Royal Manor Theatre

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Royal Manor Theatre

Royal Manor Theatre is a theatre on the Isle of Portland, Dorset, England—within the village of Fortuneswell, amongst village shops. The theatre was once a Methodist chapel, and retains that appearance from the outside.[1][2][3]


Portland Dramatic Society[edit]

The Royal Manor Theatre Company (RMTC) first began in 1947, when it was known as the Portland Dramatic Society (PDS). The Society was formed when approximately a dozen local people wished to return live theatre back to Portland following the Second World War. In the group's initial stage, the small group performed sketches and one-act plays whilst building up numbers of those wishing to join the Society. One of the earliest, notable performances was in 1949, when the Society presented a three act play by J.B. Priestly. Titled Mystery at Greenfingers, it was performed at the Masonic Hall in Victoria Square. However the amateur group suffered a backlash soon after. A decline in numbers caused the group to return to presenting one-act plays and sketches at numerous venues on Portland.

The Society were not able to perform three-act plays again until 1951, by which time the group had recovered. Between 1951 and 1957, a total of twelve three-act plays were performed on the island (including Agatha Christie's "The Hollow"), along with the usual one-acts and sketches.[4]

The venues used by the Society would range across Portland and Weymouth, including the Borstal Officers' Club, The Jubilee Hall, Wyke Regis Women's Institution Hall, and the Weymouth Hope Square United Reformed Church Hall. During early 1957, the Society successfully obtained the use of the Masonic Hall in Victoria Square on a yearly lease, and the members immediately began making improvements of the stage, including lighting and decorations. The opening play was Noël Coward's "Blithe Spirit", and this was followed by fifteen plays over the next seven years. The Society managed to attract good audience numbers throughout this period, despite the discomfort of a hall that suffered from persistent draughts and a poor heating system. In early 1964 the group suffered another setback and became homeless after the hall owners decided they wanted full use of the premises.

After an eighteen months search for a new venue, an agreement was made for use of the Jubilee Hall in Easton Square. The majority of 1965 was spent making improvements to the hall, similar to those at the Masonic Hall. The Society completed the revamp in time for their first production in November 1965; Cat on the Fiddle. The Society continued to use the Jubilee Hall until the end of 1970, when they were evicted again because the owners had other plans for the hall. During their time at the hall, they presented a total of thirteen full-length plays.

For almost two years, the Society couldn't find a new venue—despite which, the Society joined other major drama groups in the local area to take part in three festivals at Weymouth Pavilion. This was a success, and the group also performed a number of one-act plays and a religious play Shadow of the Eagle at St Johns Church, within Fortuneswell of Portland.

By the end of 1971, the Society's future looked uncertain and bleak. One of the main problems was the storing of scenery and equipment acquired over the years. As there were no halls available on Portland for staging plays, it looked as if the Society would disband. Despite this, the members believed they had given the local people twenty-four years of live theatre of a high standard, having presented a total of forty-six full length plays and numerous one-acts. Soon, they arranged a winding-up meeting.

Royal Manor Theatre[edit]

However, the Society's fortune changed after Captain and Mrs. Chibnall—well known for their interest and support of local community projects—read an article in a local newspaper on the Society's struggling situation. The couple contacted one of the committee members, and arranged to meet with the Society. At the meeting, the Chibnalls revealed that they were interesting in buying the disused Primitive Methodist Hall in Fortuneswell—built in 1869 by James Kerridge.[5]

The meeting reassured the Chibnalls that the drama members were enthusiastic, capable, and determined, so they offered to lease the upper floor to the Society £25 a year. The Society would convert the upper chapel floor into a theatre, whilst the Chibnalls retained the lower floor (the hall) for letting. Conversion work began in the late summer of 1972.[6]

The first major task was to strip the chapel of all furniture and fittings. With only the shell left, they sold the pulpit, pews, and choir stalls to various buyers interested in Victorian carving or seasoned timber. The small building, 55 feet long by 31 feet wide, had a raked gallery 15 feet deep that extended the building's width—and an annex (a former vestry) that was 17 feet long by 14 feet wide. In this space, the Society wanted to fit a stage, auditorium, cloakroom, dressing room, workshop and scenery store, wardrobe space, and lighting control room. However fire regulations limited seating to 100. Once the Society had plans prepared, they submitted them to the local authority for approval.

The authority was co-operative and helpful during the entire project, and a regular working party of approximately eight people were joined by others who assisted when they could. The construction team, led by a retired master carpenter, included engineering craftsmen and electrical and mechanical engineers, whose professional expertise proved vital to the project's success.

They built the stage and proscenium first. They divided the gallery to accommodate the workshop, store, and wardrobe on one level, and built the lighting control room on the lower level. The building went through a complete rewiring and cabling for the installation of the stage lighting. To transform the Church-like atmosphere of the building into a more intimate setting, and to conserve heat, they built a false ceiling over the auditorium. A catwalk alongside the ceiling provided a direct passage from the scenery store to a point above the stage where items of scenery could be lowered into place.

