Theatre for Exeter Development Group CIC

A Brief History of Theatre in Exeter

From circa 1749 until 1962 Exeter had a City Centre Theatre.

The first purpose built Theatre was in Waterbeer Street behind the Guildhall. It is thought to have closed temporarily when John Wesley visited the city and the “local comedians were prosecuted and forced to give up their theatre”. It was then rented by the Methodists and used as a chapel until the actors resumed occupation. The presence of the theatre led to Waterbeer Street being called Theatre Lane until the theatre closed, at which point the street reverted back to its old name.

In 1787 a new theatre was built to replace it in Bedford Circus – now part of Princesshay. This burnt down in 1820 when a gas chandelier set fire to the rafters. It was rebuilt and by the mid 1830’s it had become known as the Theatre Royal. It was again destroyed by fire in 1885 with the only casualty being a pig belonging to a clown.

So a new Theatre Royal was built on the junction of New North Road and Longbrook Street by the Exeter Theatre Company to designs by the leading theatre architect of the time C.J. Phipps. It opened in 1886 but less than a year later it too was destroyed in one of the most serious theatre fires in the country with the loss of 186 lives. It is believed that either Phipps or the builders altered the plans leaving out some important safety features designed to halt the spread of fire should one start.

Two years on in 1889 a new theatre rose from the ashes on the same site. The new Theatre Royal was to stand on the site for the next 73 years and it became very popular and much loved by many Exonians. With its 900 seat capacity it was able to stage everything from ballet to Shakespeare. It survived the wartime bombing and was host to the great stars of the time – Anna Neagle, George Formby, Noel Coward, Ivor Novello, Margot Fontaine, Norman Wisdom, Clarkson Rose and many more.

As well as the Theatre Royal, The Civic Hall in Queen Street could seat 1,500 people and was used for opera, exhibitions, fashion shows and concerts. It used to be a market hall but was converted in to a venue when the old Victoria Hall further down the road burnt down in 1919. In the late 1960s it hosted Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Fleetwood Mac but it closed in 1970 as the more modern but smaller St Georges Hall took over many of the events.

Then through the 1950s and 1960s the growing popularity of television, cinema and bingo threatened the future of theatres everywhere and the once flourishing Theatre Royal was no exception. It was losing money, and the board of management was made an offer by Pearl Assurance to buy the site for an office development. The Devon philanthropist - George Northcott made a generous offer to refurbish the Theatre but his offer was turned down and Portland House now stands on the site of the old building. Not to be defeated, George Northcott created a trust with his money to establish a new theatre and arts centre. The University of Exeter offered a site and with several other donations and gifts, the 433 seat Northcott Theatre was opened on the University’s Streatham campus in 1967.

The Northcott Theatre (Exeter Northcott)

For 40 years the Northcott operated as a regional producing theatre staging around 11 mainly in-house productions a year, and again it became much loved by both the local community and the actors working there. Robert Lindsay, Celia Imrie, John Nettles, Geraldine James, Diana Rigg, David Suchet, Timothy West and National Theatre director Nicholas Hytner are among many household names who have learnt and honed their craft at The Northcott. Within the last decade it could still boast very high average audiences of over 80%, but improvements were needed to comply with updated safety regulations and to increase the seating capacity and box office yield so the trustees began fundraising for a major £3million refurbishment and an expansion from 433 to 538 seats.

Fundraising was slow, and with only £2.1 million of funds raised, the theatre closed for most of 2007 for a compromised refurbishment. This enhanced the foyer and catering facilities, introduced a lift and improved facilities for the disabled and satisfied safety regulations but the much needed increase in seating capacity was reduced from the original scheme of 538 to only 465, an increase on existing of only 32 seats.

In the week the theatre reopened, doubt was cast on its future when Arts Council England (ACE), which had part funded the refurbishment, threatened withdrawal of its entire £547,000 annual grant, a grant which represented a third of the annual operating costs. The threatened closure provoked a massive public outcry and eventually ACE announced a reprieve but only after insisting on a change of management and the style of programming.

After two years of faltering momentum, historic accounting irregularities were discovered which, on paper, rendered the company insolvent and in February 2010, the Trustees took the decision to put the theatre into administration. Long negotiations between the City Council, the administrators and the University followed and a new company was established by the University to run the theatre and so its immediate future was secure. However, it left the theatre operating on a smaller budget than previously and without a lot of its producing facilities which radically changed the nature of the theatre's work.

The Northcott became a receiving venue for small and medium-sized touring productions with short runs of a few days rather than the three weeks of the in-house productions. The continuity in the artistic programme was lost and in 2012 it was not included in the National Portfolio of the Arts Council meaning that it would no longer receive annual public funding. An Arts Council ‘one-off’ grant amounting to £125,000 annually until April 2015 has again given the theatre a reprieve. It is well supported and has found new audiences but its future past April 2015 is currently uncertain.

Its' location – 1½ miles from the city centre is thought by many to be inconvenient. Its remoteness also doesn’t attract many non-theatregoers through its doors in the way that it might if it was in the city centre. And there are also serious questions as to whether a theatre with the capacity of 465 is nowadays bordering on the uneconomic and can still serve as a main theatre for a thriving and growing city.