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The Queen's Theatre is a vibrant producing theatre serving outer East London and Essex. Under the Artistic Direction of Bob Carlton, the Queen's is home to cut to the chase... the country's only resident company of actor-musicians who present a diverse, popular and innovative programme of eight main-house productions each year.
The Queen's Theatre offers a wide and varied Education and Outreach Programme aimed at young people and adult groups to inspire and provide opportunities for individual study, performance and professional development.
The Queen's Theatre provides a platform for local groups and organisations to present an extensive community programme to local audiences.
The original Queen's Theatre was fashioned from a derelict building in Station Lane, Hornchurch, which had been a cinema from 1913 – 1934 and a storage of furniture for bombed buildings during World War II.
In 1948 it was purchased by Hornchurch Urban District Council who, with great flair and civic imagination, established a small theatre with seating for 379 patrons in a raked auditorium. The theatre was officially opened by Sir Ralph Richardson on 21 September 1953 with a production of Philip King's See How They Run. The inaugural Artistic Director was renown actor and director Stuart Burge, with Anthony Bavage as Administrator, Jean Love as Designer and Harold Brooks as Master Carpenter.
The small proscenium stage, over 22 years, presented over 400 plays. The theatre bar was formerly the projection room of the cinema, there was no fly tower, no paint frame in the workshop and the dressing rooms were so small that camaraderie became essential as there wasn't enough room to have a quarrel!
But despite these conditions, or possibly because of them, the Queen's Theatre was a nursery of talented artists, not only of actors but also of directors and designers, a remarkable number of whom became well-known figures in theatre and television.
From the very beginning, the Queen's Theatre was running a “repertory” company, named the Queen's Players, a testing experience for company and audience alike. The company was rehearsing the next play by day and performing the current piece in the evening. There were no “stars”, but rather a company of first rate and experienced actors. As time went on, the audience found additional pleasure in seeing these familiar actors in a series of contrasting parts and this is still true today!
Many of the Queen's Players left Hornchurch to become household names in theatre (Joan Plowright, Peggy Ashcroft, Timothy West,), television (Prunella Scales, Nigel Hawthorne, Wilfred Brambell), cinema (Anthony Hopkins, Bernard Cribbins, Liz Fraser), radio (Glyn Houston, Gwen Watford, James Grout) and even politics' (Glenda Jackson).
Also in 1953 an Amateur Dramatic Society was formed by the late Errol Pryce Rees. With the opening of the Queen's Theatre, the membership decided to widen their policy and re-constitute the society as the Queen's Theatre Club, dedicated to supporting the professional theatre in every possible way.
In the wake of success it became obvious that a purpose-built theatre was not only desirable, but essential. Such an ambition inevitably led to much discussion but the authorities, the newly created London Borough of Havering, to their great credit, stood firm in their belief in the benefits of a purpose-built theatre. A further controversy occurred over the siting with many people believing that Romford was the obvious location. However, the decision was made to keep the theatre in Hornchurch where it had begun.
The Billet Lane building was designed by the Borough Architect, Mr R W Hallam ARIBA and the Project Architect, Mr N W T Brooks FRIBA. It was built by Messrs H Webb (Construction) Ltd of Romford for £718,921. It comprises a 9m x 27m stage (with a 9m x 11m acting area), an 18m flytower, workshops and a middle-scale 506 seat auditorium arranged in continental style. The foyer offers access to the Box Office and sales kiosk, a space for exhibitions and stage area for informal performances, such as Sunday Jazz. Although the original plans for a full restaurant and a studio theatre were not realised, for financial reasons, the Bar and Café provide light refreshments. Actors are accommodated in six dressing rooms on the ground floor, a rehearsal space (behind the stage) and a rehearsal room (on the upper floor with the offices).
The Queen's Theatre in Billet Lane was opened on 2 April 1975 by Sir Peter Hall. A full house of enthusiasts joined the celebrations which were followed by a splendid performance of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, under the new Artistic Director Paul Tomlinson. The aim of the new Artistic Director and the Theatre Trust was to make the theatre a centre of excellence – everything that a theatre could provide would be provided for the population of Havering and the surrounding boroughs. To that end, in addition to the major productions in the main theatre, there were late night shows, street theatre, Sunday Jazz, guest concerts, youth drama groups and exhibitions in the foyer. In 1979 the first Queen's production to transfer direct into the West End, The Who's Rock Opera Tommy opened at the Queen's Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue.
In April 1984 the Arts Council of Great Britain announced their withdrawal of grant aid to the Queen's as part of their “Glory of the Garden” strategy. Like over 20 other producing repertory theatres in the country, the loss of grant meant that the Queen's faced closure. However, unlike most theatres, the Queen's survived thanks to an extensive petition presented to the Minister for Arts and Libraries, and the local “God Save the Queen's!” campaign and crucially, an increase of grant from the London Borough of Havering.
