Behind the scenes at Watford Palace Theatre

PUBLISHED: 18:31 15 February 2010 | UPDATED: 14:48 20 February 2013

The Palace Theatre, Watford

The Palace Theatre, Watford

Sue Armstrong discovers one of the leading theatres in the East of England

AS the lights go down a hush settles over the audience, broken only by an occasional cough and rustle of sweet wrappers. Everyone sits back in plush red seats in anticipation of a colourful performance unfolding in front of them. Cocooned in the splendour of Watford Palace Theatre, with its ornate golden balconies and high ceiling, it is easy to forget that life still goes on outside.

This beautiful Grade II listed theatre, in the heart of Watford, the county's largest town, has been entertaining audiences for nearly 100 years. It has always attracted top writers, directors and designers as well as respected actors.

Song, laughter and applause have echoed through the building since it first opened in 1908 as a music hall called the Watford Palace of Varieties. Just a week later the name changed to the Palace Theatre and it has gone on to enjoy a rich and varied history.

In the early days, famous actors such as Stan Laurel, Charlie Chaplin, Gracie Fields and Bob Hope performed here. In more recent years they have included Prunella Scales, Helen Mirren, Maureen Lipman, Sir John Mills, Stephen Fry and Ronnie Corbett. Directors have included Harold Pinter, Giles Havergal and Michael Attenborough.

Watford Palace Theatre is the only repertory theatre in Hertfordshire. It produces nine main-stage productions each year, from casting and rehearsing, to set building and costume making in its own workshops.

Each show rehearses for four weeks and plays for three and the acting company changes each time. Many of its productions go on to tour nationally or transfer into the West End and are renowned for their quality and diversity, including drama, adaptations, new plays, comedies and pantomime.

Successes include David Farr's Elton John's Glasses, which transferred to the West End, and Simon Gray's The Late Middle Classes, which won the 1999 TMA Award (Theatrical Management Association) for Best New Play.

This elegant Edwardian theatre is controlled by Watford Palace Theatre Limited, an independent company. It became a registered charity in 1996 and is financially supported by Watford Borough Council, Arts Council England East and Hertfordshire County Council's children, schools and families service.

In July 2002 the theatre closed its doors for a major 8.8m refurbishment. The money came from a substantial National Lottery award, with major contributions from Watford Borough Council, individual donations and the theatre's revenue funding. It reopened again in October 2004 with a fresh burst of life and wonderful modernised facilities.

The renovated auditorium is sumptuous with comfortable seating, better sightlines and a deeper and improved stage. The front of house areas have been modernised with a new box office and office space as well as bar and restaurant areas.

Better technical facilities and production areas have been put in place and more dressing rooms and a well-equipped wardrobe department have been provided. Everyone's needs are catered for as the theatre is now fully accessible with improved access to all levels via the lift and increased wheelchair spaces in the stalls.

A sophisticated infra red sound amplification system operates in certain areas of the auditorium, for those who are hard of hearing, as well as audio described performances for blind or partially sighted people. Guide and hearing dogs are welcome to stay with their owners and advice on any of these facilities is available to anyone when booking tickets.

As the theatre is a focus for arts and creativity its programme is designed to have a wide appeal and priority is given to presenting new work and encouraging new writers. It hosts a variety of one-off performances and incoming tours as well as the work of local amateur societies.

Article taken from July issue of Hertdfordshire Life

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