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A Brief History of the Theatre

ECHO'S END. Photo:Helen Murray

by volunteer archivist Arthur Millie and Jane Ware.

In Fisherton Street, Salisbury, there is a rather unusual shaped building that houses a furniture shop called “MultiYork”. On the wall there is a blue plaque that says: This is the site of the Salisbury Arts Theatre”. However, the story of the Arts Theatre, that eventually became the Playhouse, goes back much further than that. 

Glance to the left of this site and you will see a narrow alley way called Chapel Place.

The story of Salisbury Playhouse begins here with the story of this chapel.

People worshipped at the Primitive Methodist Chapel until 1915 when the trustees were told that the building was unsafe due to damage caused by constant flooding.

A local developer, Albany Ward, purchased the site and turned it into a cinema: “The Picture House”.

This flourished until 1937 until a decline set in as other cinemas opened up in the city.

The building was put up for sale and in 1939 the local military authorities requisitioned it as a Drill Hall and an Army Recruitment Centre. Eventually in 1943, ENSA (Entertainment and National Service Association) took it over and the Royal Engineers transformed it into the Garrison Theatre Southern Command. to serve the soldiers of the local garrisons.

Thus begun the first of this theatre’s golden periods. In just two and a half years many stars appeared there including Peter Ustinov, Edith Evans, Flora Robson, Glynis Johns, Eric Portman, James Mason and Laurence Olivier.

The first play produced at the Garrison Theatre was “Night Must Fall” followed by “Blithe Spirit” which was produced by its author, Noel Coward.

When the War ended, ENSA relinquished the lease on the building and the Arts Council took over the running of the theatre. It was named the Arts Theatre and was officially opened in 1945 by Beatrix Lehmann.

The theatre had a bumpy ride during those early years trying to survive many a financial crisis as well as a punishing schedule touring to many local towns. Eventually two companies were formed to take it in turns to perform in Salisbury and to perform on tour.

However, under the direction of Peter Potter and Denis Carey the theatre gradually began to earn a national reputation. It was during this period that the company’s resident composer, Julian Slade and a leading actress from the company, Dorothy Reynolds, created “Salad Days.”

Unfortunately the touring policy proved to be too costly and in 1951 the Arts Council withdrew from the management of the theatre. Fortunately a group of local enthusiasts formed a non-distributing company under the chairmanship of Sir Reginald Kennedy Cox and the theatre was saved.

During this time several actors, who were later to become household names, joined the company including Prunella Scales, George Baker, Leslie Phillips and Kenneth Williams.

The theatre remained the Arts Theatre until 1953 when, under mounting criticism that the word “Arts” could be putting off a lot of local people and the soldiers of the Plain, the theatre re-opened as “The Salisbury Playhouse” with a performance of “Lilac Time”.

In 1955, the General Manager, Michael Wide felt it was time to move on and he mentioned this fact to an old friend of his called Reggie Salberg. Reggie inherited a very popular theatre but it was housed in a building that remember, had already been condemned years ago when it was the Primitive Methodist Chapel!

Rain was always a problem and one of Reggie’s first tasks was to ask a lady siting in the audience to take down her umbrella! It was then that he first dreamt of a new Playhouse.

Reggie couldn’t do much about the building but he could certainly improve the standard and the quality of the performances. When he started plays were still being performed weekly with one inadequate week’s rehearsal. However, by the time the new Playhouse was ready to open, Reggie’s ambition to have three week’s rehearsal period and three week runs had come to fruition.

This was a truly golden age for the Playhouse as Reggie had a wonderful talent for keeping the accounts in the black as well as appointing excellent actors for his companies; including Leonard Rossiter, Stephanie Cole, Jonathan Cecil, Christopher Biggins and Timothy West.

In 1961 the lease of the building, which was still owned by the Rank Organisation, was due to run out. Somehow the people of Salisbury managed to find the £6,000 to purchase the freehold of the theatre and in 1966 the Playhouse celebrated its 21st birthday with a performance of “Lock Up Your Daughters”.

The Playhouse building though was becoming rather a sick patient and in 1974 an appeal was launched to build a new Playhouse on the Maltings, close to the original site.

It was a struggle but the 3/4 million was raised and the new building was opened on 30th November 1976 by Sir Alec Guinness. The last play at the old theatre being an “Olde Tyme Music Hall”.

Reggie Salberg decided it was time to retire and Roger Clissold took over as the Director of the Playhouse.

He oversaw the opening of the Salberg Studio and also helped to develop the Youth Theatre, Stage 65 and Theatrescope which toured to many local educational and community centres.

Roger decided to move to Leatherhead in 1981 and the future of the Playhouse came in the large shape and personality of David Horlock. His great love was to adapt classic stories and few could forget the large sprawling landscapes of such epics as “Far From the Madding Crowd” and “A Tale of Two Cities”.

After David Horlock, Deborah Paige became Artistic Director, followed, in 1995, by Jonathan Church as Artistic Director with Rebecca Morland as Executive Director.

The Playhouse began to build its reputation under Jonathan and this reputation increased dramatically under Joanna Reed and then Philip Wilson.

The Playhouse is now under the leadership of Gareth Machin (Artistic Director) and Sebastian Warrack (Executive Director).

When Beatrix Lehmann opened the Arts Theatre in 1945 she said: “A town without a theatre is like a town without a heart.” The Playhouse may have had a few health scares during its lifetime but it is reassuring to know that at the moment its heart is beating more strongly than ever.

Arthur Millie and Jane Ware (Volunteer Archivists)


To contact our volunteer archivists for more information about our archives please email info@wiltshirecreative.co.uk