Abergavennys Borough Theatre: Behide The Scenes

PUBLISHED: 11:04 09 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:47 20 February 2013

Abergavenny Street

Abergavenny Street

Eryl Sheers looks behind the scenes at Abergavenny's Borough Theatre. Main photographs by Jeff Morgan.

Eryl Sheers looks behind the scenes at Abergavenny's Borough Theatre. Main photographs by Jeff Morgan.

The recent death of the playwright Harold Pinter made me think about the interior roof of the Borough Theatre Abergavenny. In 1970 I played the part of Lulu in Pinter's play 'The Birthday Party' there and had, at a climactic moment, to lie back across a table looking up. This gave me a wonderful view of the magnificent carved wooden roof of the theatre, which has always lingered in my mind.

The huge beams with intricate decorations look strong yet delicate, a statement of the civic pride of the Victorian burgers of Abergavenny. I learned from Bernard Zavishlock, a long time devotee, volunteer and archivist of the Borough Theatre, that I was not alone in my admiration of the wooden roof. In the 1980s, when the Welsh National Opera had a touring section that used to visit, they admired the carvings so much that they adjusted their lighting so as to illuminate some of the beams. Bernard says the effect was "magical".

The theatre was built in 1870 and is part of the town and market hall complex. For this reason it was known for many years as the Town Hall Stage. The gothic clock tower with its green copper roof soars above the theatre; but whilst the clock tower is an easily visible landmark people often say that they find it difficult to locate the theatre.

The entrance is at the ground floor level of the tower, just above the opening to the market hall. There are two large glass doors with a metal 'Borough Theatre' sign across the top, and inside two sweeping flights of stairs leading to the theatre foyer. The building is listed and consequently an outside sign is prohibited, which seems a strange decision when so many other curious signs appear in the vicinity. However if you stand at Boots the Chemist and look across the road you cannot fail to see the entrance and the Box Office. The staff at the theatre say they like to think of it as Abergavenny's "hidden gem".

The theatre in the 21st century is at the centre of the cultural life of the town: a vibrant reflection of the active arts scene that exists in Abergavenny. It is owned and funded by Monmouthshire County Council and managed by a voluntary committee made up of representatives of the local societies that use it, under the chairmanship of Nick Banwell, the theatre's first professional manager. Nick comments: "For a town of its size, Abergavenny has an amazing number of active performing societies, and all of them make good use of the theatre."

The theatre also hosts a full professional programme, with a wide variety of appeal. Ballets, opera, comedy, folk music, plays, tribute bands, all perform at the Borough, giving the residents an extensive choice and a chance to see top companies in their home town. Throughout the year there are 60 performances by professional companies and 65 by local amateur groups. To make the theatre experience complete, the Angel Hotel just a few yards away offers theatre suppers, either before or after a performance. So Abergavenny can rival the West End in its facilities for theatre goers.

The theatre, or assembly room as it was first called, has attracted attention outside the town. In 1872 the London Illustrated News published a picture of it and wrote: "For simple elegance and for convenience of hearing the assembly room of Abergavenny is scarcely to be surpassed by any other in this part of the kingdom."

In 1895 the Abergavenny Chronicle reported that the ventilation in the theatre was not as it should be: "Directly each scene was concluded, one of the windows was opened to its fullest extent and the occupants of the front seats were exposed for ten minutes or so to a chilling blast which drove in with the force of a hurricane." The writer goes on to say that a new system must be created to protect the audience, "few of whom come prepared for an atmospheric change from tropical heat to artic cold". Rest assured that today the heating system is more efficient.

The Town Hall Stage, as it became known, was at first a large room with a stage at one end and a balcony at the other. In 1906 the lusciously carved front was attached to the balcony. For the next 80 years it was used mainly as a theatre, hosting visiting theatrical companies as well as the town's societies. There is a report of the 1913 Abergavenny Eisteddfod, when choirs of 180 voices were accommodated. It was also used as a dance hall, and many Abergavenny residents speak warmly of these dances, especially during the Second World War, when with the influx of American soldiers the 'jitterbug' took over.

1963 proved a very memorable year for the theatre as it was visited by both the Queen and the Beatles. When the Queen came the council could not afford to lay a red carpet up the stairs so instead they painted them red. The red paint is still there on the stone steps, but now because of health and safety rules they have been boxed in. The Beatles played in the theatre in June of the same year and were given a civic reception by the mayor. John Lennon arrived by helicopter, and the screaming and general hysteria of the audience made "the whole building vibrate with excitement".

It was in the late 80s that a management committee was formed to oversee the refurbishment of the theatre, and it is to their credit that we have a 'real' theatre today. The architect proposed retractable seating but the committee insisted on proper raked seating. They kept the balcony intact, with its wonderful carved 'cherubs', and extended the stage. In 1991 the refurbishment was finished and the result is a comfortable theatre with a modern ambience. It is widely assumed that the name Borough Theatre was coined at this time, but Bernard Zavishlock in his comprehensive collection of programmes has one from 1930 in which the name was used.

All the local societies have designated slots for their shows. The oldest is the Abergavenny Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society; its first production was in 1911 and apart from a few years during both World Wars it has been performing regularly at the Borough Theatre ever since. The photographs and programmes of its productions reveal how popular the society was throughout the 20th century, often fielding casts of 80 or more. Names that are familiar in the town today, such as Martin and Shackelton, appear in the earliest programmes.

In the days before the refurbishment of the theatre trestle tables from the market hall were used to build an apron to accommodate the huge casts. In the 1920 programme for a production of 'The Gondoliers' a notice states: "Ladies are particularly requested to remove their hats - an act of courtesy which will conduce greatly to the comfort of those sitting behind." So the need for raked seating was evident even then.

Non-musical theatre has also been well represented in the town since the 1920s. There were drama groups at the boys' and girls' grammar schools, and after the war the Gavenny Players was formed from these two groups. In 1953 they hit the headlines with articles in the Daily Mirror and even questions asked in the House of Commons because they were banned by the Town Clerk from appearing at the Borough Theatre. The group was to perform a play called 'The Town that Would Have a Pageant', but the Town Clerk deemed that it might be thought to ridicule council members and himself and therefore be "derogatory to the dignity of the office". The company performed the play successfully at the Clarence Hall Crickhowell instead and the national interest in the story did indeed heap "ridicule" on the Town Clerk.

In 1967 several groups joined together to form The Abergavenny Theatre Group. It now performs regularly at the Borough Theatre and over the years has produced some ground- breaking theatre. In 1969 it was one of the first amateur societies to perform 'Oh What a Lovely War' with the help of the town band and Victor Spinetti, who had been in the original production. The Borough Theatre, pre-refurbishment, was the perfect venue for such a show.

In the first full week of October each year the Abergavenny Light Opera holds its performances, accompanied by a full orchestra. The Abergavenny Pantomime Company, the oldest in Wales, always provides a traditional panto during the February half term. This year it is Hansel and Gretel, and as with all local musical shows it regularly plays to full houses.

The young people of Abergavenny make good use of the theatre. Gwent Young People's Theatre uses it for its larger productions, and both operatic societies have junior sections which put on full-scale shows.

The theatre is an important social asset to the town, as you realise when you attend a performance and see that front of house is staffed by volunteers. Although the manager, front of house and technical managers are full-time, there is a corps of 40 volunteers who man the bar, serve refreshments and show the audience to their seats. Their commitment and affection for the theatre are clear. It is this healthy mix of professional and amateur that ensures The Borough Theatre such a special place in the heart of Abergavenny.

For more information, or to book tickets, call the Box Office, 01873 850805


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