Great Little Theatres #1: Hyde Festival Theatre

East of the M60 treads the boards in a new occasional series focusing on smaller theatres in Greater Manchester and beyond.

From a personal viewpoint, I place live performance at the highest point of my entertainment hierarchy. Theatre is right at the top, owing to the amount of work required to put on a production. Not only auditions and casting, also set design, hiring the stage lights, promotion, programme and ticket printing, costumes, and the raffle prizes. The aforementioned are a small selection of the logistics concerned. Not least copyright clearance for performing musical scores or the play itself.

Of all the live performance art forms, live theatre has registered highly in my satisfaction ratings. With live music, equally so where there’s no backing tracks (i.e. brass band concerts, rock gigs, individual singers, or tribute acts). Pub, theatre, youth club or community centre, the venue doesn’t matter. I appreciate what they put themselves through, and I can speak from experience to some extent having scripted material for talks on autism spectrum conditions. The amount of self sacrifice; trying to fit learning one’s lines with GCSEs and ‘A’ Levels. Likewise with brass bands and musicians spending time in rehearsals or studios. The amount of thanks they get in return can be pitiful.

For many people, our first experience of a trip to the theatre starts with a pantomime. We laugh at the slapstick jokes; older relatives laugh at some of the double entendres. Two hours of watching a pantomime gives the average child a good grounding in corny jokes and the structure of a live theatrical production.

For some, their first experience of pantomime could be at palatial venues like Frank Matcham’s Palace Theatre on the corner of Whitworth Street and Oxford Street, Manchester. Or provincial theatres, ran by or on behalf of local authorities instead of privately owned circuits.

The most accessible way of seeing live theatre is at a smaller local venue. Many of which are run by the theatre’s repertory company. One example being the Droylsden Little Theatre just outside its town centre. For many budding theatregoers, he or she may be given their first taste of theatre if a relative is on stage.

To some extent, this is where my sister and I come in. Though I had been to a few theatres before my teens, my trips increased in frequency when she joined the Tameside Youth Drama Group (founded by the late great Dennis Nash in 1986). It is my sister’s journey which has influenced my choice of theatre for our Great Little Theatres.

The Festival Theatre, Corporation Street, Hyde

Next door to our first theatre is the brooding Edwardian Theatre Royal, which had one of the longest stages in Greater Manchester. It has been empty since 1992, when it ceased operation in its previous guise as a cinema. After live production ceased, the Theatre Royal had two cinema screens: one in the main auditorium, more or less intact; and a smaller one, accessed from a side entrance.

Its neighbour, the Festival Theatre, was previously a cinema. It was formerly the Alexandra Cinema prior to 1952. At one point, it was shared with the  Victoria Billiard Hall, which led to cinema goers’ enjoyment of the film being marred by billiard balls hitting the floor above.

The Festival Theatre became a full time live theatre in 1952, and inherited the cinema’s original 230 seat capacity. It is an atmospheric venue which comes alive during pantomimes. Lighting and sound production is controlled from a balcony (toilets are below behind the rear seats of the stalls). After the early noughties, its stark frontage (of 1960s – 70s origin) was re-cladded into a neo-classical/postmodern style.

Its bar is on the first floor which, regrettably, is inaccessible for people with mobility difficulties. Both the bar and toilets on the first floor have been refurbished of late. Another development has been the addition of a second theatre. This has space for 80 people and is designed for experimental performances. Known as The Studio, it is flexible enough for auditorium and theatre in the round seating layouts.

The main theatre is referred to as The Main House. As well as 230 tip-up seats, there is space for four wheelchairs with access from street level.

Theatrical Groups

The Festival Theatre plays host to five theatre groups. Its most recent arrival is PAP Productions, founded in 2014. Since 1986, it has been Tameside Youth Drama Group‘s theatre of choice. TYDG (using its short hand form) has great success in nurturing young performers, some of which had gone to bigger and better things in adult life. (My sister has gone from performing in front of 230 to nearly 2,000 at the Blackpool Grand Theatre and she was shy before joining in 1994).

There is also the Hyde Musical Society, the Hyde Little Theatre, and Romiley Little Theatre. Hyde Musical Society was formed in 1940 as a breakaway group from the Hyde Light Opera Society. Emmerdale actor Tony Audenshaw is its honorary patron. Hyde Little Theatre was formed in 1967, and rehearse at Studio 9, at the top end of Market Street nearest to Gee Cross. They had a nomadic existence till they set up home at Studio 9 in April 1986.

Romiley Little Theatre has adopted the Festival Theatre as its base. They perform three shows a year and meet at their clubhouse on 4 Green Lane, close to the River Goyt.

Getting There

The Festival Theatre is right at the heart of Hyde town centre, so getting there on public transport isn’t too much hassle. Bus stops on Market Street (opposite the Town Hall and the Last Orders Inn) are 2 to 3 minutes walk from the theatre.

By Bus

Hyde bus station is 5 to 10 minutes walk from the venue. If you prefer to use the bus stops nearer to the Festival Theatre, here’s a selection of routes.

  • 206: Gee Cross, Denton, Gorton and Manchester [Piccadilly Gardens] (Stagecoach in Manchester, daytimes only);
  • 330: Ashton-under-Lyne and Dukinfield or Gee Cross, Woodley and Stockport (Stagecoach in Manchester);
  • 346: Gee Cross, Newton, Dukinfield and Ashton-under-Lyne (Stagecoach in Manchester – more journeys terminate at Hyde bus station; evening service continues to Gee Cross).

By Train

The nearest railway station is Hyde Central. Only consider the train option if you’re going to a Saturday matinee. Evening services finish early on the Manchester Piccadilly to Rose Hill Marple route – at around the time when the interval takes place. Newton (for Hyde) or Godley are your next best alternatives, as the Manchester Piccadilly to Hadfield trains finish later. A taxi from these points is recommended.

Next up in Great Little Theatres

Our next curtain call shall explore the joys of the Shaw Playhouse 2 theatre, another one easily accessible on public transport.

S.V., 01 February 2016.

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