Life Begins at 40 as Theatre Royal Winchester celebrates four decades as a performance venue

On Thursday 1st November Theatre Royal Winchester – part of Live Theatre Winchester Trust – celebrated four decades since it was saved from demolition and reopened as a performance venue.

Life Begins at 40 was an informal gathering of the local community connected to the history of the venue, as well as stakeholders and theatre supporters, to celebrate the past 40 years as well as looking to what the future may hold. The event took place on the 40th anniversary of the theatre opening on 1st November 1978 when it had been officially opened by the esteemed actor Robert Morley.

The theatre’s building was originally built as a hotel for the farming community who went to the cattle market at the Corn Exchange next door (now the Winchester Discovery Centre). In 1912 the building was sold to two brothers, John and James Simpkins, who converted the building in to a cine-variety music hall which opened in 1914, three weeks after the start of the First World War. They sold the building and it became a full time cinema, run by Odeon and then latterly The Star Group. The Star Group closed the theatre in 1974 and applied for a demolition order. A group of theatre enthusiasts then formed an action group to save the building and open it as a live performance venue.

Some 150 guests attended the event which began with a nostalgic ‘In Conversation’ with Phil Yates, David Harding, Richard Steel and Lady Bland - key figures in saving the building from demolition and buying it in trust for the community. Deryck Newland, the current Chief Executive, followed with an insight to what the future may look like for the theatre and the wider organisation. Winchester Musicals & Opera Society (WMOS) presented an excerpt from their upcoming stage show Singin’ in the Rain.

WMOS, or Winchester Amateur Operatic Society as they were, have been an instrumental part of the history of the theatre, having performed in its first year and loaning the theatre equipment in the venue’s early years. Young Theatre Royal, the venue’s Musical Youth Theatre, performed an original work that was first premiered at Hat Fair in the summer and local professional vocalists The Spitfire Sisters performed a toe-tapping set. Anna Harding, part of the group, is David Harding’s daughter and the Theatre Royal has been an important part of her life.

The evening displayed exhibition boards which included articles from archived newspapers, demonstrating the interesting history of the building’s journey to becoming the theatre it is today.

The event provided an opportunity to re-unite old friends and colleagues who have played such an important role in bringing, and keeping, live performance in Winchester.