|In 1952 Alan Kitching and his wife were walking through the ruins of the Abingdon Abbey Buildings. It occured to him that the space in what is called 'The Checker Hall' would make a brilliant little theatre.
Alan proposed the idea of an Elizabethan-style theatre in July of 1952 and the following November construction work began to a stage design by Mr Christopher Ellis of Radley College, with boys from the College providing some of the labour.
The first production in the newly renamed Unicorn Theatre was 'The Two Angry Women of Abingdon' (performed by Abingdon Drama Club) in Coronation Week, June 1953. The summer season that year also included plays by Congreve and Priestley, three musical concerts, talks on the Elizabethan and Restoration theatre, and poetry readings. Alan Kitching was also the producer, between 1959 and 1974, of Unicorn stagings of twelve of Handel's Italian operas, unseen in England since the composer's lifetime.
THE PLEASANT HISTORIE OF THE UNICORN THEATRE
by its onlie begetter
Some time in 1952, soon after we came to live in Abingdon, my wife, Frances, and I paid sixpence each to see the "abbey ruins". We were shown in through a gap in the wall (now the main stage door) and found ourselves in a more or less derelict building. It had four (rather scabby) walls and a tolerably weatherproof roof, but the floor was just loose earth with lumps of stone lying about. As we reached the far and I turned to look back to where we had come in. The earth floor at that end was slightly higher than the rest and above it was a beam supporting some rotting boards - a survival from when the building was used as cottages - ghosts, you might say, of the apron and gallery of a typical Elizabethan stage. I looked up at the glorious timbered roof and round at the proportions of the building and saw in a flash a vision of what a splendid little theatre - Elizabethan-style -could be made of it.
The Friends of Abingdon had recently acquired the whole range of Abbey buildings with the intention of restoring them. By the time they had reached this building - known then as Checker Hall - they had more or less run out of money, though Walter Godfrey, the consultant architect, had sketched out some plans. Ursula Liversidge, a founder member of the Friends, was my first contact and was enthusiastic when I put my idea to her. A sub-committee was formed and my scheme eventually approved in principle (not without opposition, I may say, particularly from one old boy who maintained that actors always discarded lighted cigarette ends in the wings before making an entrance). A member of the sub-committee, Charles Wrinch, put me in touch with Christopher Ellis, who taught art at Radley, and between us we worked out a design for the stage with pillars and a balustraded gallery. I could see, however, that the design of the auditorium was equally important, so we planned to lower the pit by a foot, tier up the seats behind and eventually include seats in the gallery above. This was, in fact, to be a theatre, which in Greek means a place where you go to see something - not a flat floored hall, where you often lose contact with the stage because of the heads in front.
On a draughty September day we held a meeting on the site to launch the scheme. The eighty enthusiasts who turned up sat on beer crates or lumps of stone and were further enthused by the chief speaker, Michael Macowan, then a prominent London producer. A membership scheme was inaugurated and we also had some donations, such as the remaining funds of the defunct Guild of Abbey Players, predecessors of the Drama Club. Our resources eventually mounted up to the princely sum of £300. It was obvious that much would have to be done by voluntary labour. Chris Ellis brought a gang of Radley boys over on Sundays to do some of the rough work. There were no amenities - water had to be hauled up in a pail from the river and only later did we run a cable from the office next door to provide some light.
My main contribution was digging out the pit and piling the earth on what was to be the apron and, later, digging the trenches which provided the trap-door system (a traditional feature of this sort of theatre). Eventually we hired a small builder to concrete both stage and pit - incorporating in the floor of the latter some original 14th century bricks. The really skilled work was done by Chris who built the pillars (cunningly tapered towards the top) and turned the supports for the balustrade, etc. etc. The last stage, of course, was painting. His original design was in very bright colours, particularly a basic bright blue, specially mixed by the manufacturers. But after having to plan costumes to hold their own in front of these colours for ten years, we rather unscrupulously re-painted it all in slightly darker shades. (It has since been repainted again.) We still only had the shell of a theatre - no lights, no curtains, no tiers and no seats. But these too we either acquired or improvised in the course of time. Spots we borrowed and supplemented with biscuit tin floods, the wood for building the tiers and some curtains of sorts dug out of some obscure store by Hyde Parker (former stage director of the Abbey Players), some chairs were borrowed from the Church Hall and some beer crates once more (for the groundlings) from Morlands.
All these preparations went on during the winter and spring of 1952-3, our objective being a production by the Drama Club of our very own Elizabethan comedy, "The Two Angry Women of Abingdon" by Henry Porter, in the week of the Coronation in June. And this we did triumphantly accomplish, though things were indeed only just ready in time - Chris was, in fact, up the ladder still painting ER on the balconies as the first audience assembled.
It is impossible to sum up in a few words all that has gone on in the theatre in the thirty years since it opened. Of course Shakespeare has figured largely and so has Abingdon Drama Club which must have contributed forty or fifty productions in that time. In 1959 a new development took place when it was discovered that by packing a small orchestra into the stage gallery it was possible to stage operas there. Thus was inaugurated the series of performances of unknown operas by Handel which became nationally famous. No doubt the theatre with its unusual plan and unique atmosphere will be the scene of many other kinds of experiment in the years to come.
(Alan Kitching - written in the 1980s)
© Friends of Abingdon Unicorn Theatre 2017