London may have many grand theatres but it doesn’t have a monopoly. Take the King’s Theatre in Southsea, Portsmouth. Grade II listed and designated as of national importance by the Theatre Trust, and a great example of Edwardian theatre architecture. Who designed it? Frank Matcham, the man who designed 150 theatres of which only 30 remain, the King’s is one.
Matcham, who built the Empire Theatre in Edinburgh, now the Festival theatre, was born in Devon. One of nine, his father was a brewer, but Frank was already keen on architecture by the age of fourteen. He visited London when he could and was inspired by the recently finished Gaiety Theatre, which was designed by Charles J Phipps. (The world of theatre architects is small.) Matcham was impressed by Phipps’s ability to construct normal size theatres on small, awkward plots. This is apparent from the frontage of the King’s. A hexagonal tower on the corner of a street doesn’t look like a typical frontage of a theatre.
Matcham established his own company in 1884 and continued to work for varied clients, including the Moss Empire that built 33 theatres in Britain. King’s took 13 months to build, and as with many theatres, it was later remodelled to enlarge the back stage. Such reconstruction and rennovation is typical for many old theatres, and is often done in short bursts to keep closures to a minimum.
The King’s Theatre opened in 1907 with the works of Sir Henry Irving. Irving was a stage actor and the first to be knighted. Perhaps because the theatre was owned by the same company until the 1960s, it has kept the features of Matcham: the oval ceiling and ornate baroque plaster work.
In 1974 the Pinball Wizard scene of the rock opera Tommy was filmed on the stage with Elton John. Probably the craziest performance on any stage. Theatres are available as potential film locations, not just the stage area, but the bars, too. Some theatres double as others: Richmond Theatre doubled as the Savoy for Topsy Turvy – directed by Mike Leigh, and also for Duke of York’s for Finding Neverland. I suppose to the untrained eye, theatres do look similar!
Matcham was a wizard himself, packing in a busy life of building up and down the country. He died in 1920 of blood poisoning, apparently from cutting his fingernails too short. Sounds like a meticulous man all round.