Chippy's theatre going strong after 40 years

Chippy's theatre going strong after 40 years

The building when it was a furniture store just before it was purchased.

Neil Morrissey in one of his very first roles as Little John in Robin Hood, 1982-83.

Last year's pantomime, Jack and the Giant

First published in News by

WHEN Tamara and John Malcolm discovered an old furniture warehouse in Chipping Norton in 1968, they knew they had come across something rather special.

The two Royal Shakespeare Company actors realised it was the perfect place for a new theatre and began fundraising in earnest, even asking every household in the town for £1 towards the conversion.

Finally their hard work paid off and in 1974, The Theatre became a true community resource which it continues to be four decades later.

From small beginnings when the theatre's first pantomime pulled in about 400 people, to last year's run of Jack and the Giant attracting 17,0000, the theatre regularly attracts people from a 30-mile radius.

Funded almost entirely by box office sales, the 200-seater theatre's only grants come from West Oxfordshire District Council and the town council.

John Terry, who took over as artistic director in 2008, said the spirit of what the theatre does, has not changed since it opened 40 years ago.

"It's always had a sort of sense of being owned by the local people," he said. "It's a charity and it owns its own building. People often say what would you do if you won a million pounds?

"I think that's very much part of who we are. I don't think we would build a bigger theatre if we had the money to do so. There's still a lot of activity coming out of a very small building and that's how we like it."

Beginning life as a Salvation Army Citadel in 1888, the building in Spring Street was at the heart of Chippy'sRed Light district.

"There were gin houses along the road, it was the part of Chipping Norton that was seedy and run down," said Mr Terry. "In the 1870's it was an urgent problem. There was a big tweed mill it was a very busy working town."

The building, which was derelict for a number of years after the Salvation Army left, became a furniture store in the Second World War.

But in strange quirk of fate, the building's designers and engineers were those behind many Victorian Music Halls, leaving it perfectly proportioned for its future theatrical life.

Since opening in 1975, the building might have seen some aesthetic changes but the experience of walking through the front door and watching a show is pretty much identical to what it was four decades ago.

The theatre has been extended into the building next door to create a bar and gallery while the cottage around the corner is now the box office and rehearsal rooms.

In 1996 it had a major refurbishment, funded in part by the Arts Council, to improve many aspects of the building including the stage and wing space.

Over the years, the theatre has welcomed many touring productions including Cider with Rosie, from the Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds.

And it has launched the careers of some of the most well-known faces on our screens today including Men Behaving Badly star, Neil Morrissey, who made his acting debut at the theatre as Little John in Robin Hood fresh from training.

The Theatre also has a strong reputation for producing its own creative work, something which has increased over the last few years to three a year - including the recent production of The Glass Menagerie.

These stand alongside perhaps the theatre's greatest claim to fame, the world-renowned traditional family pantomime, which is a firm family favourite every Christmas.

"The panto keeps to its roots," added Mr Terry. "We don't try and cram in the latest popular songs or a celebrity off the television, it's just about great story telling with lots of jokes and great music.

"It's about recognising panto is a form of English culture. All this cross dressing and larking about once a year, it's a way to let our hair down."

The theatre is not just for performances and each year offers more than 900 sessions of educational, outreach and community work.

This year it is celebrating its 40th birthday with a host of events planned to celebrate its unique heritage.

Later this year a gallery exhibition is being held with items from the theatre's archive and on Saturday, June 14 there will be a1970s birthday party with music from Lovetrain band and a backstage family treasure hunt.

The theatre is also hoping to create, rehearse and produce a short pantomime in 48 hours in July to celebrate its heritage over the last four decades.

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