Year-by-Year: The Stephen Joseph Theatre (1976)

And so we draw to a close this look into the early history of the Stephen Joseph Theatre at the Library Theatre in Scarborough.

The final article turns the spotlight on the home the company very nearly moved into in 1976 before actually moving into its second home, the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round.

Once again, thank you to the Stephen Joseph Theatre Circle for whom these articles were originally written for the Circular newsletter. You can find out more about the Circle and how to support Alan Ayckbourn’s home theatre, the SJT, here.

1976: The Theatre That Nearly Was by Simon Murgatroyd

1976 marked the final year of the Library Theatre in Scarborough – although obviously not the company which used it.

Founded in 1955 by Stephen Joseph, the company had spent an increasingly uncomfortable 21 years in the Concert Room – and occasionally Lecture Room – on the first floor of Scarborough’s public library, known as the Library Theatre.

The search for a suitable new home was not without good reasons and had been ongoing for more than a decade without success. The company was not only frustrated by the limitations the library put on future expansion, but the library had also become frustrated by the theatre.

The previous year had seen the company told by the County Council’s Libraries Committee it would have to vacate the premises by January 1976 as, according to Alan Ayckbourn, the Concert Room was required for ‘cultural purposes’.

A new home was needed.

And in January 1975 it was announced it had been found when it was confidently announced the company would be moving into an exciting new venue during the summer of 1976.

Welcome to the new Theatre In The Round.

At St Thomas’s Church, Scarborough.

Am contemporary news report showing St Thomas’s Church (© The Scarborough News)

As supporters of the Stephen Joseph Theatre will know, the theatre’s actual second home was the former Westwood County Modern School beneath Valley Bridge, but – for most of 1975 – the former St Thomas’s Church on East Sandgate was shaping up to be the de facto new home of the company.

In fact, it went from a proposed temporary home to an approved and fully designed new theatre complex within the space of a year.

By early 1975, Scarborough Theatre Trust was actively pursuing a plan to open a new theatre on Scarborough’s Esplanade; at the site of the former maze and crazy golf site for those Scarborians with long memories!

This would take time though – which the company did not have at the Library Theatre – and so a short term home for the company was considered until the new complex was built. The front-runner for this temporary home came to light in December 1974 during a meeting of Scarborough Theatre Trust.

“Mr Ayckbourn gave a report on the position at present with regard to the premises occupied at the Library. Difficulty had arisen following there redial of the authorities to allow am forty week season. It was felt that to keep the company together a forty week season was a necessity. It was obvious that the Library was in any case too small and that a more permanent home was required. It was possible that the Bygones Museum, the former St Thomas’ Church, would be offered to the Theatre Trust, and out was felt this would be an almost ideal spot which could be converted to provide a 400 seat theatre, rehearsal rooms, coffee lounge, and workshop.”

The Church was located on a side-street running off Foreshore Road opposite Scarborough Harbour. As anyone who knows Scarborough’s old town will testify, this was quite a strange choice for a theatre, no matter how temporary. Accessible only by a single lane, very steep road with no parking close by, it is hard to imagine few other places within the town so inaccessible for a public venue.

However, the Trust’s appointed architect – George Alderson – began work on assessing its suitability and in mid-January 1975, the Trust’s chairman – Tom Laughton – announced plans for the church and that outline planning permission had been applied for.

Architect George Alderson’s plans for converting the church into a theatre (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

It was reported the plan was to use the church as a base for at least 10 years and that plans to build on the Esplanade site had been postponed – not actually true, the Esplanade continued to feature in the theatre’s plans throughout 1975.

The following day the Scarborough Evening News editorial gave a very conflicted statement about the decision, which appeared to be in two minds whether it was the best or the worst possible decision for the theatre!

“The old church, more recently a museum of bygones, is in the wrong area of town in winter. Public transport there is not good, and for many people a visit to the theatre will mean either longish walks from town-centre bus-stops and back or the cold and time-consuming business of changing buses. And the Sandside bus-stop is not the most sheltered spot in Scarborough when a brisk and chilly wind is blowing off the sea.”

Admittedly many of these were valid opinions, but the clock was ticking. It was not just a case of moving from the Library Theatre to another venue; anywhere the Trust chose would need to be refurbished as a theatre and that would take both time and money.

As it was, it soon became apparent that the church conversion was the only viable option on the table before the deadline of January 1976.

On 10 March 1975, planning permission was approved for the conversion of the former church into a theatre, which enabled the Trust to apply to de-list the Grade II listed building. Further details of the plan were made public during May and June in which the conversion cost was put between £70,000 and £80,000, of which the theatre had raised £32,000 during fund-raising efforts over the years. The rest of the cost was hoped to be covered by the Arts Council and local authorities.

With plans being drawn, Artistic Director Alan Ayckbourn talked about one element he was looking forward to and which would become an essential part of the Stephen Joseph Theatre going forward.

