AUDIENCES have turned out for decades to be delighted by its shows and it is almost an Oxfordshire institution in its own right.
Despite having just 200 seats, Chipping Norton Theatre received 53,776 annual visitors in 2013 and now the curtain is raising for its 40th anniversary year.
“We are looking in two directions,” said artistic director John Terry. “Back to the theatre’s roots and also forward to the future.”
A gallery of pictures from throughout the theatre’s history will be on display alongside amusing letters of complaint about the language sometimes used in its productions of years gone by.
As well as productions and exhibitions, it also hosts hundreds of community outreach events every year.
The town is proud of its little theatre and its shows, including the popular Christmas pantomime, are now regularly reviewed in the national press, said mayor Michael Tysoe.
The council donates a sizeable chunk of its budget for volunteer organisations to the theatre – £2,500 out of £12,500.
“That goes to show how important we think it is,” said Cllr Tysoe. “It puts on fantastic plays and it has become part of our community.
“We are very proud of the theatre in Chipping Norton.”
Notable local residents who regularly watch the annual Christmas pantomime with their families include Prime Minister David Cameron, who tries to attend every year, Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson and TV presenter Amanda Holden, who was pictured with this year’s cast of Jack and the Beanstalk on her visit in December.
Andrew Macklin as Edward in last September’s production of Someone To Watch Over Me, a play inspired by the Middle East kidnapping of Terry Waite
But the theatre comes from humble beginnings.
Its home, originally called the Citadel, was once a Salvation Army building that had fallen into disrepair after being briefly used as a furniture store.
It was then discovered by founders John and Tamara Malcolm, who promptly snapped it up in 1973 after they had put on four successful Christmas performances of Beauty and the Beast in the town hall.
The chairman of West Oxfordshire District Council, Jack Swain presented a cheque for £500 to representatives of the theatre in 1979
The couple, who were both Royal Shakespeare Company actors, deployed all their wits and charm to coax donations out of trusts, councils, fundraising groups and even an anonymous benefactor who gave them a princely sum of £6,500.
The next year they would also obtain a grant from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation – which allowed them to buy a cottage next door for conversion into a bar and gallery.
By 1975 they finally opened in an event led by Tom Baker, the actor playing The Doctor in Doctor Who at the time.
For the theatre’s 10th birthday, actor John Hurt and ex-Goodie Graeme Garden – who were both keen supporters of the theatre – joined town mayor Tom Stroud on stage to cut the birthday cake with director Murray Melvin in 1985
And 16 years later they also managed to stump up the cash through fundraising to purchase 7 Goddard’s Lane, now the theatre’s box office.
With that addition came extra space for rehearsals, dressing rooms and offices.
In 1996 the theatre underwent a major refurbishment costing more than £1m, funded through public and private donations. As part of the improvements, renowned European artist Graham Rust was commissioned to produce murals which can now be seen at the bar.
By 2002 Tamara Malcolm, who had been theatre director from the beginning, decided to pass on the mantle to Caroline Sharman – but not before receiving an MBE for her services to the theatre.
Ms Sharman would go on to captain the ship until 2007, when current director John Terry assumed the role.
Under his tenure, it has performed nine in-house productions and will embark on its first tour this September with its own version of Around the World in 80 Days.
The interior of the building undergoes extensive refurbishment in 1996
“People seem to enjoy the things we have been doing,” said Mr Terry. “The numbers show they really value us.”
“We feel very strongly that we do not want to just be a venue for the privileged, and so we try to keep our ticket prices low.
“That is something we want to continue, and so we’ll be looking for support from local groups to help see us through the next 40 years as well.”
The next upcoming production will be Alarms and Excursions.
A series of short sketches focusing on the technology and headaches of modern life, penned by award-winning writer Michael Frayn, it will debut on February 27.
Perhaps it is the theatre’s quality of having found big success but maintaining its local links that is the secret to its years of success. And it is likely to have many years ahead of it yet – the show must go on.
HISTORY OF THE THEATRE
1973: The first pantomime, Beauty and the Beast, is staged in Chipping Norton Town Hall. The citadel, previously used by the Salvation Army, is bought by the company
1975: Tom Baker opens the theatre, after the building has been renovated and restored to its former glory
1990: The Goddards Lane property, which was to become the box office, is purchased
2002: Director Tamara Malcolm steps down and Caroline Sharman continues in her place
2007: The theatre gains a new room above its gallery, which is built and then lifted into place by crane
2007: Caroline Sharman is succeeded by John Terry as director
2010: The theatre wins an award for Outstanding Contribution to Theatre
2014: The theatre celebrates its 40th anniversary.