Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round: Alternative Venues

When Stephen Joseph opened the Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre in Scarborough in 1955, it was never intended as a permanent home for the company; in fact Stephen Joseph was not even committed in the long-term to Scarborough. The search for a permanent home in Scarborough began in earnest following Stephen Joseph's death in 1967 - the combination of Stephen's death and Scarborough Library's increasing insistence the company could not utilise the venue long-term meant finding a suitable new venue became an urgent issue. Unfortunately, it would take a better part of a decade before anywhere was found and, even then, this was not intended to be a permanent home either but a stop gap when the company was asked to leave the Library.

This article by Alan Ayckbourn's Archivist Simon Murgatroyd, looks at the search for a new home for the Library Theatre company between 1967 and 1976.

What might have been. . .

The alternative theatre proposals

Stephen Joseph may have introduced theatre-in-the-round to Scarborough in 1955, but it took 40 years before a permanent home for his company was found in the town in 1996.

Prior to this, there was a long search for a suitable home for the theatre in the town.

Studio Theatre Ltd began in the Concert Room at Scarborough's public library, Vernon Road, but Stephen was looking for more permanent premises from the off. In 1955, an exhibition at Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre offered a glimpse of in the round venues abroad and plans for the conversion of a vacant cinema in London and a specifically designed new-build theatre-in-the-round. Although Stephen's search would include venues in towns away from Scarborough - he also created the Victoria Theatre, the first permanent theatre-in-the-round in Stoke-on-Trent in 1962 - there were many sites considered in the town, which could have offered a very different future for the theatre.

Stephen's quest became public on 30 December, 1959, when he told the Scarborough Evening News: “We would like something bigger than the Library Theatre. Any empty building would do as long as I had a free hand to organise it." The following year, a report given to Scarborough Libraries Committee recommended the building of a civic theatre in the town, primarily for theatre in the round but adaptable to end-stage and with seating for 500 people. In 1961, the issue was raised by the town council who were presented with a figure of £50,000 to build such a venue as opposed to £250,000 for a more conventional theatre.

Although Jubilee Hall, Aberdeen Walk, and the former Town Hall on Castle Road were both briefly considered by Scarborough Theatre Trust, the first serious contender emerged in 1967 with St Paul's Church, Regent Street. However, the cost of the building turned out to be an expensive £22,000 and the proposal was scuppered when Scarborough Corporation rejected an application for planning permission. Flats now stand on the former location of St Paul's Church.

ln the same year, Tom Laughton - brother of the Oscar-winning actor Charles Laughton - suggested to the Trust, the possibility of the Claremont building on Castle Road; this was a printing works owned by Pindar and formerly a chapel. Apparently ready for conversion, this site was used to launch the Stephen Joseph Memorial Theatre Fund. Despite some early misunderstandings about the price, the Trust was offered it at £20,000 with some quite strict and expensive clauses in place if the deal fell through. The cost of the conversion, to be completed by 1971, was an additional £5,000.

ln 1968, the theatre appointed local architect George Alderson to both evaluate new sites and design the new theatre for conversion. One of his first jobs was to inspect the Claremont with Percy Corry of the Association of British Theatre Technicians. They immediately told the Trust not to sign anything as the Claremont was apparently unsuitable for conversion and the cost would be far in excess of the price of a new build. The Trust dropped their plans and the same building still stands today, home to the Scarborough Christian Centre.

At this point, the Trust had only been considering converting existing buildings, but George Alderson suggested it could be cheaper to build a new venue and proposed a site in The Crescent, next to Londesborough Lodge in the Valley Gardens. The development was planned to include a theatre, restaurant and gallery area at a cost of between £70,000 and £100,000. Planning permission was applied for, but this combined with unfavourable press coverage led to several petitions against the site. Scarborough Council denied planning permission and the cost and length of an appeal was decided to be prohibitive. However, the council had expressed support for a new theatre and was approached to provide alternatives. The Crescent site has not been developed.

ln 1970, the Borough Engineer suggested two sites for a new-build, the allotments at the back of the Open-Air Theatre, Burniston Road, or some land in the North Street area. Neither gathered much serious attention. Burniston Road was developed into Kinderland and is now part of the extensive North Bay redevelopment beginning in 2005. The North Street site is now a car park.

The Christian Science Church, Westborough, came up for sale in 1971 at a price of £50,000, although the theatre was offered it at £25,000. George Alderson felt this was still too high as it was actually no larger than the Library Theatre. His designs for the site included a 500 seat round theatre with a removable fourth side for flexibility. The conversion was also priced at £50,000 and two offers up to £20,000 were made, before it was sold elsewhere for £25,000. lt is now the Lawrence House Medical Centre.

