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Design Feature: The Playhouse, Colchester

The Playhouse, in Colchester, is celebrating its 21st birthday, but the history of the red-brick theatre building dates from the interwar years.

After opening on 18 March 1929 with a performance of ‘So This Is Love’, on tour from London’s Winter Garden Theatre, The Playhouse staged a different live show every week for the next 18 months to a 1,150-capacity audience.

In 1930, it became a cinema, but there was a revival of stage shows, alongside films, in the 40s and 50s, when stars including Bruce Forsyth, Benny Hill and Tommy Cooper appeared there.

Opened as a Wetherspoon pub in December 1994, the garrison theatre, designed by John Fairweather, originally had a three-tier interior. That interior was redesigned in two tiers, with the gallery removed and the balcony enlarged, when modernisation took place for cinema.

The cinema closed in August 1981, reopening for bingo the following month with a performance by the Band of the Royal Green Jackets and comedian Stan Stennett. The last bingo was called a year before the pub opened.

Wetherspoon’s sympathetic conversion and restoration retain much of the sumptuous original interior decoration, including the huge ceiling dome with decorative centrepiece.

The balcony is deep, with a curved front ending in two roundheaded boxes at each side which look almost directly into what was the auditorium. Their fronts are decorated with matching wreath medallions and anthemion ornaments.

The bar is located beneath the balcony, while an ‘audience’ of mannequins and life-size cut-outs looks out over the customers below, from the surviving upper-circle seats.

The area which once accommodated the ‘stalls’ seating is now flat, making way for tables and chairs, for drinking and dining, and is carpeted with a theatre-themed comedy/tragedy mask designed carpet.

However, the stage area remains and is decorated with a set, as if for a play.

Old posters relating to theatre days decorate the highly coloured auditorium of dark blue and gold. Posters include those for This was the Army, starring Jack Lewis, and Radio Round-Up with Michael Bentine, Wilson, Keppel & Betty, Dudley Dale and Penny Nicholls among others.

In March 2009, to mark the building’s 80th anniversary, volunteers created a party of stellar figures to occupy the two private boxes, including the Queen, Prince Charles, Margaret Thatcher, Clark Gable and Mickey Mouse!

This has since been updated and added to, with a Hollywood-themed background and additional royal family members.

Visit the pub page for more information by clicking here.