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Frank Matcham – the man who changed the face of theatre

The architect died 100 years ago today

The Lyric Hammersmith Theatre
© David Tett

Today is the 100th anniversary of the death of architect Frank Matcham. For many readers on the site his name might mean little, but almost any UK theatregoer will have experienced his handiwork.

Across his 40-year career, it is estimated that he designed and helped the construction of 90 theatres, while also overseeing the design of 80 more. That's an absurd figure – an average of over four theatres per year.

What's also significant is that these theatres were placed all across the nation – up and down the UK venues were popping up, able to give communities the chance to witness performances in the grandest settings imaginable.

Sadly only 20 of the original theatres that Matcham built are still around today – many pulled down or lost. But we've assembled some photos and facts about Matcham's seismic career.


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Cheltenham Everyman is the oldest of Matcham's existing theatres, he designed it in 1891.

Lancaster Grand is the oldest theatre with a Matcham design in it. The 457-seater venue was originally built in 1782 to the Christopher Wren style (then seen as standard for a Georgian theatre) and modified by Matcham in 1897 – adding a new fly tower and iconic auditorium embellishments. The theatre was badly damaged by a fire in 1908 but rebuilt in six months to its current Edwardian design with the Matcham interior fully restored to its former glory – you can still see it today.

The revolving stage at the Coliseum was the first of its kind in London when Matcham designed it, the theatre cost £250,000 to build.

Bristol Hippodrome is the last of Matcham's major designs. When it first opened, the big feature of the theatre was a huge water tank at the front of the stage, which could be filled with 100,000 gallons of water, with a large protective glass screen to protect the orchestra and those in the stalls.

The Theatre Royal Wakefield is the smallest remaining of Matcham's theatres – the capacity stands at 499 seats.

Matcham is said to have been successful because he was able to make a 3,000 seat theatre feel intimate so what our theatres are best at are creating that unified experience of live theatre.

The exact number of theatres designed by Matcham in his lifetime is not known as much of the Matcham archive was destroyed in the World War Two bombing of London.

Matchan's Palladium is on the site that had previously housed Hengler's Circus.

The opening of the Lyric with its Matcham auditorium was accompanied by an address from the famous actress, Lille Langtry, and was followed by a performance of a one-act play, Dora. On the 20th July, 1985 The Era Newspaper published a lengthy column on the event and the new design of the theatre:

"The stalls, dress-circle, and upper circle have velvet tip-up chairs, and retiring rooms and saloons are provided. The raised plaster decorations are rich in detail, and the colouring in shades of creams and blues is very tasteful…

"The new stage is much deeper than the old one, and has scene docks on each side […] and everything necessary for the staging of large productions.

"Tonight, Mrs Langtry will speak an opening address which has been written for the occasion by Mr. Wilton Jones; and Miss Grace Warner will, in the course of the evening, play the principal part in Charles Reade's one act play, Dora."

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