Less promising, but still investigated, was Boothby's Garage, Vernon Road. This was not deemed suitable, had little car parking provision and would need rebuilding at a cost of £65,000. The garage is now gone and is the site of a Premiere Inn.

All Saints Church, Falsgrave, seemed to have good potential, although Alan Ayckbourn noted he would prefer not to have to contend with church pillars and arches! Initial inquiries indicated the Trust would be expected to buy and demolish the site at a cost of £19,000 before even putting a brick down for the new theatre.

However, bureaucracy seemed to end interest in this site as official inquiries to the Church Commission took two years for a reply. All Saints was demolished and replaced by Glayton Court shops and flats.

An interesting offer came from Scarborough College, Filey Road, whose headmaster proposed the Trust and college team up to build a new theatre at the college, which could be used by both organisations with the artistic director also teaching drama! Apparently, Stephen Joseph had discussed this with the head-teacher, Mr Crews, as early as 1961 but the Trust felt the site was too far out of town to be viable.

A maze and crazy golf site on The Esplanade became available in 1975 and George Alderson submitted a design to the Arts Council. The cost of this was put at £150,000; ideally, the Trust would raise £75,000, the Arts Council would donate £40,000 and the local authority would give £55,000 and a peppercorn rent. A decision not to go ahead with the site was taken in 1975 when the cost had risen to £160,000 and its distance from town was raised. Dulverton Hall, a Church Of England retirement complex, now stands on the site.

ln 1974, Christ Church, Vernon Road, became available. The Trust showed interest, but it came to nothing; the church was later demolished and an Iceland store built in its place.

In 1975 the Library had announced to the Trust that the company must vacate the premises by 1976 and the search for a new home became far more urgent. This perhaps explains why so much effort was put into St. Thomas's Church, East Sandgate, then being used by the theatre as a prop-store, workshop and occasional rehearsal space. Despite being hard to find, hard to access and with absolutely no parking, an application was made to de-list the building and its contents and a 21-year lease was granted. George Alderson estimated £150,000 for the conversion with the Trust contributing between £50-70,000. A major obstruction arose when the Archbishop of York refused to deconsecrate the church insisting there should be a clause allowing the town council to stop any show which might cause offence! The cost and the varied issues eventually put paid to the site where the church still stands and it is home to Scarborough Sea Cadets.

ln 1976, the Trust appeared to have struck gold when Scarborough Borough Council suggested building a new theatre on the car park, Vernon Road, behind the Woolworths store. The theatre would be leased to the Trust, which was asked to raise £60,000 towards a total cost of £500,000. In the interim, the Trust was offered a three-year lease of the ground floor of the former Westwood County Modern School (colloquially knowns as Westwood), by North Yorkshire County Council. With the Library keen for the theatre to leave, the Trust decided to move to Westwood for no more than two years while the Vernon Road site was developed. The conversion of Westwood was estimated at £30,000 - it would eventually escalate beyond £40,000 - and was achieved in a remarkable 60 days.

ln reality, one temporary home had been swapped for another. By 1977, the restructuring of local authority financing and a rise in the cost of converting the Vernon Road site to £1m, led the council to announce the Vernon Road project was to be postponed indefinitely. The Brunswick Shopping Centre would later occupy the site. Having moved to Westwood, which was considered suitable and with potential, the Trust then applied for a seven-year extension of the lease and in 1978, Theatre In The Round At Westwood was re-named the
Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round.

Westwood became a home for 20 years for the company and there is little information about any further plans until in 1989 the Rank Organisation closed the Odeon cinema, Westborough. Alan Ayckbourn soon afterwards suggested it as a permanent home for the theatre. In 1990, he, Lord Downe and Charles 'Mac' McCarthy formed The ADP/Admirable Partnership and bought the lease of the building. Over the next six years, following the original design concept by Harry Osborne of Osborne Christmas Associates of Tunbridge Wells, fund-raising began and the extensive conversion to the
Stephen Joseph Theatre began.

This was undertaken by Shepherd Design and Build of York at a final cost of £5.2m. The finished building included the restoration of the exterior and front-of-house areas to their original 1936 appearance; the state-of-the-art 406 seat Round auditorium; the 165 seat end-stage McCarthy Theatre; a restaurant; two bar areas; shop; community room; rehearsal spaces; workshop; green room and offices. It may have taken 40 years to achieve but a better home for Stephen Joseph's legacy would be hard to find in Scarborough.

Article by Simon Murgatroyd. Copyright: Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce this article without permission of the copyright holder.