During the late stages of construction, new fire regulations required that the Society erect fire check walls above the proscenium arch and lighting control room. This set construction back several months. Lastly, they installed seating and decorated the theatre. This completed six years of construction work, and the theatre officially opened in October 1978.

Overall, the project involved 11,000 hours of voluntary labour and cost £3,500. To lower costs, the project used locally-obtained second-hand timber and auditorium seating that was donated. At the beginning of the project, a fund-raising committee formed, and during construction, many fetes, jumble sales, coffee mornings and other events raised money—along with donations from supporters. During the six years of conversion, they received no outside financial support from local or national sources such as Southwest Arts or the Local Authority.

Royal Manor Theatre Company[edit]

With the new theatre soon to open, the Society decided to change the group's name from the Portland Dramatic Society to the Royal Manor Theatre Company. The members believed the new name reflected that the theatre was part of the social life of the island. The first play they performed in the theatre was Wedding of the Year, which ran for three nights. Demand for seats increased performances to six per play, which continues today.[7]

In 1980, owner Captain Chibnall decided to sell the property. As a result the company approached the Weymouth and Portland Borough Council to ask for support in obtaining a bank loan. The council proposed to purchase the building and then lease it to the company at a yearly rental rate. Chibnall agreed to sell the building for his original purchase price, plus the cost of improvements he had made, which totalled £8,500. In May 1980 the transfer of ownership was completed, and the council gave the company the option to purchase the building from them at the same figure within five years. An immediate Building Appeal Fund was launched, and one company member offered a £5,000 interest-free loan repayable over ten years. By 1982, they raised the purchase price, and the building became the property of the Royal Manor Theatre Company two and a half years before the option expired. They repaid the loan in full by 1985.

Since the 1980s, the company has made many improvements to the theatre. They renewed the front windows, replaced the oil-fired heating boiler with a new gas central boiler, enlarged wardrobes, re-roofed, fitted out and decorated the annex, making it into a green room, and equipped an area as the make-up room. They purchased new lighting equipment and a member designed and made a lighting control system. They refurbished the toilets in the foyer and installed new radiators in the auditorium. A sound absorbent ceiling has also been fitted over part of the lower hall, and awaits funds for completion.

Rotary International donated a complete new set of stage curtains and stage flooring, responding to a request from Portland Rotary Club. Overall, since the theatre's opening, over £30,000 has been spent on major improvements and many other lesser ones. Volunteers—known as the Wednesday Working Party—take the place of professionals to keep costs down.

Regarded as Portland's 'Little Theatre', the company's first aim is to provide live theatrical entertainment of a high standard for the local community within easy reach of their homes. Another aim is to provide and improve education in all aspects of drama. The company's intentions have been recognised by the Charity Commissioners who granted the Company registered charitable status.

The company also runs a junior group called the 'Playmakers', currently consisting of approximately 20 children between the ages of 8 to 18 years old. Running since 1978, the children are trained in all aspects of the theatre including acting, improvisation, drama, games and other theatrical devises.

In 2002, for the first time the Company entered a British Drama Association annual festival with Rattle of a Simple Man and won a certificate of merit. In 2004, RMTC won the producer's cup, the team cup, and the Betty Palmer Cup for the best play After Magritte by Tom Stoppard, and the trophy for the best set. RMTC's entry went to the next round and won a certificate of merit. The 58th anniversary of the founding of the company was in 2005. From the company's creation in 1947 to May 2005, they performed 139 full-length plays and numerous one acts and sketches. Of these productions, 90 (including two open air productions and six pantomimes) have been presented under the aegis of the RMTC since 1978.

During 2005, the company were also awarded the team cup and two certificates of merit for Trip of a Lifetime by Bill Cashmore and Andy Powrie. In 2007, to celebrate the company's 60th year (Diamond Jubilee), both members and friends of the company had a meal at the Weymouth and Portland National Sailing Academy on 3 February 2007, whilst being entertained by local musicians whilst they talked about their experience with the company and the shows they had seen over the years.[8] In recent times the theatre has undergone a repaint within the lower section of the building.[9]


  1. ^ "Portland's Royal Manor Theatre". Retrieved 2013-09-09. 
  2. ^ Royal Manor Theatre. "Royal Manor Theatre - Theatre in Portland, Weymouth and Portland - Dorset". Retrieved 2013-09-09. 
  3. ^ "Getting to the Royal Manor Theatre". Retrieved 2013-09-09. 
  4. ^ "history". 2007-02-03. Retrieved 2013-09-09. 
  5. ^
  6. ^ "history". 2007-02-03. Retrieved 2013-09-09. 
  7. ^ "history". 2007-02-03. Retrieved 2013-09-09. 
  8. ^ "history". 2007-02-03. Retrieved 2013-09-09. 
  9. ^ "Latest News". Retrieved 2013-09-09. 

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 50°33′41″N 2°26′43″W / 50.5613°N 2.4452°W / 50.5613; -2.4452