LETTER: Theatre lucky to survive

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I don’t like repeating myself, but the reason Eastbourne never gets substantial regeneration money and has to resort to selling valuable assets to raise cash – and even then is forced to make do with ‘refurbishing’ rather than rethinking and redesigning its cultural assets – is that it goes on believing the myths it weaves about them.

The Devonshire Park Theatre is not ‘one of the best examples of a small Victorian theatre in the country’ [Herald, December 30]. The interior, totally rebuilt by the Frank Matcham Company in 1903, well after Victoria’s death, is in every detail Edwardian.

The interior was rebuilt in 1903 because, in the words of the Devonshire Park Company’s Chairman, the theatre built by Henry Currey was no longer ‘suitable for modern playgoers’, being flat floored, with poor sightlines and bad acoustics (Currey was not a theatre architect).

Restructuring the auditorium with cambered seating was difficult because of the restriction on the roof height and the insertion of the decorative ‘stage boxes’ which narrowed the width of the proscenium arch. Nevertheless the Matcham Company did the best job they could, within a restricted budget. So it is highly insulting to a great architectural enterprise for your correspondent to characterise their work in 1903 as ‘further improvements’.

In the early 1900s the theatre was facing closure. If the Matcham Company had not, with the permission of the Eighth Duke of Devonshire (who was at that time employing Matcham to design the Buxton Opera House), stepped in and totally refashioned the interior, it would have been pulled down and forgotten.

It is equally insulting to say that the latest refurbishments ‘make the most of’ the theatre’s ‘original’ features’. The auditorium – fortunately – retains nothing of Currey’s original design. Sadly, however, the latest ‘refurbishment’ can do nothing to eradicate the bad points of the Matcham Company’s work either – the boxes are pretty but useless, the stage still has far too steep a rake, and the full stage picture still cannot be seen from parts of the auditorium.

The theatre is beautifully maintained by the Friends, but we must not pretend the well-kept decoration of its auditorium makes it ‘unique’. The Matcham Company’s budget was too tight for that. The plasterwork all came out of a catalogue.

PROF JOHN PICK

South Street

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