Plymouth Theatrical history at risk of being lost forever
Updated: Apr 27, 2022
Every year, The Theatres Trust publishes a list of theatrical venues that are at risk of being lost forever due to looming demolition risks, development plans or simply being left to rot. Years of history, the shadows of past productions, the greats that have passed over these once famous stages sit on the brink of disappearing for variety of different reasons but the main message of the annual ‘Theatres at Risk’ is that something needs to be done before it is too late.
The theatres that are on this ‘at risk’ list are located up and down the UK, but for me personally, two of the theatres that could quite possibly vanish forever are painfully close to home.
The Palace Theatre in Plymouth has been on the list for a number of years, and every year I find myself hoping that somehow it is going to be saved. Theatre fans will know that the west country city of Plymouth is quite well known for its entertainment venue, The Theatre Royal, which stands on The Royal Parade, guarded by the majestic Messenger statue. This venue is the biggest theatre in the Southwest, and one of the biggest producing houses outside of London but this wasn’t the city’s original theatre. The Palace Theatre stands only a stone throws away on Union Street, where it has stood since 1898. A grand, beautiful Victorian building built by the Livermore Brothers and decorated with Art Nouveau tiles depicting scenes of the Spanish Armada. But now, the grandeur is fading away, the colours dulled, the building cracking and greenery growing through broken windows.
The theatre has been on the ‘Theatres at Risk’ list since 2006, and the building along with the adjoining Great Western Hotel is also on the Historic England’s Heritage at Risk register where it is listed to be in a ‘very bad’ condition. In the business of this city centre location, a lot of people walk past this once great building and disregard it, many people wouldn’t even know the history they were passing. In its heyday, The Palace Theatre played host to many famous stars including Harry Houdini and Charlie Chaplin. If you were to look down as you walked past the theatre’s doorway, you would see a plague fading into the darkness of the ground, but this plague in fact depicts a playbill from when the great Laurel and Hardy performed at the venue in 1954. Due to Hardy’s ill health, the palace theatre became the last place that the legendary comedy double act performed together. A huge piece of theatre and comedy history, but yet it is disappearing. If walls could talk, this building would have some amazing stories to tell.
The building closed as a theatre in 1983 and was then used as a dance club called The Dance Academy until it was closed down in 2006. The building has since been empty. A number of attempts have been made to save it over the years but none of the projects have ever taken off. In 2012, the then owner of the build Manoucehr Bahmanzadeh expressed hopes to reopen it as the Dance Academy once more, but nothing happened. Since then, various projects including ‘Stonehouse Action’, ‘Project Palace’, and ‘Palace Theatre Project Limited’ have campaigned to return the building to its former glory, but it remains empty and crumbling away.
Back in 2015, the charity ‘GO! Great Opportunities’ brought a 35 year lease for the building with plans to turn the building back into a theatre and a ballroom and work did begin on the project with it due for completion in 2018. Nevertheless, the charity pulled out in March 2017. A series of break in’s during 2018 resulted in the city council serving the over Bahmanzadeh a Section 215. Works were carried out, but the building remains in a worsening state.
The Palace theatre stands in an area of Plymouth targeted for regeneration and whilst many believe that the city doesn’t require another theatre with the Theatre Royal bringing in many national touring productions and the Barbican theatre serving local needs also, it would be a great shame to see the theatrical history of this building lost forever. Surely it could be used for some great community purpose. The Theatres Trust believes that the venue could be viable as a music, community and live performance venue, with the connected hotel used for cross-subsidising activity. The trust continues to liaise with Historic England and Plymouth City Council to find a viable outcome for the Palace.
Until the list for 2022 was announced, I was actually completely unaware of the Globe Theatre Plymouth. With a little bit of digging, I found an article from Plymouth Live from 2019 calling the venue the city’s ‘condemned theatre nobody is allowed inside of’. The venue stands into the high walls of Stonehouse Barracks, home to 3 Commando Brigade and the place known as ‘the spiritual home of the Royal Marines’. Looking far back, all the way to 1788, the building was a racquets court but was converted into a theatre for ‘dramatic performance for the recreation and instruction of the men of the Battalion’ and was used from the 1850’s onwards.
The building was suddenly condemned until further notice in 2017 when the stage area was declared unsafe in a survey and amateur groups using the building were told that they will no longer be able to use the building. At the time, the Ministry of Defence said ‘Following a structural survey, engineers have said that the stage area is unsafe and should not be used. Further assessment is due to take place and until then, regrettably, the theatre will not be able to be used. Discussions will take place with current external users of the facility’.
MoD bosses have since then refused access into the Globe Theatre. In 2016, it was announced by the MoD that it would be selling the barracks with a date set in 2023 and the Plymouth and South West Devon Joint Local Plan planned to redevelop the site for residential and retail accommodation. These plans were put on hold in 2019 when a leak suggested that the sale of the barracks was pushed back until 2027 and whilst it was thought that more plans for the future of the site would be announced in late 2021, nothing was said and now the future of the barracks and the theatre within are uncertain. The venue is vacant and there are concerns now about its condition. The Theatres Trust are looking to engage with the Ministry of Defence and the local authorities to secure the immediate future of the theatre with the long term hope of reopening it for service personnel and the public.
Whilst you may believe that theatre is in the safe hands of the Theatre Royal in Plymouth, and this definitely seems to be the case, years and years of great theatrical history stand in limbo, at risk of disappearing forever unless something can be done to save it and preserve it for future generations.
Images found via Google, not my own