The Littlest Big Theatre in Town

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Ah, the lights, the smell of the grease paint.

Is there any business quite like show business? Any place quite like the theatre, where we sit in rows in velvet seats to watch fantasy by lantern light, and believe the unbelievable and gasp at the fantastical, just for the space of an hour or two?

Who, indeed, has not felt just a tiny bit deflated when the final curtain drops and we must step outside this gaudy bawdy velvet-swathed casket of dreams, and tread mundane pavements once again?

On the River Thames there are many little villages, picture-perfect millionaire-studded affairs, and the town of Henley is no exception. Prepare to gasp at the wattle and daub cottages, the gorgeous Georgian wisteria-clad residences,  at the the very stagey unreality of a pampered British riverside location.

When everyone has gone home in the evening the town’s streets are eerily quiet, and one is put in mind of a stage set; for if they had started out with the aspiration of creating a film location, the town planners could not have created a more perfect arrangement of houses. This is an outrageously beautiful little town, with its church craning its neck to gaze over Henley Bridge at the rowing boats bobbing on the wash.

But if you tear yourself away and walk down a side street past the old workhouse buildings you will come to a tiny and perfectly formed theatre, the embodiment of original red velvet kitsch. The Kenton Theatre, ladies and gentlemen, may be small, but it is the oldest working theatre in Britain.

Henley dwellers have always known how to have a good time. Whilst the gentry danced and visited each others’ grand homes, the more humble classes liked a bit of travelling theatre, and the Jonas and Penley Company was amongst the most popular of its kind. The members would rock up and act in Market Place, but demand was such that they asked local builder William Parker to build a little bespoke theatre.

The first play opened there on 7 November 1805: The School Of Reform or How To Run A Husband.Audiences loved it: and it was followed by many more successful plays attracting excellent audiences.

Right up until 1813: when its CV becomes varied. It served time as a chapel, a church hall, a school and a scenery store for more than 100 years; and only in 1935 was it rescued and restored to its rightful status as town theatre. For twenty years it became The Playhouse, and hosted professional repertory companies.

In the fifties, the theatre was refurbished and John Piper – war artist and creator of the Coventry Cathedral Bapristry Window – built the proscenium arch.

Its career, like all the best members of the theatrical profession, remained precarious and it changed hands from professional theatre management to amateur companies, and even went dark for four years in 1963.

Today it is run by a passionately committed group of volunteers and the tight knit trust – the Kenton Theatre Management Society.

I sat down there on Tuesday, to watch a wonderful capsule production of Phantom of the Opera. Gloriously velvety and faded red, if it had been a person I should have said it would be a foppish decadent dandy who polished his boots with champagne. It is a tiny, glorious luvvy of a building hailing from a time when the theatre was simply the best place to have a good time, stole the heart of this rather theatrical theatregoer.

I’m going back tomorrow.

The show must go on, after all.

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18 thoughts on “The Littlest Big Theatre in Town

  1. Ah, to have trod upon the boards! Or to have seen thespians tread upon said boards. Theater is lovely. There’s something about live theater. It’s exciting for the performers and for the audience. The Kenton Theatre looks like a classic. What a history. Places like this are treasures and need to be preserved. Some of the extravagant, fairy-tale movie theater palaces built in the 1920s in the U.S. have been luckily preserved and are now used for live venues and film revivals. I wish the Kenton well.

    1. Ah, I see you know your stuff, Nancy! I notices the billboards outside whilst I was waiting for Maddie, who is in Phantom. I’m tempted to get a season ticket at this rate.

      1. Me too . . . except for the ocean standing between us. I’d love to attend the evening of George Harrison’s music too ~> “All things must pass.”

        Hope Maddie has enjoyed being in the Phantom. I find myself craving some Andrew Lloyd Weber.

  2. I have a love for old theaters, and although I’m not going to find anything dating back to 1805, there has been a grass roots movement to renovate and protect some of the oldest theaters that date back to the silent screen era (old movie palaces) and are now utilized for stage theater. They are architecturally magnificent! And although money can get tight from time to time, I always have a little tucked away for the theater. It’s too important to me to neglect. 🙂 I’m pleased you’ve had such a wonderful time in this jewel. And i hope there will be many more.

    1. I think the era of silent film was also the most incredible era of design, Debra, thinking about films like Metropolis; and those movie theatres are absolutely divine pieces of design. I’d love to see some from one of the seminal centres of film making! Hope your week was fabulous.

  3. “gaudy bawdy velvet-swathed casket of dreams” How I wish I could weave words with your skill, Kate. What a magnificent gem this is and how exciting for Maddie to be performing on its stage. Give me ‘goose bumps” to think of her growing up, but, of course, children do.
    The closest we get is our movie theater, The York, which was originally for vaudeville. At the turn of the century (the 20th) when money was still flowing, the city loaned new owners some money to refurbish the show! It was something like $10,000. Best lithe investment around. They exposed the old grandeur, added on, and it is a thriving movie house now. Sure would be fun to see a play there, though. Now I’ve rambled when I have weeds to pull. I’ve missed you.

    1. And I you, Penny. Life has taken a few unpredictable turns recently, and I have been away fighting fires in the World Of Real Life. I love to gaze into the glassy surface of cyberspace and catch up with my friends. One day I will have time again and visit everyone every day. Hope Tom and the family are thriving and happy. xxx

  4. I would adore to see a performance of How to Run a Husband. My own manual has gone missing! Lovely descriptions as always Kate.

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