16 August 2023
There have been many touring theatre companies in the UK but probably only one actual touring theatre. The Century Theatre has now come to rest in Coalville, where members of the Society went to visit it in August. We were given a warm welcome by knowledgeable and enthusiastic volunteers, who provided a talk, historic film, backstage tour and refreshments.
Shortly after the Second World War, two men from Hinckley hit on the madcap idea of creating a mobile theatre, which could visit provincial towns that lacked a theatre of their own. It took four years to work out the design, raise funds and complete construction but in 1952 the Century Theatre hit the road. The main stage and auditorium were carried on four wagons, accompanied by 19 support vehicles that provided a booking office, workshops, kitchen, dining room, bathroom etc. In each town the local council would provide a venue, which might be anything from an elegant park to a slum clearance site, and on arrival the whole travelling company would be involved in assembling the building – a complex operation for which actors were not necessarily the ideal workforce! The four wagons had to be carefully spaced, jacked up to the right height and aligned using in-built spirit levels and cross-hairs. Then roof and floor sections were hinged outwards to close the gaps, end panels were fitted and the seating was ingeniously unfolded into place. The theatre would put on shows for ten days then spend four days packing up and moving on to the next venue. The wagons had a maximum speed of 15 mph and photos show the tricky task of manoeuvring them through town streets.
The theatre presented a wide range of plays, from Shakespeare to farces. “Coronation Street” actor Eileen Derbyshire was among those who began her career in the company. In 1975, changes in road safety regulations made it impractical for the wagons to keep touring so the Century Theatre took up residence in Keswick, where Tom Courtenay, Derek Fowlds, Helen Mirren and Judi Dench all appeared on its stage. When Keswick acquired a permanent theatre in 1996, the Century Theatre was in danger of being scarapped but Leicestershire County Council stepped in to buy it as a feature of Snibston Discovery Park. It was threatened again when the Discovery Park closed but in the subsequent redevelopment of the site the theatre has not only been preserved but a smart new foyer and bar has been added. It now presents a variety of films, music nights, comedy shows and other entertainments and is known for its good atmosphere and friendly welcome.