City of Plymouth Theatre Company

From do-it-yourself to the Devonport...

At the end of the 19th century, do-it-yourself meant just that as far as local entertainment was concerned. Friends took it in turns to meet at each other’s houses for a musical evening. There was always someone who played the piano – and, of course, they all took along their pieces of music. So successful were these evenings that one group decided to go a step further and perform HMS Pinafore at the Royal Naval Barracks in Devonport.


Then, encouraged by their success, these pioneers decided to form themselves into an amateur operatic society. So it was that the Plymouth AOS was born, beginning in 1899 with a production of The Pirates of Penzance. The proceeds were £40 and were devoted to the Boer War Fund. Elated with its success members set their sights higher and presented The Gondoliers at the Theatre Royal, with the result that productions were performed annually at the same venue for many years.

In 1903 the society deviated from Gilbert and Sullivan and performed The Mountebanks followed by musicals of that period such as The Country Girl: Miss Hook of Holland and A Waltz Dream.

 
Old Plymouth Theatre Royal

Change of title:

In 1929, the society received the NODA Bronze Plaque for operatic art, in a competition that was discontinued in the late 1930’s. Four years later, when the town of Plymouth became a city, the society took the title City of Plymouth Amateur Operatic Society. Then, in 1936, when another three years had passed, the Royal Theatre closed and the beautiful Foulston building, described nevertheless, by one critic between the wars as “the theatre of splendid misery” because of its size and its chequered career under a succession of managers ~ was demolished to make way for a cinema as the ‘talkies’ swept everything before them.

The Palace Theatre then became the society’s home from 1938 – 1965 and when this also closed, we moved to a much smaller venue, The Hoe Theatre, where we were to remain for the next two decades. During the years at the Hoe theatre the society purchased its own premises in Bath Street, which provided rehearsal rooms, wardrobe space, scene dock and committee rooms.


Then in 1982, the long awaited new Theatre Royal was opened and Plymouth AOS had the honour of being the first amateur society to perform there, with a production of Fiddler on the Roof.

This became the society’s main venue for their annual shows for many years. Productions such as 42nd Street: Singin’ In the Rain: Crazy for You: Me and My Girl: Mack and Mabel were so popular that they filled the 1,300 seat theatre receiving wide acclaim from critics and patrons alike.

Milestone:

The year 1987 was also a milestone, as it was then that the rehearsal rooms in Bath Street were sold and a former Methodist Central Hall in Fore Street, Devonport was purchased ~ eventually to become the Devonport Playhouse, a 350 seat theatre in which the society were to perform some of their musicals, still presenting their main show at the Theatre Royal once a year.

The Devonport Playhouse conversion was a major physical and financial undertaking by society members, involving among other things the creation of a stage, orchestra pit and dressing rooms. The Playhouse was initially put on the map when the society was approached by Saga Holidays, through the Theatre Royal ~ to perform a summer season on two nights a week. We jumped at this opportunity and much to everyone’s relief the theatre licence was finally delivered and displayed in the foyer just two hours before the opening performance: The rest, as they say, is history...

Due to the ever increasing financial cost of performing in the Theatre Royal and the constant improvements and maintenance required at the Devonport Playhouse, the committee, at the time, decided that the society would have to relinquish their productions at the Theatre Royal and concentrate on using and improving their own theatre, not only for their own productions, but the possibility of hiring the Playhouse to visiting companies in the 21st century.

 
New Plymouth Theatre Royal
Devonport Methodist Hall
Devonport Playhouse

With the arrival of 2000 the society saw an increase in the number of productions they themselves performed at the Playhouse, with a few other local companies hiring the premises for their productions. This was also the right time for another slight name change, and although the society kept the coveted ‘The City of’ we changed the rest of our name to Plymouth Theatre Company.

With the added bonus of having our own theatre and a dedicated following we introduced ‘Friends of the Playhouse’ to our patrons. Giving them the chance to donate towards the Playhouse funds in return we offered advanced notice of all our productions, hospitality at our shows, and their names placed on a commemorative board which is displayed in the Playhouse Green Room and in all our programmes. This opportunity is still open to anyone who would like to support our company without being overly involved.

In 2004 Katy O’Brien, one of our principal members, took over the reins of our Youth arm as Director & Choreographer. The members of this highly successful part of the Plymouth Theatre Company have performed in the main company productions both at the Playhouse and in the Theatre Royal as well as presenting their own productions at the Playhouse. This exciting project exists to develop young people’s skills in theatre and is open to 4 - 18 year olds.

When the Plymouth City Council took the decision to close the theatre area within the Athenaeum, we were one of a handful of independent theatre owners who could offer a space for companies to perform ~ hence the hiring of the Devonport Playhouse to visiting companies has increased tremendously. We offer a warm and friendly environment for groups of all ages and experience to ‘tread the boards’ in a lovely, little fully equipped, working theatre.

Plymouth Theatre Company is very luck to have a dedicated membership of both playing and non-playing members who support and promote both the company productions and the Devonport Playhouse. In 2009 an invite from the management of the Theatre Royal offered our company the chance to perform once again in the civic theatre. After many sleepless nights, the committee took the decision to take the chance. In January 2010 the Plymouth Theatre Company returned to the Theatre Royal with their production of 42nd Street. For some, a welcome return to this superb, professional venue and for others a fantastic experience which may be a trigger for greater things!

After celebrating 25 years at the Playhouse, the committee and loyal members of the Plymouth Theatre Company often hotly debate plans for the continuing progression of both the Company and Playhouse for the future years. Long may it continue!