Discover the History Behind Your Local Theatres
There are many fabulous local theatres around south west London and Surrey – and they’ve each got their own unique story to tell. By Tara Robinson.
Image above credit: Battersea Arts Centre, Fred Howarth
Originally founded as a hospital by Dr John Langdon Down in 1868, Normansfield Theatre certainly has an interesting history. The doctor and his wife harboured a great passion for theatre, leading to the commencement of the building of the theatre in 1877. Filled with gorgeous Victorian splendour, this theatre transports you back in time, with proscenium stages and architectural décor full of ornament and grandeur. The Grade II* listed building is also home to the largest collection of restored Victorian scenery in the entirety of the UK. With a regular catalogue of concerts and operas, Normansfield is one to visit if you’re up for an evening of culture and history surrounded by stunning architecture.
New Wimbledon Theatre
This theatrical landmark has been an iconic centrepiece of Wimbledon culture since 1910. Its grand Edwardian architecture boasts many features unique for the time period, such as the Victorian-style Turkish bath in the basement – this is the only theatre in the whole of Britain with a bath in this style. Built by J.B Mulholland, the theatre was very popular between the wars – famous 1930s theatre actors like Gracie Fields and Sybil Thorndike performed there. Following several refurbishments, the theatre still retains its baroque styling. The year-round programme of musicals, comedy, dance and drama takes place in their spectacular venue of grand high ceilings and balconies. The theatre is also home to the Studio, their former-ballroom-turned-theatre-space, which showcases brilliant work from new and up-and-coming writers, directors and producers. They have a constantly-rotating selection of shows, from old classics to new talent, ensuring there’s something theatrical for everyone in the heart of Wimbledon.
Built in 1899 by famous theatre architect Frank Matcham, this turn-of-the-century theatre prides itself on the absolutely breath-taking red brick façade with buff terracotta. Its historic opening began with a September performance of Shakespeare’s As You Like It. The theatre was described in 1982 by John Earl as “[o]f outstanding importance as the most completely preserved Matcham theatre in Greater London and one of his most satisfying interiors.” It has since been used as a set for several films – most notably, Evita and Finding Neverland. Nowadays, the theatre hosts a weekly schedule of plays and musicals, which recently include A Voyage Round My Father starring Rupert Everett and an adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner.
One of the more recently-built additions to this list, Rose Theatre officially opened in 2008 with a production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. Its layout is based on the original Rose Theatre in London, a historic theatre that once staged the plays of Christopher Marlowe and the early plays of Shakespeare. Its design presents a more modern take on the Elizabethan architecture of the original theatre, with the additions of a roof and modern seating. Some of its most iconic shows include Much Ado About Nothing starring Mel Giedroyc in 2018 and A Midsummer Night’s Dream starring Dame Judi Dench. Nowadays, it is the largest producing theatre in south west London.
Battersea Arts Centre
BAC has had many lives. First entering the world as Battersea Town Hall in 1893, it has seen much change and evolution. Built from Suffolk red brick and Bath stone, the building is certainly a sight to behold. It has survived much trial and tribulation: following an attempt to have large parts of the building demolished, it was ultimately saved by the Victorian Society and Battersea Society and granted a Grade II* listing in 1970. One of the absolute prides of the building is the giant pipe organ that was installed in the Grand Hall in 1901 – one of the largest surviving organs designed by Robert Hope-Jones. The organ itself has survived disaster: having been partially destroyed by a fire in 2015. Despite all this heartache, the building exists now as an arts centre, the seat of Battersea’s thriving cultural scene. BAC is home to a variety of diverse and creative theatre, as well as dance and music workshops for young people.
Orange Tree Theatre
This 180-seat theatre was built specifically as a theatre-in-the-round, so the audience surrounds the stage. The theatre sits within the grounds of a disused 1867 primary school, built in Victorian Gothic style. The theatre was originally founded in 1971 by director Sam Walters and his wife, actress Auriol Smith. It began as a small room above the Orange Tree pub, using church pews as seating. It has since expanded into the artistic powerhouse it is today, repurposing the derelict primary school to breathe new life into the building. Now, the theatre showcases both new and old theatre, and has won many awards, including ten Offies (Off West End Awards) and five UK Theatre Awards.
OSO Arts Centre
OSO Arts Centre had an unconventional start in life. The building began as the postal sorting office, before being slowly redeveloped into a residential and commercial space in the late 1990s. In 2002 it officially became an arts centre. During the Covid-19 pandemic, it was transformed into a ‘Crisis Kitchen’ where the theatre staff and volunteers provided free meals to the elderly and vulnerable. Now, OSO provides arts and culture to the local community – from evening theatre performances to dance and art classes. Some famous names who have performed there include Robert Pattinson and Timothy West.
Putney Arts Theatre
Making its home in a repurposed church, Putney Arts Theatre retains a unique identity. It stands in the building of the Union Chapel built by Sir Samuel Morton Peto in the late 19th century. After the congregation dissolved, the building passed into the hands of the London City Council. In 1998, it was purchased by a theatre troupe, renamed to Putney Arts Theatre, and became the centre-point of art and culture we know it as today. Nowadays it is home to two theatre groups – the Putney Theatre company, one of the UK’s leading adult amateur theatre companies, and Group 64, a young people’s theatre company that runs weekly drama classes and holiday projects.