Increased seating capacity at the London Coliseum

Frank Matcham: Brunel of the stage

Image credit: Getty Images

Just over 100 years after his death, the engineer and architect’s influence on theatre remains.

No one has been as big an influence on British theatre design as Frank Matcham. In the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, the engineer and architect built over 100 theatres and redesigned and refurbished a further 80, including the London Hippodrome, Liverpool Olympia and the ballroom at Blackpool Tower. His outstanding success - both commercial and artistic - was a result of the technical innovations he introduced to theatre construction. Matcham was the Brunel of the stage.

Hard work, efficiency and a passion for innovation drove and defined Francis Matcham (1854-1920), the son of a Devon brewery manager. As a teenager, he was apprenticed to civil engineer George Soudon Bridgman, known as the ‘Father of Paignton’ for his contribution to the town’s development, before moving to London and joining the architectural practice of JT Robinson, specialising in theatre. Here, young Matcham made a wise early career move, marrying the boss’s daughter. Under Robinson, with no real training, Matcham completed his first solo design, the Elephant and Castle Theatre in south London, in the 1880s. It led to him opening his own practice, Matcham & Co. Theatrical company Moss Empires commissioned 21 theatres, including the London Palladium, Grand Blackpool, Hackney Empire, Victoria Palace and his masterwork – the London Coliseum, now home to English National Opera.

It was at the Coliseum that he introduced his most famous and far-reaching design feature. Moss Empires wanted the central London site to house the capital’s largest and most lavish theatre. Matcham looked for an engineering solution that would increase seating capacity. In team with his engineer RA Briggs, he replaced the wooden pillars that held up the balcony with cantilevered steel, not only increasing the number of seats but vastly improving the audience experience.

“Matcham was a master of sightlines – a technical challenge for theatre designers even to this day” says Claire Appleby, architecture adviser at Theatres Trust. Mark Fox, chairman of the Frank Matcham Society, says: “He built a steel frame that you could fill. It made everything more flexible and quicker. It moved the whole industry on.”

‘Matchless Matcham’, as he was soon dubbed for his prodigious output, continued to introduce experimental engineering designs. “He gave particular attention to ventilation systems to allow the expulsion of the fumes from the gas lights, and hot and uncomfortable air from packed auditoria, to aid audience comfort,” explains Appleby.

Adaptability was also important to him. The London Hippodrome could be home to music hall and aquatic performances, as well as the circus. It had a ring that could be quickly removed to reveal a huge steel tank carrying 100,000 litres of water for aquatic spectaculars. It also boasted a steel cage that could be raised on hydraulic rams to enclose the arena for animal acts.

Each of Matcham’s marvels was different but they shared the same innovative approach. The Coliseum featured a vast triple-revolve stage whose concentric tables rotated at 20mph, the first of its kind. This revolving stage allowed for spectacular productions. The theatre’s celebrations of Derby Day included guest jockeys riding real horses galloping against a moving revolve. An emphasis on comfort and opulence extended as far as box-to-box telephones, as well as changing rooms so that evening dress could be donned on site. At the Blackpool Tower Ballroom and the London Palladium, Matcham installed sliding roofs – an early form of air conditioning.

His interior style was far from understated – a potpourri of Tudor strap-work, Louis XIV flourishes, stained glass windows depicting mermaids, moulded elephant heads, mirrored panels, military insignia and classical statuary.

Although unconventional, he had a reputation for solid efficiency. He could rapidly produce a scheme for a theatre, often on a very restricted site, that met his client’s functional requirements as well as looking spectacular. The foundation stone of the Metropolitan Music Hall, in London’s Edgware Road, was laid on 7 August 1897. The theatre opened for the Christmas pantomime that year. “It would be a matter of months between an announcement in the newspaper that Matcham had been appointed and a review of the first night,” says Fox. “These timescales would be unheard of for an engineering project today.” This was particularly remarkable as Matcham often had six major projects on the go at the same time, many with the challenge of rebuilding within the partial shell of an earlier theatre. “He had that inventiveness to take whatever site was thrown at him and make it work,” says Fox.

Matcham’s many achievements may have been popular with audiences and leading theatre impresarios, but not with the architectural establishment. Ironically, it was his commercial success that counted against him. He lined up commissions because he had an eye for exploiting a confined space, squeezing in as many seats as possible without compromising on comfort. He was as concerned about acoustics and sightlines as the gold paint on the rococo panels. Over 50 small towns boasted magical Matcham theatres, impressive but largely invisible to London-based critics. Matcham “was not designing for the elite of the architectural press or the academy: he was designing for a commercial industrialised leisure industry that wanted opulence, grandeur and excess”, says Professor Toulmin of Sheffield University, an expert in the history of popular entertainment. Yet his designs were called ‘illiterate’ as they failed to conform to the strict rules of architectural composition. In his 1896 book ‘Modern Opera House and Theatre’ Edwin O Sachs wrote: “There is no doubt that his plans have a certain individuality and his schemes generally serve the utilitarian purpose of the occupiers in a satisfactory manner. However, to fully illustrate such theatres in a volume dealing with theatre architecture in its best sense would be as anomalous as to include the ordinary jerry-builder’s cottages in a volume on domestic architecture.”

