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Celebrating 50 years of riverside theatre at Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud

The Yvonne Arnaud at night, glittering by the River Wey The Yvonne Arnaud at night, glittering by the River Wey
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No theatre is recession-proof but Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud, 50 years old this year, does appear to be peculiarly blessed when it comes to survival.

This is in no small measure thanks to the enduring support it receives from the theatre-loving people of Guildford and its environs for whom the grade II-listed building and all it represents is the beating heart of the town.

“It was the initiative of the townspeople to build Yvonne Arnaud on riverside land provided by the borough council because they wanted a better theatre, and they have continued to work extremely hard to support it,” says Jamie Barber, artistic director and chief executive since 1992, and a local man himself.

“Our relationship with the borough council has been amazingly consistent over the years. Feeling wanted by the town and the council is half the battle. You come into work each day knowing your work is valued by the people you serve.”

The forerunner to Yvonne Arnaud was the Guildford Theatre Company, founded in 1946, which was based at the Old Borough Hall, originally a courthouse, in the centre of town, and had run out of steam by the late 1950s. An extensive fundraising campaign was organised by a trust set up by local insurance broker and theatre-lover Archie Graham-Brown; it managed to raise £340,000, including modest donations from the arts council and the borough council, to start work on the new theatre, designed by local architect John Brownrigg.

So why did they decide to name the new theatre after a French actress who died seven years before it opened?

“Even though she is virtually forgotten today, Yvonne Arnaud was a big West End star in her day and something of a celebrity in Guildford (where she lived),” explains Barber. “She was a director of the Guildford Theatre Company and her husband was on the fundraising committee for the new theatre.”

Did they ever consider changing the name in more recent times, in the same way that some West End theatres have been renamed to honour more contemporary theatrical icons?

“By the time I came on the scene, it had become a bit of a brand. Everyone knew about Yvonne Arnaud and its work, producing, touring, transferring shows to the West End. I don’t really see what you’d gain by changing the name now. Besides, I’d get a lot of flak from our regular theatregoers.”

The name also gives it a uniqueness and maybe even a slightly raffish or exotic edge.

The Stage celebrated the opening of the theatre with a full-page feature
The Stage celebrated the opening of the theatre with a full-page feature

The new theatre opened on June 2, 1965, with a gala performance of Turgenev’s A Month in the Country, with Ingrid Bergman and Michael Redgrave. Dirk Bogarde opened the proceedings with a prologue specially written by playwright Christopher Fry.

Until the mid-1980s, Yvonne Arnaud operated as a producing theatre. Under its inaugural artistic director, Laurier Lister (1964-74), plays were produced rep-style on a fortnightly basis, with a month-long run for the Christmas panto. Lister was succeeded by Val May, who increased the number of co-productions and touring shows to relieve financial pressures.

May also founded the Millstream Theatre Company in the early 1980s with a view to generating income by touring small-scale productions to other venues. In 1985, the scenery workshop was established as a separate company, serving other outlets such as Glyndebourne, Chichester and the Royal Shakespeare Company, in a further move to bring in more money.

Though he has every intention of reinstating home-grown shows in the future, Jamie Barber has also been heavily constrained by the need to put many bums on seats. “We need more risk capital to do our own shows,” he says. “We’ve started building up a production fund and I hope to be announcing at least two new in-house productions later this year.”

He strenuously challenges the idea that Guildford is a safe haven for innocuous, middle-of-the-road touring fare that will keep its ageing audience happy.

“We are a broad church,” he insists. “I can’t remember the last time I had a complaint about bad language in a play – this is 2015 after all. Contrary to popular belief, I genuinely believe there is no such thing as a ‘Guildford audience’. Different shows bring in different audiences. If I take a cutting edge show by Headlong or Out of Joint that will find an audience here.”

The industry’s affection for Yvonne Arnaud is typified by Ray Cooney, who made his directorial debut there in the inaugural season. “To my surprise, as I was still an actor at that time, Laurier Lister asked me to direct Ben Travers’ Thark with a cast that included Peter Cushing and Alec McCowen. I’ve adored the theatre ever since, and Jamie Barber was my assistant stage manager on the original production of Run For Your Wife, so we go back a long way. I’ve tried out nearly all my plays at Guildford because you get an audience very similar to the West End.”

In 1993 Barber opened the Mill Studio, adjacent to the main theatre, which offers a steady stream of small-scale touring shows and is the base for its thriving 350-strong youth theatre, as well as providing storage and office space.

As with all regional theatre bosses, Barber’s job is a balancing act between generating income and maintaining the building. If the 50th-anniversary season seems a little lacklustre, it is probably because there has been on ongoing programme of electrical and plumbing works in the mix. Next year he is hoping to replace the seating in the main auditorium, to provide more leg room.

He is also intending to organise a grand star-studded gala event next March to celebrate Yvonne Arnaud’s special birthday.

If you’d like to read more stories from the history of entertainment, The Stage Archive offers access to all back issues of the paper from 1880 to 2007 and is available from £15. Visit archive.thestage.co.uk