The Havering Theatre Trust re-structured and formed a new Council of Management to manage the theatre. Bob Tomson was appointed Artistic Director and was faced with the challenge of seeking financial fortune at the same time as artistic opportunities in co-producing with commercial managements. This led to the Queen's producing shows with “star” names for national tour and west end runs. In 1985 the Queen's first production to embark on a national tour was Alan Bleasdales' comedy Having a Ball and by 1986 six major national tours were running simultaneously.
Unfortunately, while this policy produced short-term success, the theatre did not benefit financially. Blood Brothers transferred to the West End, where it is still playing today, bringing a great deal of kudos for the theatre, but criminally no financial return. After the lights had faded, the theatre was left stripped of assets and without any royalties to replenish stocks. While the borough's support through this period was crucial to the theatre staying alive, the grant increased at below inflationary rates and was even cut in 1994/5. Throughout this time no revenue funding was received by the Queen's from central arts funding sources.
The nineties was a decade of decline for the Queen's. In order to produce work, the management was forced to pursue co-production partnerships with any small-scale, commercial producer able to fit in with the schedule. Artistic Direction was difficult if not impossible, seasons became imbalanced and there was no consistency of product. In addition, the fabric of the building was maintained at subsistence levels creating new challenges to keeping the theatre open.
By 1998, the theatre was playing to 25% audiences, frequently in deficit, ignored by central arts funding (now London Arts) and on the brink of closure. It was clear that radical changes had to be implemented in order to save the theatre and the borough rose to this challenge by committing £100K to the annual grant and by clearing the accumulated deficit.
The New Repertory 5to top
In 1998 Bob Carlton was appointed Artistic Director. A radical decision was made to return to the then unfashionable system of repertory companies. A resident creative team was drawn together to work with the in-house production crew. A permanent ensemble was formed, cut to the chase... but with a difference: all the actors were also highly talented musicians. As the Queen's had proved in its infancy, repertory theatre worked, and by focusing upon these original values the Queen's was once again able to achieve high production standards and efficiencies and economies of scale in budgets. The Queen's was able to believe it could be a producing theatre for the 21st century.
As well as high quality theatre, the Queen's offered excellent value to its audience by introducing a low-cost, easy-access subscription scheme – jump the Q. Used by many arts organisations across the country, it is still going strong at the Queen's, with over 4,000 core subscribers. Since the first season of jump the Q in 1998 (From a Jack to a King by Bob Carlton, Abigail's Party by Mike Leigh and Phantom of the Opera by Ken Hill) the Queen's has enjoyed an average capacity audience of 75% - considerably above the national statistics of 50 – 55%. The Romford Recorder recognised the Queen's as West End Theatre at East End Prices and the Queen's continues to live up to this reputation.
Alongside the main-house productions, the Queen's established an Education and Outreach Programme committed to providing opportunities to experience theatre for all ages and in particular young people. Set text or issue-based Theatre-in-Education performances, integrated with workshops, are given by cut to the chase... in secondary and primary schools and colleges twice a year. Not only is this the first taste of professional theatre for many young people, but it is a springboard to future curriculum studies and inspires new confidence and creativity. To complement the existing children's drama group Q Club, a Youth Theatre and Youth dance Group were created.
The Queen's Education programme also delivers workshops ranging from week-long programmes for 6-8 year olds to literacy-based intensive workshops for secondary students; Work Experience; Back Stage Tours; Open House Day (part of the National Open House Scheme); and in November 2000 participated in Our Town Story at the Millennium Dome.
Despite these achievements, the Queen's remained without central arts funding. The first breakthrough came when London Arts announced a new fund of £50,000 specifically for outer London theatre for 2000-01. It was a great tribute to everyone's hard work that on 2 March 2000 the theatre was informed it had been awarded the entire £50,000.
This figure, while not solving the theatre's funding problems, was significant in recognising the strategic role of the Queen's in Greater London. The MP for Hornchurch, John Cryer, facilitated a meeting with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the Rt. Hon Chris Smith MP, which resulted in London Arts recognising the Queen's in the National Theatre Review as an English Regional Producing Theatre, and including the theatre in funding plans for the new monies for theatre for 2002-4. In 2001, London Arts announced that the Queen's would receive fixed-term core funding 2002-3 and 2003-4, the first time for 18 years.
In 2001 the Queen's joined forces with Hull Truck Theatre Company to produce John Godber's Perfect Pitch - the first co-production for many years. And in the same Autumn the Queen's co-produced Bob Carlton's Return to the Forbidden Planet for a major national tour and West End run.