The foundation stone of the Malvern Assembly Rooms was laid by the then Earl Beauchamp on Saturday July 6th 1884. Also present were Jenny Lind, Lady Emily Foley and Dr W. T. Fernie, a local “water cure” doctor and chairman of the board of the Assembly Rooms and Pleasure Gardens Company. In his speech, Dr Fernie said that for a long time past, the want of Assembly Rooms had been felt and that as early as 1883 an offer had been made for the land then known as the promenade gardens. A company had then been started to raise the necessary funds, and 2000 shares (of £5 each) were quickly applied for and allotted
The construction of the Assembly Rooms was completed and the premises open by July 1st 1885. Each side of the entrance on Grange Road had three shops. The Assembly Room, or great Hall, measured 75 by 50 feet, with a recess of 20 feet “in view of an organ being erected”. The stage was 30 feet deep and 50 feet wide and the proscenium opened 21 feet wide. It was one of the best in the provinces. The seating was for 700 persons. The “Concert Hall and Theatre” was an all-purpose hall, used for a variety of purposes, and not merely for stage shows. There was a flat floor and temporary seating had to be taken in and out again. Numerous touring companies visited, with replicas of London successes, melodramas, Gilbert and Sullivan (by the D’Oyly Carte Company), pantomimes and so-called “flying matinees” (in which stars came and went on the same day). There was a regular week-long Shakespeare festival by Frank Benson and his company from the Stratford on Avon Memorial Theatre, as well as concerts by visiting celebrities and local amateur societies. Later on there were films, with the erection of the Malvern Picture House, built by the Assembly Rooms Company and opened in 1923.
In 1927, and despite strong local opposition, the Assembly Rooms were purchased for £17,000 by The Malvern Urban District Council who set about improving its new acquisition. At much the same time, Sir Barry Jackson (who had a house on the Malvern Hills) was doubtless already planning his drama festival, which started in 1929. He probably agreed with the council some drastic alterations. The auditorium floor was raked, and a circle was added. The proscenium arch was widened and a “fly tower” erected. A further change was the addition of a new auditorium ceiling, lower than the wooden barrell-shaped vaulting, which remains (unseen) to this day.
The first Malvern Drama festival lasted for a fortnight from August 19th 1929 and was dedicated to Bernard Shaw. The plays were The Apple Cart, Back to Methuselah!, Heartbreak House and Caesar and Cleopatra. By 1934 the festival had expanded to a month. In 1937 Barry Jackson severed his connection with the festival, the 1938 and 1939 festivals being presented by his co-presenter, Roy Limbert. Up to 1939, there were 65 plays performed by some 40 authors, spanning a period of some 500 years. A number of them had their first performances at Malvern, among them two by Bernard Shaw. In 1956, on the occasion of the dramatists 100th birthday, Malvern had a shaw centenary week. During the rest of the year, every year, anything and everything went on at the theatre, including shows, together with films and, of course, an annual pantomime.
In 1964, the Malvern Theatre Association, a supporters’ organization, was formed, at a time in which the lease of the premises was due for renewal. The cinema was by then closed and the future of the theatre was insecure. There was also a move to form a Trust, to ensure the theatre’s future and to take over the management. The Malvern Festival Theatre Trust was incorporated in February 1965, under the Companies Act and registered under the Charities Act. Thanks to a good deal of adept fund raising, the theatre and cinema were extensively refurbished. The space below the auditorium was converted into a cellar bar, the stalls were re-seated and the entrance hall, foyer and stalls bar were replanned. The first summer season of plays presented by the theatre ran from July 8th to October 2nd 1965, with J B Priestley performing the opening ceremony.
A resident repertory company was formed, which played in Malvern and at the Swan Theatre, Worcester and mixed programmes were presented in the years that followed. There was more than one attempt to revive the festival idea. This really came about, centred on the works of Shaw and Elgar, in 1977. The play was Man and Superman, with Richard Pasco, Susan Hampshire and Nicky Henson, directed by Clifford Williams. Yehudi Menuhin performed, Elisabeth Soderstrom sang in a tribute to Jenny Lind and concerts were given by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and the CBSO.
(The above is gratefully taken from the pamphlet written in 1979 by Gerald Morice entitled A Brief History of the Malvern Festival Theatre).
During the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s, the malvern festival continued, but became less drama orientated and centered more around music, particularly orchestral concerts and recitals. In the mid-1980s the local council once again took over the management of the building although in 1995 it once again became the Malvern Festival Theatre Trust under the leadership of Nicolas Lloyd. January 1997 saw the Malvern Theatres closed for a major refurbishment project, following a 5.2 million pound award from the National Lottery. Central to the aims of the refurbishment was the expansion of the foyer areas to give a spacious atrium with ample bar and restaurant areas and exhibition space. The Festival Theatre, too was refurbished, with a new seating layout (increasing the capacity to around 850 seats) and a new fly-tower designed to accommodate scenery from many of the larger productions touring from the west end. The Winter Gardens was also refurbished to produce a new and versatile space with excellent acoustics, a balcony section and multiple possibilities with regard to seating and stage positions. It was in this new space (now the Forum Theatre) that the first performance in the refurbished Malvern Theatres (Beethoven’s violin concerto played by Nigel Kennedy) took place on Friday April 24th 1998, a little over a year after the building had closed.
Since opening, Malvern Theatres has continued in the pioneering spirit shown by the founders of the original assembly rooms. In August 1998 the Almeida Theatre Company produced four plays in Malvern as part of a new drama festival. These included Alan Howard and Frances de la Tour in the World Premiere of The Play About The Baby by Edward Albee and Diana Rigg in the Almeida’s production of Racine’s Phaedre in a new translation by Ted Hughes. Other events included David Hare introducing Mildred Pierce in the cinema, Edward Albee “in conversation” and Michael Nyman giving a rare solo piano recital.
Since then, Malvern Theatres has built on its reputation for attracting the biggest names and the finest drama. In 1999 Richard Dreyfuss and Charlton Heston both performed in the Festival Theatre and in 2000 theatregoers have seen Leslie Nielsen and Donald Sutherland tread the boards. The drama festival too continued that year as The Royal National Theatre opened their new production of Hamlet with Simon Russell Beale in Malvern prior to an international tour and Sir Derek Jacobi headed an all-star cast in God Only Knows, a new play by Hugh Whitemore.
But although the refurbishment was completed on time and only around 5% over budget, trading was challenging in the years 1998-2003. One problem was that even the comparatively small overspend on the project proved difficult to pay off and left the theatres needing a cash injection in order to trade. Two solutions were proposed: a sale of the venue to the Ambassador Theatre Group or continuing independence for the Trust under the management of Nic Lloyd, with an ex-gratia payment from Malvern Hills District Council. The second solution was adopted after the Ambassador Theatre Group formally withdrew its bid in August 2002. Financial stability has seen the theatre go from strength to strength in the last five years. The programme is more diverse than at any time in the theatre’s history and audience numbers have increased year-on-year