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Greenwich Theatre
Crooms Hill
SE10 8ES
020 8858 7755
Nearest Tube/Train Station:
Greenwich BR/DLR
Greenwich Theatre History

The good old days

Appropriately enough, the origins of the Greenwich Theatre lie in that most popular and universal of British entertainment – the Victorian music hall. It all began in 1855, when John Green established the Rose and Crown Music Hall in a building adjoining his public house on Crooms Hill. Early uses also included a meeting place for the Greenwich Liberal Association and a skittle alley.

The theatre really came to life in 1871, when the new owner, Charles Spencer Crowder, opened the refurbished 'Crowders Music Hall' with a separate entrance on Nevada Street. According to reports of the time, it was a splendid building boasting a new stage, ''equal to many of the West End theatres'', and a new lavatory!

In 1872 Crowder suffered mixed fortunes. His offer to stage entertainment of 'high moral character' to the Greenwich Workhouse was declined by the Board of Guardians, and he was prosecuted and fined one shilling by the Greenwich Police Court for the unlawful performance of stage plays. Yet he continued to offer a rich mixture of burlesque, concert and ballet acts every evening such as ES Bower, Price Barnes – The Elastic and Grotesque Dancer, Harry Diamond – The Gem of the Coal Mines and Sig. Lorenzo and his troupe of performing dogs until 1879.

Having become the 'Crowders Music Hall and Temple of Varieties' in 1878, the building was re-named by the new owner Alfred Ambrose Hurley as the 'Royal Borough Theatre of Varieties'.

By 1898, the Theatre had been re-built to the designs of John George Buckle – and in yet another name-change, was splendidly called the 'Parthenon Theatre of Varieties'. The plaster façade can still be seen on Nevada Street today.

The theatre's entrance on Crooms Hill dates from about 1902 when Samuel and Daniel Barnard took over, but the period up to the First World War saw the theatre change hands a number of times – reopening in various guises as the Greenwich Palace of Varieties, Barnard's Palace and the Greenwich Hippodrome. Playbills of the time mention star names such as Harry Champion and Lily Langtree, with more dramatic performances with spectacular effects projected by the latest attraction – the Edisonograph.

By 1915 the theatre had become the Greenwich Hippodrome Picture Palace presenting a mixture of films and live shows.

In 1924, the theatre lost its licence for live entertainment and began presenting films only. During the Second World War, the theatre was re-opened as a repertory theatre with films on Sundays, but when an incendiary bomb crashed through the roof into the auditorium the theatre was closed and remained empty – occasionally being used for storage.

1969 and a new beginning

Greenwich Council bought the site for demolition in 1962, but agreed to support the idea of a new theatre if there was enough local enthusiasm to justify it. Ewan Hooper, a local actor and director, accepted the challenge. He was determined to create a professional theatre in Greenwich with strong links in the local community.

An appeal committee was started and street canvassing produced some 3,000 people committed to the project. Local enthusiasm was encouraged by regular music hall shows under the chairmanship of Geoffrey Robinson, featuring actors such as Derek Griffiths and Pauline Collins. Local councils, the Arts Council and the GLC were all generous in their support, but it is notable that half the cost of the new theatre came from local individuals and businesses – many of whose names are still recorded on commemorative bricks on the walls of the building.

Using designs by architect Brian Meeking the gradual rebuilding process took six years. The original plans which included using the side boxes, circle and the gallery (described as the steepest in London by the Greater London Council) from the old music hall had to be revised when the walls of the theatre began to split after the fly-tower was demolished. An entirely new building emerged, with a restaurant and dressing rooms on the ground floor and a new stage above the site of the old one with a 'single sweep' auditorium – so everyone can get a great view of the stage from every single seat.

In 1969, the theatre reopened on 21st October with a new piece of musical theatre written by Ewan Hooper – Martin Luther King – telling the life of the civil rights leader.

An even bigger drama...

Over the next twenty-eight years, Greenwich Theatre produced a body of work of astonishing quality and variety under the artistic leadership of Ewan, Alan Strachan, Sue Dunderdale and Matthew Francis.

