Snapshots of Local History: Barn Theatre Continues a Long Cirencester Tradition

G&S Pirates and policemen (1957)

It’s a real plus that Cirencester now enjoys professional theatre as part of the overall cultural offer for town and district, achieved with no small amount of dedicated effort and financial commitment by those who have backed the Beeches Barn Theatre project. The team has now clocked up several years of successful programming since the theatre refurbishment was completed ready for the 2018 season.  

In fact the property in Beeches Road, handy for the town and with plenty of car parking access, has a long history as a cultural venue much of which seems to have faded from memory. But it was an important part of town life during much of the past half century, with its origins in a determined attempt to provide a new focus for community activity after the end of the Second World War.

In 1948 Cirencester Urban District Council purchased The Beeches, a fine period property in Beeches Road just off London Road. As an 18th century house much rebuilt towards the end of the 19th century, its own long history is another story but in the early post-war years it offered space enough to set up what the Town Guide later described as ‘a combination of a community centre, arts centre and a further education centre’ all in one.

The Cirencester Association was established to bring this about, which it did with enthusiasm and a growing membership. External groups and societies could affiliate and so gain access to the facilities. By the mid-1960’s this list ran to over 30 groups based there, everything from the town’s Camera Club, Ballet Club, Caledonian Society, Arts Club, Cage Bird Society, and not least the Archaeological & Historical Society, plus several sports clubs. Having a firm base helped these groups to develop, and being in a club was all part of the philosophy of the time.

The Association’s own development was not without its difficulties with fluctuating support and financial challenges, but its core remained to become The Phoenix Centre from 1972. At the heart of it all was the Barn Theatre (originally known as the Beeches Hall) which opened in 1950 and it is this development which runs right through to the present day.

Taking a bow- G&S Pirates of Penzance (1957)

Its name derives from the various previous uses of buildings immediately adjoining the main house and backing on to the river Churn, integrating a stable block and barn, with changes to the saddling room and the groom’s accommodation. The greatest change was the introduction of an ex-military ‘Nissen hut’, measuring 60 ft x 24 ft to create the theatre space for some 200 people. Much modified and dramatically improved, it still does.

Editions of the annual Town Guide lauded this space as ‘ideally suited for amateur drama’ and indeed it was. Various groups under various names had runs of shows there at different times, including the Beeches Review Company, the Barn Theatre Players, and the Ciceter Players. I fondly remember enjoying the annual pantomime with much hilarity and slapstick, with John Riggall always in a leading role.

The chance survival of a couple of programmes from the 1950s (printed as usual by Earle & Ludlow of Cirencester) brought all this to life. One still had welcoming press reviews tucked inside, plus a small brown envelope of pictures taken (I think) by local photographer Peter Palmer. These belonged to the late Heather Powell who was in the Chorus for both.

This was the Beeches Amateur Operatic Group, which first performed Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance in 1951 and ran it again in 1957. It was presented, in the opinion of ‘Opera Lover’ writing to the local paper, ‘in a style which was creditable to any town or amateur society’.

In 1953 the Group had celebrated Coronation Year with a production of The Mikado, this time held in the larger auditorium of The Bingham Hall, Cirencester’s other main theatrical and community venue, with a story all its own and one in which group interchanges between these two venues was very much a regular feature over the years.

Interestingly, the 1957 production was housed at the smaller venue of The Beeches (well under half the capacity) ‘because of petrol rationing’, a reminder if any were needed that this all seems to belong to an increasingly-distant time and memory. But like the price of petrol perhaps not entirely?

David Viner

Cirencester Archaeological & Historical Society

With many thanks to Edwin Cuss. See also: barntheatre.org.uk

New footer in its box

Support Cirencester’s principal heritage societies and their event programmes: Archaeological & Historical Society (www.cirenhistory.org.uk) and Civic Society (www.ccsoc.org.uk), which runs a programme of Town Walks in the season plus pre-booked for small groups. See the Society’s website or phone William Cooper on 01285 88 55 90.

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