Kent's theatres reveal their secret past

PUBLISHED: 17:29 20 November 2012 | UPDATED: 22:23 20 February 2013

From a "palatial public edifice" to a Gothic-style church and a former brothel for passing sailors, Kent's theatres are as colourful as the productions they entertain us with at Christmas

Kents theatres reveal their secret past

From a palatial public edifice to a Gothic-style church and a former brothel for passing sailors, Kents theatres are as colourful as the productions they entertain us with at Christmas

Theatres started appearing in the county from as far back as 1787, when the Theatre Royal was built in Addington Street in Margate. Since then more than 20 venues have popped up from large-scale venues to tiny performance spaces.

Beyond the bright lights and box offices, there lies a wealth of fascinating stories ready to be told that make up a very rich history about Kents theatres.

This year marked the first anniversary of the new-look Marlowe theatre in Canterbury. On 4 October 2011, an impressive building replaced the previous incarnation - but it wasnt the first Marlowe for the city.

The current theatre with its stylish new design is in fact the third; the first being a former cinema in St Margarets Street. But it did not survive and the building was later demolished. The Marlowe Arcade Shopping Centre now stands in its place.

It was another cinema, this time, the Odeon in The Friars, which was to become the next theatre in the city, following a multi-million pound transformation.

Then, after 25 years, the second Marlowe closed its doors to make way for the stunning new building that stands there today.

There was quite a stir too when the Assembly Hall in Tunbridge Wells first opened in 1939. The building known today as predominantly a theatre was originally designed to also be used as a cinema, ballroom, banqueting hall, conference chamber, opera house, concert hall and broadcasting studio. So much so it was dubbed a palatial public edifice.

Brian McAteer, Theatre Director at the Assembly Hall explains: The theatre originally was conceived as a multi-purpose dance hall with a specially constructed dance floor.

However, the original architect had the foresight to install a fly tower, which means that more technically sophisticated shows can be performed. The venue, particularly in the last 10 years, has moved increasingly away from presenting flat floor events to staging more theatrical productions, including mid- to large-scale West End musicals. Although attracting audiences in the current recession has been difficult, the theatre continues to thrive with high attendances and better quality shows.

The building is an impressive example of Art Deco style and was the only theatre and entertainment centre of its size in the south east when it opened.

Theatres often begin life in venues built for other purposes and this can certainly be seen at the Trinity in Tunbridge Wells. The Holy Trinity church was the first Parish church in the town and was built in 1829. It was to be the start of years of history for the Gothic-style church.

Despite congregations of 1,600 people, it was considered no longer fit for purpose in 1972 and it was deconsecrated. Thanks to local people who campaigned against its destruction, they set about turning it into the Trinity Theatre.

Lawrence Brown, Trinitys Youth Theatre Co-Ordinator said: We have regular visitors who arrive at our door with an air of shock and disbelief as they remember the building as a well-attended period church!

Nothing feels quite like a full house at Trinity especially at Christmas when the weather outside is inclement and the warm glow of the caf is so tempting.

Much of the original building can still be seen and one of the stained glass windows is thought to be one of only two remaining works by the 19th-century glass painter Joseph Hale Miller.

Taking on an existing building and turning it into a theatre can have many benefits but for the Erith Playhouse, it also came with one particularly unusual issue to contend with. Again it was an old cinema which was to become the theatre.

In 1938, the cinema closed and the building initially used as storage during the Second World War. It was also during this time that it was said to have been used as a brothel for the passing sailors docking nearby. Chairman of the theatre Christine Angell recalls: I remember the days when we would be rehearsing and foreign sailors would knock on the doors thinking we were a house of ill repute!

Many people who work in theatre often also have stories to tell of goings-on of a more spooky variety.

For the tiny Tom Thumb theatre in Margate, staff have felt first hand, the existence of some unexpected guests. Owner Frankie Jordan explains: As soon as we took over, people from the early days asked have you seen the little girl? Apparently she is about four or five years old, often accompanied by a small dog and likes to jump on and off the stage.

But it isnt the building itself that attracts the spirits. It seems even the seats have their own story as Frankie continues: The seats were inherited from a Music Hall in London. One evening, a man realised he had forgotten his glasses. He asked to borrow the key and go back to look for them. Apparently, when he returned, he asked what show was being rehearsed that night as the seats were occupied by ladies and gentlemen in Edwardian costume.

It is also perhaps not surprising then that the Trinity, having once been a church, is also said to be haunted. When the venue was deconsecrated, the bell ropes were removed but the bells themselves were left behind.

It has been said that when the building is empty, there is an eerie chill and the sound of the bells can be heard. Lawrence Brown is often the last person to lock-up at night. He said: Similar to daring a child to walk through a graveyard late at night, locking the doors of Trinity and switching off the lights can be a hair-raising experience.

The final switches that need to be turned off lie directly under the spot where the bell-ringers rope would have swung and I have often crossed the stage, late at night and heard sounds coming from the bell tower.

Perhaps the presence of the former bell ringer who fell to his death there in 1892?

Did you know?

The Stag Theatre in Sevenoaks is not named after the four-legged creatures living at nearby Knole House. It in fact stands for Sevenoaks Theatre Action Group, the campaign group behind setting up the theatre in the town

The Theatre Royal, Margate was the site of the first drama school in the country. The School of Acting opened by Sarah Thorne in 1885

No seat at The Marlowe is further than 25 metres away from the stage

The colour of the auditoriums Italian leather seats are unique to the Marlowe Theatre

When the Erith Playhouse first opened it didnt have its own bar so the theatres bells to mark curtain-up and the interval were rung in the local bars to tell the audience when to make their way back

The colours of buff, green and silver in the Assembly Halls auditorium are the original choices from when it opened in 1939. They were restored during the refurbishment work in 2001-2003

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