Oxford Playhouse: An Introduction

History Montage

Oxford Playhouse is one of Britain's best-loved and leading theatres and has been associated with the launch of many stellar careers and productions. The last provincial theatre to be built before the war, its repertory years saw companies which included such names as John Gielgud, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Ronnie Barker and Dirk Bogarde. Its association with the University of Oxford brought Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor to the stage in a memorable 1960s production of Dr Faustus. Other notable student performers include Rowan Atkinson and Dudley Moore, as well as future talents who were destined to grace a different kind of stage, like politicians Shirley Williams and Nigel Lawson, director John Schlesinger and writers Alan Bennett and Christopher Hampton.

Overcoming the difficulties and changes that have beset theatres across the country in recent years, the past decade has seen The Oxford Playhouse re-emerge as a vibrant presenting theatre and a key date on the national touring circuit, with strong support from its wide audience. The theatre hosts a rich programme of drama, dance, music, music theatre and children's theatre, and is taking an increasingly active role in producing, launching and commissioning new work.

The Oxford Playhouse has a proud tradition of international drama, dance, music, opera, comedy and children's theatre. Over the past twelve years the Playhouse has also been producing its own work, presenting productions here in Oxford and on tour nationally and internationally. These include Edward Albee's Three Tall Women and Harold Pinter's The Dumb Waiter - and popular the popular annual pantomime.

The theatre has co-commissioned and premiered award-winning work from Siobhan Davies Dance Company and has launched several tours from some of the UK's best national companies, including the Royal National Theatre, Almeida Theatre, Out of Joint, the Young Vic and Donmar Warehouse's touring arm, Warehouse Productions.

The Playhouse also continues the tradition - which began in the 1950s and 60s - of bringing high quality international theatre to Oxford. Recent years have seen acclaimed co-productions with the Farber Foundry from South Africa, and memorable plays from the Maly Drama Theatre of St Petersburg and the Small State Theatre of Vilnius.

Montage of modern shows

History Of Oxford Playhouse In Beaumont Street

Montage of Playhouse building construction

Oxford Playhouse opened its doors in Beaumont Street on 20th October 1938 with a glittering gala performance of JB Fagan's And So To Bed. This celebrated the move to a purpose-built theatre, exactly fifteen years after Fagan opened the Oxford Players' first production with the young actress Jane Ellis at the Red Barn on Woodstock Road (a former game museum with a reputation for uncomfortable seats and draughty conditions).

The appeal to raise £25,000 to build the theatre began in 1934, led by the young enthusiast Eric Dance when he joined the directors of the Oxford Repertory Company: Arthur Brough, Edward Wilkinson and Stanford Holme. In addition to the financial challenge, there was strong local objection to the building of a theatre, but the design of the façade by Sir Edward Maufe and theatre by F.G.M. Chancellor of the Frank Matcham & Co. firm of architects eventually silenced the opposition and building began on land leased by St John's College.

was F.G.M. Chancellor of the Frank Matcham & Co. firm of architects

The War Years

During the war years the Playhouse survived and indeed to some extent thrived, as it attracted actors and directors who were unable to perform in London's closed theatres, but the early 1950s brought new financial problems for the director, Frank Shelley who ran the theatre in the actor manager tradition. He had helped to nurture the careers of many, including a young Maggie Smith and Ronnie Barker, but the company gave its last performance in April 1956.

Frank Hauser and The Meadow Players

Later that year a new chapter was opened when Frank Hauser and The Meadow Players - a resident company that was to firmly establish the Playhouse as one of the nation's leading drama houses. Their first season saw five world premieres, three British premieres and set a standard for 18 years of producing which introduced European classics and employed many of the best actors of the time, such as Sybil Thorndike, Dirk Bogarde, Judi Dench and Ian McKellen.

Despite the artistic success of the Meadow Players, by the 1960s the Playhouse company was once again in debt and the theatre in urgent need of modernisation. In 1961 the University of Oxford purchased the lease of the theatre and work was undertaken under the first University Theatre administrator, Elizabeth Sweeting. The use of the theatre was shared between The Meadow Players and the numerous student and city drama groups and during the 60s and early 70s the careers of countless performers and practitioners were launched. Returning to Oxford and his mentor Nevill Coghill, Richard Burton together with Elizabeth Taylor, famously appeared in the OUDS production of Dr Faustus in 1966. The couple's generosity initiated fundraising for the Playhouse workshop and The Burton Rooms - later to become the Burton Taylor studio theatre; now still a centrepiece of student drama, managed by the Playhouse.

Montage of Playhouse building

Sadly in 1974 the Meadow Players folded due to mounting financial constraint's but inspired by the success of the final "Summer Season" at the Playhouse, Elizabeth Sweeting and Gyles Brandreth established an Oxford Theatre Festival.

Anvil Productions

Later that year, Gordon McDougall formed Anvil Productions, the new Oxford Playhouse Company and with his co-director Nicolas Kent - and later Richard Williams - produced and toured a mixture of new plays, classics and comedies, notably Mephisto and Happy End (starring a young Bob Hoskins) But once again, despite last ditch appeals and rescue packages, with increasing costs, dwindling resources and the tightening of fire restrictions following the Bradford Stadium and Kings Cross rail disasters, the Playhouse was forced to close its doors in 1987.

During the closure years there were various strategic campaigns to save the building and a number of support groups continued to fight for its re-opening but it was not until May 1989 that the Oxford Playhouse Trust (set up by the University) was registered as an independent company; in July the same year it was awarded charitable status. Tish Francis and Hedda Beeby were appointed Joint Directors of the Playhouse in November 1989 and the following summer launched a phased £2 million appeal for the theatre's refurbishment and refitting. Work began on site in October 1990. £400,000 was raised in the first six months and the leases finally transferred to Oxford Playhouse Trust in 1991.

Into the Millennium

On 15th April 1991 the Playhouse re-opened with Geraldine Aaron's Same Old Moon, produced by Bridget Hayward's Theatre Division. Work was still in progress, however, with further funds needed to complete the first phase. Five years of campaigning raised a further £1.35m which, added to a Lottery award of £2.2m in 1995 funded major remodelling works- the results of which can be seen today. During the summer of 1996 the seats were removed and replaced in continental configuration, the circle and bar re-built and air conditioning installed. After only 13 weeks, the transformed auditorium welcomed audiences back for the world premiere of Siobhan Davies Dance Company's Affectious and Trespass.

A second National Lottery award in 1997 funded a further phase of work, which included the creation of a new rehearsal space and fire exits.

Over the past decade the Playhouse has built a reputation as one of Britain's leading theatres, presenting the best work from the national touring circuit, international theatre and increasingly producing, launching and commissioning new work. Its creative and producing ambitions were rewarded in 2001 when Arts Council England announced a phased £200,000 uplift as part of a nationwide re-investment in regional theatre taking effect from 2002.

In April 2008 Tish Francis stood down as director, becoming director emeritus. Her successor is Michelle Dickson.