A week off for my 40th birthday and a high dose of pollen from the sudden heat wave made me tired, so the first part of my week was spent at home catching up on TV and films recorded on the Sky+ box.
I had arranged for a few of us to photograph a local theatre run by volunteers mid-week so soon started feeling more like myself and motivated to get out and take some photos. A permission visit and some time left to photograph this historical place was not too shabby.
The Savoy Theatre occupies the oldest theatre site in Wales. It was extensively refurbished in 1927 but as it retained the basic structure of the Victorian building it can claim to be one of, if not, the oldest working theatre in Wales.
It is managed by the Monmouth Savoy Trust which is a registered charity (113659). The Trust took over in 2010 when it looked as though the theatre would have to close. The Trust re-introduced regular high quality live performance and in conjunction with the cinema showings, the aim is to make the Savoy an indispensable place of entertainment serving the town and the wider Monmouthshire community.
The present building stands on the site of what was The Bell Inn, the history of which can be traced back to at least 1794.
During the 18th century, traveling companies of players toured the country with greater or lesser degrees of both skill and legality! At this time there were few theatres outside London and productions would be pitched up in any suitable building, from inns to barns and advertised as ‘Assemblies’.
There was certainly an assembly room at The Bell Inn in 1839, to which the Chartist leaders Vincent and Burns called an open meeting. However, in 1850, J F Rogers, who claimed to be an experienced manager of theatres in Cheltenham, Bath and Swansea, launched this venue as The Bell Theatre Assembly Room.
Further stimulus for growth of regional theatre in the early 19th century came from the rural squires. The Rolls family, who built Llangattock Manor, contributed greatly to making theatre in the town more respectable. As early at 1851 performances at The Bell Theatre were given under their patronage.
From 1887, the focus of professional theatre productions moved to the newly built Rolls Hall. Meanwhile, the Bell Theatre was converted into the unlikely form of a roller skating rink to take advantage of an American fad of the time, allegedly using the maple wood floor that had been installed earlier for the Corn Exchange held at the theatre. It became known as ‘The Rinkeries’.
In June 1910, The Rinkeries was re-opened under the name of the new ‘Picture Palace and Variety Theatre” with a showing of ‘The Funeral Procession of Edward VII’.
Over the next few years, The Palace continued to show variety acts which featured conjurors, comedians, soloists and singing troupes in addition to silent films, such as ‘Woman’s Martyrdom’, ‘The Riding Master’s Perfidy’ and ‘Captain Blood’. Clearly Monmouth audiences had not lost their taste for blood-curdling melodrama!
In 1926 The Palace was put up for sale by auction and bought by the Ashley Ward chain who extensively refurbished and the Grand Opening of the New Picture House was held on March 5th 1928. The last known live variety act performed in April 1930 after which talking pictures became the vogue and the golden era of cinemas began. The ownership changed hands during the twentieth century eventually ending up with the McTaggart family who own it today.
The cinema was rechristened the Savoy in the 1980’s and fell on hard times even closing for a while and then reverting to a Magic Lantern Theatre. It re-opened as a cinema under a new lease and a Trust was formed to try to attract money to refurbish the interior. This was successful and completed in 2005. However the Trust got into financial trouble in 2009 and the lease changed hands again.
On the seventieth anniversary of the New Picture House, in March 1998, the Monmouth Operatic Society presented a tribute to Gilbert & Sullivan. This celebration was notable as it marked the use, once again, of the original raked stage, tabs and back-stage facilities available in this unusually fine provincial theatre. The new Monmouth Savoy Trust is now re-invigorating this beautiful Victorian Theatre for the pleasure and enjoyment of everyone.
The Savoy is privately owned by the MacTaggart family. Grandfather B.T Davies was a collector of cinemas and at one stage owned nineteen around the South West and South Wales. The Savoy is the only one left in the family’s ownership. They lease the building to the Monmouth Savoy Trust which comprises a group of local enthusiasts who have come together to run, maintain and programme the building.
Although the Savoy has predominately been used as a cinema for the last hundred years, it was clearly built as a theatre and therefore the new Trust believe that there should be a healthy mix of films and live entertainment.
Thanks for reading.