’s show was ‘Tinga and Tucker', (two koala bears) presented by Auntie Jean and Jean Morton performed the opening ceremony on the first night of ‘Flowering Cherry,’ with lots of local dignitaries attending. ATV donated £50 to The Playhouse project.
Since then, The Northampton Theatre Guild has presented five or six shows every year at The Playhouse and have occasionally let the theatre for other groups to use.
Since 2016, a programme of ‘Playhouse Extras,’ has more than doubled our own 36 performance nights and the theatre has recently seen more use than at any time in its 56 history.
The Playhouse Theatre is reached by a steep staircase from the Clare Street entrance. We are pleased to announce that a stairlift was installed in 2019 so now we are easily accessible for people unable to use stairs.
At the top of the stairs, a door on the right takes you into the Lounge or Foyer which has the Box office at one end and the Bar at the other. This area has been refurbished ready for the 2017/18 Season and has just been fitted with a Fire Retardant sprung floor and tiled ceiling.
The Stage Door to the left of the bar takes you into a small lobby – the door on the left takes you into the Dressing Room. This has direct access to the stage via a small entrance to stage right and a larger one (past the props table) to stage left.
The stage is just 5 metres wide by 6 metres deep.
The second door at the top of the entry stairs leads into a short corridor. This has a ladder to the sound and lighting platform above the stage and contains all the electrical and safety equipment for the theatre. A comprehensive Fire and Smoke alarm system has sensors throughout the building and emergency lighting is provided which will operate for at least two hours in the event of a power failure.
The Auditorium seats 85 and has a door at the back leading to the unisex toilets and the emergency exit. This can be opened and the metal staircase lowered into the adjacent yard in about thirty seconds and is always in a lowered position during all our performances. The toilet on the left has an original Victorian Toilet and we are soon to install a high level cast iron cistern with a chain to improve its operation and restore its authenticity.
We are in the middle of a two-year improvement programme. Although the building is Victorian, the safety and comfort of everyone who visits the Playhouse is our first priority. The auditorium, the stage, the dressing room, the bar and the lounge all meet the fire, safety and electrical standards required for modern theatres and are inspected annually. The Playhouse has a Performance Premises Licence, a Bar Licence and pays Performing Rights Fees for all the Plays and Music to the copyright owners, PPL and PRS.
The top floor was refurbished in 2018 and the very rickety staircase replaced with a much safer one. On the top floor are the Props (properties) and Costume Store (all set out now with metal racking for hanging space and shelving following the refurbishment) and the old hoist and doorway, that may well have been used for the coffins, can still be seen. A new toilet was installed in 2019 for the use of the cast and crew.
Our ‘wish list’ for next year includes Air Conditioning and additional heating (those of you who have been here in mid-Summer or mid-Winter will know why) and a number of other improvements to our technical equipment to enable us to considerably reduce our energy use.