‘If you ask anyone what their mental picture of a theatre is, they come up with a Matcham. The plush seats, the boxes, the fancy plasterwork ... that’s still the case today. That’s the power of what he achieved.’

Mark Fox chairman, Frank Matcham Society

However, his theatres survived the establishment’s cold shoulder. Technological and engineering progress in the decades post-Matcham wasn’t nearly as dramatic. With no new ideas to replace them, his flamboyant design tastes lingered. Matcham’s buildings – a combination of functionality and opulence – are, to many, the essence of what a theatre should be. “If you ask anyone what their mental picture of a theatre is, they come up with a Matcham,” says Fox. “The plush seats, the boxes, the fancy plasterwork ... that’s still the case today. That’s the power of what he achieved.”

Appleby believes they can still meet the desires of a 21st-century audience. “That’s not to say that some enhancement isn’t required,” she says. “But Matcham theatres have a great relationship and connectivity between actor and audience, which is vital.” And although they are often vast auditoria, there’s a “remarkable intimacy”, she says.

It was not only his design that his clients appreciated, but his value for money. His interiors may have been extravagant, but his pricing wasn’t. Although the build bill for the Coliseum was quarter of a million pounds, Matcham had a reputation for keeping not only an eye on the engineering, but on costs, and he was noted for not going over budget.

Such financial considerations are as important, if not more so, today. Arup, which has worked on the Grand Canal Theatre, Dublin, and the iconic Sydney Opera House, says multi-use is important to generate as much income as possible. “We do this with flexible staging, seating and technological infrastructure so that the venue can quickly adapt to maximise potential revenue. For Kings Place, London, our theatre consultants helped the architect fully integrate hidden technological conferencing systems so that the music recital hall’s visual impact was not compromised.”

Appleby cites flexibility and adaptability as key to modern theatre design. “The commercial picture is different,” she says. “Many theatres require a broader income stream, for example to be able to adjust an auditorium to hold different events, have the ability to change seating and stage arrangements etc.”

Matcham’s own buildings are being adapted to today’s needs, whether increased front-of-house provision, additional studio theatre space or rehearsal space. Appleby points to the new Centre for Creativity built adjacent to the Theatre Royal in Wakefield to enhance the facilities offered at Matcham’s smallest surviving theatre.

Tateo Nakajira is a former conductor and now a principal at Arup. He believes a theatre’s functionality today also rests on predictive maintenance using software protocols that allow problems to be anticipated before they occur.

Yet Alex Wardle of theatre consultancy Charcoalblue, who’s also a board member of Matcham-designed New Theatre Royal, Plymouth, is more wary of relying on the latest high tech. “Good engineering is better than complicated technology,” he says. He cites the example of motorised flying replacing the counterweight systems that would have been used in Matcham’s time. Rather than automatically updating theatre equipment, Wardle believes the tried and tested older systems may sometimes still be more efficient. “With motorised flying systems, people didn’t realise quite how much it would take to maintain,” he says. LED lights are another example, which will have a life of no more than five years due to the electronics and the rate of colour degradion. “Chichester Festival Theatre had new tungsten spotlights installed in 1962. They’re still in use. We’re not going to see that with LED,” he says.

It’s fitting that ways to address the greatest technical challenges facing theatres – to make them Covid-19 safe for cast, crew, and audience – were spearheaded at the London Palladium, often considered one of Matcham’s finest works. Last summer, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, who owns the LW Theatre group, held a Beverley Knight concert for an invited audience, to see if a socially distanced show was possible and safe. The technology he introduced included thermal imaging cameras to measure temperatures, air-filtering systems and self-cleaning anti-bacterial door handle covers.

Around the theatre world, technology solutions are being sought. Architect Steve Tompkins, who was responsible for the refurbished Roundhouse in Camden, North London, and was named the most influential person in British theatre last year, is working on the American Repertory Theater at Harvard University. Tompkins is focusing on displacement ventilation. In conventional ventilation systems, air is supplied at high velocity at ceiling level. Displacement ventilation supplies low-velocity air close to the floor, creating a pool of cool, fresh air where the most people are. As this air heats up it rises, creating a thermal plume that drives stale air upwards where it’s extracted and exhausted through the roof, rather than allowing it to drift across the audience and spread the virus.

How would Matcham have coped with the pandemic? Fox believes he’d have risen to the challenge. “One of his main things was adaptations. He’d see the demands of Covid as an opportunity, reconfiguring front-of-house spaces and movement. He would have leapt at it,” he says.

When Covid-19 struck, just 26 of Matcham’s engineering marvels were still open as theatres; many had been demolished during the rush to regenerate in the 1960s and ’70s, or converted into cinemas, night clubs and bingo halls. Now the threat to the living legacy of his work, bringing engineering innovation to theatres, is closure due to Covid measures and an uncertain future. #SaveOurTheatres has been launched. Alan Short, professor of architecture at the University of Cambridge, says Matcham’s work is still crucial: “We must look to the past to design theatre buildings of the future.”

Wardle agrees. “He got so many things right,” he says. “There’s very few theatrical architects you can say that about today.”

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