The Scarborough Evening News article on planning approval (© The Scarborough News)

“We’re hoping to have a small studio theatre within the theatre. This might mean lunchtime shows so we could cater for another fringe, encourage new writers with 30 and 45 minute plays – which are quite impossible in the evenings.”

He expanded on his hopes for the centre in a talk for Scarborough Rotary Club on 23 June 1975 -which was reported in the Scarborough Evening News – and during which he confirmed the theatre would be open by June 1976.

“We hope it will become a centre at which everyone will feel that there is something for them. We hope to provide intelligent entertainment that will appeal to the widest possible audiences. People who don’t want to be bewildered by something too highbrow and not insulted by something too lowbrow.”

The new project was widely reported in the local media although the Northern Echo’s report was slightly suspect as it announced the theatre would be called the Scarborough Playhouse Theatre and that the Ecclesiastical Authorities had granted permission for the conversion.

Neither of which were true. The Trust had previously made a commitment that any new theatre would bear the name of its founder Stephen Joseph and as for the Church authorities, that – according to George Alderson – was a point of contention.

“The Archbishop refused to de-consecrate the premises and insisted upon a clause going into the lease that if we presented anything likely to cause offence to the public, the Town Hall has the right to stop the show.”

In a report to the Trust during August 1975, Mr Alderson noted there were several other issues with the bid to build the new theatre. Although an application had been made to de- list the church, it transpired the listing applied to the outside of the building as well as internal pillars and the altars; the latter two would have to be removed to make the theatre viable.

Architect George Alderson’s design for the theatre-in-the-round, note how it only has two star entrances rather the now familiar three vomitorium design (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

Meanwhile, the £80,000 conversion figure proved to be optimistic in the least when a Theatre Consultant visited the site and noted the conversion would cost upwards of £170,000!

With less than a year until the proposed opening, the Trust took possession of the building on 1 September and despite misgivings about the price and work needed, it was agreed that with no alternative nor realistic plan in place, the move should go ahead. At which point an application was made to the Libraries Committee to allow the company to perform at the Library Theatre for at least one more summer.

Later that month, the Trust was granted listed building consent and given permission to convert the building with only the Secretary of State now having to give approval to the plans.

The theatre had possession of the new venue and had already started using it as a storage space and overflow for the Library Theatre. With plans drawn up and funding applications made, the Trust was within touching distance of beginning work on the near theatre.

And just as quickly as it had begun, it was over.

Quite what specifically happened is unclear, but the reports at the time suggest that the County Council Libraries Theatre became aware the cost of the church conversion had spiralled and would not be completed by 1976.

Despite this, the committee threatened to give notice to the company to leave the Library in January 1976 as originally intended – which could have been fatal to the company.

This appears to have galvanised the Council to take action, specifically led by the Chief Executive Officer Russell Bradley. The council agreed it would not contribute towards the St Thomas Church project, but it had an alternative.

On 29 October 1975, the Scarborough Evening News announced ‘secret plans’ to build a new theatre-in-the-round on Vernon Road car park, opposite the Library, had been rushed through several council committees and all – in principle – approved.

The plan was confirmed on 30 October with the hope that a 500 seat theatre would be built by the end of 1977 at a cost of £500,000.

At news of this, the Trust stopped all work on St Thomas’s Church and instead turned its attention to a new offer to use the former Westwood Modern County School, beneath Valley Bridge, as a temporary home for no more than three years until the Vernon Road Theatre was completed.

With all signs pointing to a satisfactory resolution to the problem of finding a new home, the Libraries Committee tentatively agreed to a summer extension to the Library Theatre at which point the company would move into Westwood for a period of no more than three years during which time, a purpose-built theatre complex would be built at the back of the then Woolworths store.

The Library Theatre enjoyed a final successful season, closing on 11 September 1976. On 26 October 1976, the Theatre In The Round At Westwood opened with Alan Ayckbourn’s Mr Whatnot, having been converted to a theatre in less than 60 days at a cost of £35,000.

And that was all that went to plan.

The former church today, now home to the Sea Cadets (© To be confirmed)

No sooner had the company moved to Westwood, then the Council announced the Vernon Road theatre would not be completed by the end of 1977, before later confirming it would not be built at all due to the costs more than doubling.

The temporary home at Westwood became slightly more permanent and, recognising this, it was renamed on 1 April 1978 as the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round. The company would be resident there until 1996.

As for St Thomas’s Church, it was used for storage by the company before being released and it still stands and is in use today by Scarborough Sea Cadets. But for a brief time, the future of the Stephen Joseph Theatre was going to be just a stone’s throw from Scarborough harbour and the beach.

These articles were first published in the Circular – the e-publication for the SJT Circle supporters’ organisation. During these difficult times for theatres, the SJT Circle is a great way of helping to support the theatre and further details can be found here.

You can find out more about the Stephen Joseph Theatre at Alan Ayckbourn’s Official Website by clicking here.

Article by Simon Murgatroyd and copyright of Haydonning Ltd. All images are copyright of Scarborough Theatre Trust (unless noted). Please do not reproduce either the article or images without permission of the copyright holder.

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