The Stables at 60 the history of a local gem! (Part 1)

The Stables Theatre celebrates the 60th anniversary of its opening this year and there is a packed programme of events to celebrate the occasion. The history of the theatre and how it came in to existence in the first place is a fascinating one. Here, in the first of a series of features about The Stables, we look at those early years and some of the ‘big characters’ who helped make it all happen in the first place.

Sir Ralph Richardson, Sybil Thorndike, Flora Robson, Geraldine McEwan, Peter Pears… the list of big names goes on and on, but the thing they have in common is that they have all performed on the stage of The Stables theatre in Hastings.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the opening of The Stables, 60 years that for many have passed in a flash, 60 years that have seen the cream of British theatre take to its stage and 60 years that have seen the the theatre’s legion of volunteers strive for the very best, proud of the fact that The Stables has, throughout its six decades, always been run and managed by a dedicated team of volunteers.

But while the theatre opened in 1959 and was significantly extended in the late 1970s the story if its birth really starts in 1956 with the formation of The Stables Trust. Formed in October that year at a meeting at a house in High Wickham – a house that you can see from the current theatre bar – those in attendance that night agreed that restoration of The Stables was a, ‘…matter of considerable importance to all interested in the old town of Hastings.”

They voted to work towards the creation of ‘a little theatre’ that would be controlled by the Hastings and District Theatre Guild

Sue Dengate is the archivist at The Stables and looking back through the documents and at the history of the venue she says it is clear that at the crucial points in the history of the theatre there has been a big personality driving things forward and one of those was the woman who had an instrumental role in kicking the whole thing off Mrs H.E. Dannreuther.

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It appears Mr Dannreuther, the wife of a Rear Admiral who survived Jutland, was well known in local society circles, “…she knew everyone and everyone knew her,” says Sue and it’s clear she persuaded and ‘cajoled’ many of her friends and associates to support the development of the new theatre.

The vision was somewhat bigger than just developing a ‘little theatre’. The aim was to bring together the numerous smaller amateur dramatic societies that existed in Hastings at the time under the auspices of the Hastings Theatre Guild – to create a significant artistic resource for the town.

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The history of the building was not a glamorous one. It had been built by John Collier of Old Hastings House to act as a stables and living accommodation for his groomsmen. It did though, play a significant part in British history when Wellington stationed his troops there as they made their way to France to fight in the Napoleonic wars. During the second world war it was used as a store where people who had been bombed could put their belongings for safe keeping.

But time had moved on and Hastings council wanted to pull the old building down. The Old Hastings Preservation Society (OHPS) did not want that to happen, they were determined to save the building but they didn’t actually know what they were going to do with it. That’s where Mrs Dannreuther, Dick Perkins, Michael Langdon and Robin Seymour join the story, when they established The Stables Trust they adopted a goal to: “…preserve the building and to promote the arts in all its forms,” and the rest, as they say, is history.

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The trust was successful in raising a lot of money in 1957 they persuaded Hastings council to grant The Stables Trust a 99 year lease on the building, there was £1,000 from the Ministry of Works, a further £1,000 from Old Hastings Preservation Society with another £1,000 coming from Mrs L.C. Prideaux who lived in the old town. In total it cost £15,000 to restore and convert the building, to make it fit for its opening in 1959, that was £4,000 more than originally estimated and work was undertaken by local builders Eldridge and Cruttenden.

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One of the reasons why, over the years, The Stables has been able to attract those big names we mentioned earlier is down to the fact that it is a well liked venue, known for its great acoustic and an intimate and welcoming atmosphere.

For the opening, on June 16th 1959 a gala event was planned with Sir Ralph Richardson right at the heart of it. There was Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks, there were trumpeters and a performance of a play called The Stables 1746 to 1959 produced by Frank Underhill which managed to include all the notable events and notable people who had been associated with the building down the years.

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Between it’s opening in 1959 and the work being carried out to extend the theatre in the 1970s The Stables had staged 218 plays including works by Shakespeare, Shaw, Gilbert and Sullivan and Lionel Bart to name just a few.

Writing in his 1979 book Dramatic Story of The Stables Theatre Tom Sobey said: “These titles… show the high standard… the amateurs of this theatre set themselves.”

If big personalities have been a feature of the development of the theatre then someone else who fits that bill was local solicitor Richard Perkins, known as Dick, according to Sobey the theatre owes much to Perkins, ‘enthusiastic leadership.’

Dick Perkins became chairman of The Stables in 1962 and his time in office was to run for 14 years, until his death in 1976. He was the catalyst behind the plans to extend The Stables. But under Perkins’ leadership The Stables grew in reputation too, Sobey says: “The policy of enhancing the theatre’s cultural value, as well as its reputation, by presenting plays and concerts by professional artists of high calibre, as well as it being the home of a talented amateur company, was pursued with vigour and enthusiasm.”

There were physical changes too with new seats, lighting and sound equipment and central heatings was installed too during this time.

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The Stables was becoming a victim of its own success though. As audiences grew it became clear the art gallery, bar and foyer just couldn’t cope with demand. Indeed in the theatre’s early years there was no real formal gallery, its artworks were simply displayed on the walls of the public areas.

So in 1975 an appeal was launched to raise £65,000 to extend the building. The extension had to go on the east side of the building as the other side, fronting on to the High Street, is listed.

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When plans were drawn up to extend the theatre this side of the building, facing the High Street could not be altered because it is listed.

The planned extension was going to include a dedicated art gallery, a larger more comfortable foyer, a bar, and offices and meeting rooms which the growing and ever more busy venue needed to run efficiently. That extension effectively created The Stables theatre that we know today. Work was completed in May 1978 and the new, extended building, was opened by The Queen Mother in June of the same year.

Sobey wrote: “Sadly neither Richard Perkins nor Arthur Hickes, the talented architect whose plans have resulted in the beautiful building, are alive to see their dream realised. Their names will always have an honoured place in the story of The Stables Theatre.”

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After the significant work to extend the theatre was completed, The Queen Mother visited the town to perform the official opening ceremony in June 1978 opening up a whole new chapter in the history of the ‘little theatre’.

Next time – 1978 and beyond… what the volunteers who run the theatre decided to do with the new facilities they had at their disposal.

 

 

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