The first few years saw Mia Farrow and Charles Dance in Chekhov's 'Three Sisters', Barbara Windsor in Sing a Rude Song, Glenda Jackson, Susannah York and Vivien Marchant in Genet's The Maids, and the premiere of John Mortimer's A Voyage Round my Father.

In 1974 Jonathan Miller directed Ibsen's Ghosts, Chekhov's The Seagull and Hamlet, and Alan Aykbourn's The Norman Conquests featured a dream cast of Tom Courtenay, Michael Gambon, Penelope Keith and Felicity Kendall. Max Wall in The Entertainer, directed by the author John Osborne, capped the season.

Developing a long standing association with the theatre, Max Wall memorably starred in Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape and, in 1977, as 'Malvolio' in Twelfth Night as well as in Harold Pinter's The Caretaker.

In 1979 Stephanie Beecham starred alongside Jeremy Irons in Ray Cooney's See How They Run, whilst in 1981 Rupert Everett shot to stardom in the premiere of Another Country, which swiftly transferred to West End and then to the silver screen. By 1997 the theatre had seen several West End transfers including Alan Ayckbourn's Intimate Exchanges, Noel Coward's Private Lives, JM Barrie's Mary Rose, Sarah Kestleman and Joanne Whalley in Michael Frayn's Three Sisters and Juliet Stevenson in The Duchess Of Malfi.

Then, in 1997, in a move that was branded everything from 'outrageous' to 'obscene', the London Arts Board withdrew Greenwich Theatre's annual subsidy of £210,000. Protests were led by famous names including Patricia Routledge, Geraldine James and Corin Redgrave. Old friends such as Ewan Hooper and Alan Strachan returned to lend their support, but without its core-funding the theatre was forced to close. In the following months, the closure was used as the case in point for any commentator wishing to express in real terms the funding crisis of the Arts. Most concluded with the symbolic fact that a relatively popular producing theatre in the shadow of the Millennium Dome was going to collapse for want of just 0.026 per cent of the sum bestowed upon its awesome neighbour.

Once again it was local people who were at the forefront of the campaign to save the theatre. Thanks to their persistence and campaigning, and a generous financial package from Greenwich Council and the Greenwich Development Agency, Greenwich Theatre reopened in November 1999 under new director, Hilary Strong.

A fresh start

It is now five years since Greenwich Theatre reopened, and since then the ongoing support from Greenwich Council, from local businesses and from our Friends and Angels has enabled us to carry out an exciting programme of improvements on both sides of the curtain.

Off stage, the roof has been fixed, backstage facilities have been upgraded and the theatre's Bar and Café have been given a major facelift, creating a bright and airy space for everyone to meet, eat, drink and enjoy. Our entrance on Nevada Street has undergone restoration, returning the Victorian façade to its former glory, and the auditorium has now received a £40,000 face-lift, with new carpet and 421 plush new seats.

We are delighted to be working with the support of Arts Council England to develop our growing programme of work with new musicals.

Musical theatre remains one of this country's greatest cultural exports, but as there is little real focus for new musicals in the UK the next generation of composers struggle to find a platform for their work. Our open thrust stage is ideally suited to musical theatre, and we continue to provide a home for new work through Musical Futures, our annual showcase of the very best in new musical theatre.

Thanks to the support from London Arts autumn 2002 saw Greenwich Theatre's return to producing, with Paul Ryan and Peter Readman's fantastic new musical Sadly Solo Joe. The show was one of 12 new musicals showcased in 2002's Musical Futures, and after its run here the production transferred to the International Festival of Musical Theatre in Cardiff. In summer 2003, to great acclaim, we revived Golden Boy, an American musical not seen in London since the late sixties.

Greenwich Theatre is seen as an important part of the regeneration of the local area. Enlivening, educating and entertaining office workers, tourists, families – everyone from the loyal theatre-goer to the first time visitor to Greenwich. Theatre should bring in audiences from the whole community – not just the educated elite – so we continue to present high-quality work that is accessible, inspiring and provides genuine entertainment for all. With a wide and varied programme of events we hope now you've visited our website you'll come and visit us soon.


Greenwich Theatre
Nearest Tube/Train Station:
Greenwich BR/DLR
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