History of the Crescent Theatre

The Crescent has a history going back to December 1923 when a few City Council employees entertained their colleagues with a Christmas party revue. They discovered, in the words of Noel Coward, that they had “a talent to amuse”.

They also had ambition – to raise the funds to acquire their own theatre within a decade. Plans were made at a meeting on 30th January 1924 and the Municipal Players were in business. For the next seven years plays were mounted in the Council House canteen and at the Midland Institute while fund-raising progressed. In 1931 the opportunity came to lease premises at Nos. 17, 18 and 19 The Crescent, together with the derelict Baskerville Hall behind. With bare hands and hired tools the Players converted the decaying buildings into a theatre with raked auditorium, stage, dressing rooms and workshops and this opened with much national and local press publicity in April 1932.

Artistic policy was underlined by the Company’s motto – “Plays of Quality” – and classical drama, foreign and unusual plays, not normally seen in the Midlands, featured in the seasons’ programmes. The company now included members not in the employ of the Council and enjoyed considerable success until the outbreak of war in 1939 when Government restrictions closed theatres. Restrictions were relaxed in 1940 and despite the blackout and air raids the theatre remained open, intending to help the war effort. A decision was taken that the Crescent should become the City’s Garrison Theatre, solely for the entertainment of troops and auxiliary services. Fitting in rehearsals and performances between daily work and voluntary Civil Defence duties, the depleted Company embarked on a programme of revues, comedies and chiller/thrillers until the end of hostilities. In 1946 the theatre was one of the first to join the newly-formed Little Theatre Guild of Great Britain, the brainchild of Norman Leaker, founder member and first Crescent Chairman.

During the next ten years adjoining properties were acquired housing a rehearsal theatre and the professionally run Crescent Theatre Training School. Plans were made to double the size of the auditorium, shows went on tour and all was set for expansion when the Council dealt a stunning blow. The land was needed for development and the Company was given notice to quit. Despite the uncertain future activities continued – a Junior Theatre was started, fund-raising increased and “Uncle Vanya” went to the Edinburgh Festival.

This time there was no question of a members’ D-I-Y job. With the theatre’s capital now fairly substantial the Board opted for a purpose-built theatre. The Council offered a site in Cumberland Street and an interest-free loan. Ownership of the building was vested in The Crescent Theatre (New Building) Trust Ltd and a limited company formed to run the theatre.

That building (our previous home) opened in October 1964, with its revolutionary (literally!) design of the revolving auditorium/stage, but minus the top storey as costs had risen and the money ran out. Regrettably there was now no room for the Training School but the flexible staging gave greater scope to designers and directors and the building was in great demand from other companies wishing to hire it.

Artistic policy was modified to embrace wider box-office appeal. The number of productions was increased and musicals were now a regular item in the programme. Studio productions ensured that new members were given opportunities and experience. A new Youth Theatre was formed in the 1980s which has gone from strength to strength and built a reputation for innovative artistry. Tours in the summer and the “Wassail” in winter escalated in popularity playing such venues as Warwick and Dudley Castles, Coughton Court and Harvington Hall and there have been two tours of Shakespeare comedies to venues in France.

In the late 1980s history appeared to repeat itself as the Council disposed of the ground lease to developers and the theatre’s 1960s architecture did not fit in the with the proposed prestigious scheme. The Company once more faced the prospect of losing its home. After long and delicate negotiations, the developers, Brindleyplace plc, agreed to finance a new building on a canal-side site fronting onto Sheepcote Street (our present home).

The artistic policy which has been developed over the years has been the cornerstone of our operations as we move into this next phase in our wonderful new building, but hopefully, we will continue to expand and develop in many ways.

The Crescent Theatre Company is a team with over three-quarters of a century of tradition behind it, providing an integral part of Birmingham’s cultural scene. Many members have gone on to professional show business, others becoming part-time pros in radio and television.