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VICTORIA Theatre Salford

Group dedicated to the acquisition and restoration of the Victoria Theatre, Great Clewes Street, Salford
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Dec 1, 2012

The Victoria Theatre - Salford's Sleeping Beauty

In 1899 the Victorian age was at its zenith and on Great Clowes Street Salford, Broughton Theatres opened their newest creation: The Victoria Theatre.

They engaged the eminent theatre architect Bertie Crewe to build a producing house for opera and Shakespeare: high ideals indeed!

He created an opulent theatre with an imposing terra cotta façade and an ornate interior on three levels: stalls, dress circle, rear circle and balcony (always known as the gods), with four stage boxes, rather better for being seen in than having a good view of the stage! The theatre soon became a receiving house with a mixed programme of touring musicals, variety and music hall. 

A Detailed Description
The outside of the theatre has two storeys with five main bays where Ionic pilasters separate pairs of tall first floor windows. The pedimented central bay was originally surmounted by a small tower with a square dome but this has been removed together with the straight-sided pavilion roofs over the end bays and the parapet ornaments across the whole façade. The interior alone, however, justifies its grade 2 listing. The intimate auditorium has two balconies. The first has a raised rear section behind a balustraded parapet (a most unusual arrangement). There are two superimposed stage boxes on each side. The lower boxes are flanked by squat Corinthian columns, and the upper boxes by draped figures which support arches, framing richly scrolled plasterwork. The balcony and box fronts are divided into panels which contain gilded plasterwork. Spanning the auditorium between the tops of the boxes is a deep elliptical arch which frames a tympanum above the rectangular proscenium. 

Sir Henry Irving, the lawrance Olivier or Kenneth Brannagh of his day, and the most famous actor in the country at that time, laid the Foundation Stone of The Victoria Theatre on October 4th 1899, alongside his friend and manager, the author Bram Stoker. There was a grand opening in December of 1900 with all the movers and shakers of Manchester and Salford. Motion Pictures were shown as early as November 1901, and in 1913 the theatre was granted a cinema licence. When it was a cinema films were back projected and cheap seats were available behind the screen where you watched the film back to front.

In 1917 the Victoria became a theatre again until 1919, and then reverted to predominantly cinema use until July 1958 when it closed and was used as a furniture store for some time. For ten years from 1963 the theatre hosted a mixed programme of repertory, pantomime, amateur performances including operetta, as well as hosting many music hall stars from yesteryear, including Hetty King, Joan Turner and some of the Carry On stars.  Albert Finney appeared in repertory.

Bingo and Beyond
Bingo took over in 1973. Although cosmetic changes were made to accommodate equipment, this period of occupancy did preserve the theatre intact. However, the business was unsuccessful. After standing for some time in a disused state during the 1980s, the theatre was purchased by independent owners and reopened for bingo. The theatre was also used as a 'live' theatre location for TV and film.

The State of the Theatre Now
The auditorium has been sympathetically repainted. There are substantial remains of the original Victorian wooden machinery under the stage with paddle levers to alter the rake and the construction for corner traps and four bridges. The grave trap is complete with its platform. Many aspects of the theatre have been preserved such as the stage rake and safety curtain but architectural vandals have stolen ornate dress circle doors and the Victorian radiators and fireplaces. Half the roof has been repaired and the building is watertight. Thus much of the original plaster work has survived and damaged areas would be easy to repair. Sadly the Victorian canopy at the entrance was damaged by a lorry and therefore removed. However the good news is that it is believed to be conserved in a council store somewhere and can therefore be reinstated.

Redevelopment: Creating a Future
Salford provides a telling example of what can happen when the presence of a theatre (even a listed theatre) has been totally ignored in the post-war redevelopment of a city area. Improvements to its present forlorn surroundings are now planned with new housing and shops etc so that this fine Bertie Crewe building can become a centre for the community again. It is also a fine example of the beneficial effects of bingo in providing life and continued care to a theatre which would otherwise certainly have been demolished in the 1970s. 

I am grateful to the Theatre Trust for some of this material, which I have taken from their website and expanded. 

Allen Christey,
co-leader of the Save the Salford Victoria Theatre Campaign