Frank Matcham, Theatre Builder

Tony Aldous surveys a new exhibition on architect Frank Matcham and his work at the Richmond Theatre.

The late Victorian and Edwardian periods may be considered the golden age of theatre building. Imperial prosperity produced audiences keen to sample thespian delights and able to afford to. It also produced the developers and capital needed to build larger and more elaborate theatres, especially in London, in the rapidly growing regional cities and in booming holiday resorts like Blackpool and Brighton. Of the several hundred theatres built in that period, more than 120 were attributable to a single architect – Frank Matcham (1854-1920). Yet save among theatre buffs, his name seldom evokes more than a flicker of recognition.

Matcham was the most prolific theatre architect of all time, certainly in Britain. He was responsible for the design or complete redesign of more than 120 theatres and ‘variety palaces’ in the thirty-three years from 1879 to 1912, and the reworking of many more. Such buildings as the Coliseum and Hippodrome in London, the Opera Houses of Blackpool and Belfast, and the Bristol Hippodrome, with their combination of functional efficiency and ornate opulence, are to many people the essence of what a theatre should be.

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