Memories of The Marlowe

15th November 2013

‘A while to work, and after holiday.’ So today was my holiday after Wednesday’s Richard II broadcast (there will be more posts about it next week), and in glorious sunshine I drove towards Canterbury, visiting a couple of churches on the way (an occasional pastime of mine) and seeing my Aunt Jean and cousin Jonathan, and intending to spend the night in the cathedral city. I wanted to see Fiona Shaw’s production with Glyndebourne Touring Opera of Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, from which I’ve just come. And splendid it was too – clear, direct, intense, powerful, finely sung (particular plaudits to Andrew Dickinson and Claudia Huckle) and beautifully played by a small band under impossibly young-looking conductor Jack Ridley. I also wanted to see the new Marlowe Theatre, which opened in the summer of 2011 but which I’d not previously had the chance to visit. Me and the Marlowe go back a long way.

Before we get back to The Marlowe, here are one or two further links about The Rape of Lucretia:
• Fiona Shaw’s director’s diary for the Guardian.
Jessica Duchen’s interview about the opera with Fiona Shaw.
Rupert Christensen’s 5* review for the Telegraph.
Note that BBC Radio 3 will broadcast a recording under conductor Nicholas Collon on 28 December.

Now Marlowe, do I turn to thee. According to Arthur Lloyd’s music hall and theatre history website the first Marlowe theatre in Canterbury (which is where the playwright was born) opened as the Empire just before the First World War. This building in St Margaret’s Street was later converted to a cinema in 1927 when it became the Central Picture Theatre. It became part of the ABC circuit and suffered bomb damage during the Second World War, after which it limped on as a ‘fleapit’. In 1949 the local council purchased the building and converted it back to being a live theatre.

There is a picture on the Arthur Lloyd site of this Marlowe in the 1960s, which is more or less when I first started to go there. Indeed I think this must have been the first professional theatre that I went to, certainly for Christmas pantos but also later for an occasional item from the ‘rep’ offerings. It was a miserable long barn of a place with dreadful sight-lines and, if I remember correctly, dreadful draughts. I grew up in nearby Whitstable and went to school in Canterbury, and I definitely recall going with school to see a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and going backstage afterwards. This Marlowe, which had been taken over from the council and was being run privately was declared insolvent in 1981 and was demolished in 1984.

Rather more significant to my cultural life as a schoolboy was the Odeon Cinema, which is the site, and something of the shell I think, of the current Marlowe Theatre. This was originally built as the art deco Friars Cinema in 1933 and apparently is where the Powell and Pressburger film A Canterbury Tale had its world premiere in 1944.

In 1955 the Friars took on the Odeon name and as part of this chain it was where in the late 1960s and early ’70s I would escape on Saturday afternoons (after morning lessons and on days when we didn’t have to watch the First XV) to see Hammer horror double bills. The film I recall best is Twins of Evil (1971) with the ubiquitous Peter Cushing, who I would often see walking alone on the beach at Whitstable.

The ‘other’ cinema in Canterbury – a later ABC at the bottom of the Dover Road – was by this point the classier place, and it was there that I saw roadshow presentations of Olivier’s Richard III (produced in 1956 and still making the rounds in the late 1960s), complete with a prelude from the house Wurlitzer, and where I watched Jane Fonda glance distractedly at her watch during an energetic humping with a client in Klute (1971).

I went to the Odeon to watch westerns with my Dad, and I vividly recall being at a showing of McKenna’s Gold (1968) and seeing the trailer for the X-rated If… with its promise of sex with a machine-gun toting revolutionary. I was fascinated and also appalled to be sitting there with a parent. A couple of years later the Odeon was the site of my epiphanic moment when, again at a Saturday matinee and sans parent, I saw Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers. I was excited and thrilled and disturbed and astounded – and more than anything else it was that showing that decided me that I wanted to work in films or television.

With the demise of the first Marlowe Theatre, the council bought the Odeon and in 1984 converted it into the city’s main venue for live presentations. It had a life of 25 years – and I honestly cannot recall if I saw anything there – before closing in 2009 for the radical transformation by Keith Williams Architects. As the photo from the architects above shows (and there is much more detail at the practice’s website) the Marlowe is now a gently glowing big blue benign monster at the heart of the city and, judging from tonight’s visit, a very fine venue for theatre and opera, as well as the obligatory pantomime.

I was dimly conscious tonight of my personal ghosts, of Lindsay Anderson and Glenda Jackson, and perhaps even of Michael Powell, but mostly I just enjoyed a beautiful auditorium with comfortable seats and, as far as I could tell, a very good acoustic. The contemporary citizens of Canterbury are fortunate indeed to have such a space.


  1. Thanks for this John. I saw my first play at the original Marlowe (Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, though I fear may have been shown under that play’s original, non-PC title). The second Marlowe I mostly associate with concerts (local band Caravan) before I moved away from the area. The latest Marlowe is an ingenious example of how to place a large, appropriately modern within a cramped ancient city and make it fit naturally. Some of the locals mutter about the triangle on the roof, but generally speaking it’s inspired.

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