New Victoria Theatre
|Owner||Ambassador Theatre Group|
|Years active||1992 - present|
|New Victoria Theatre website at Ambassador Theatre Group|
The New Victoria Theatre in Woking, England opened in June 1992. The main theatre seats approximately 1,300 people, making it one of the largest receiving house theatres outside London. In addition to the main theatre the complex also contains the smaller Rhoda McGaw Theatre and a six-screen cinema. The theatre has presented dramas from groups such as the Royal Shakespeare Company, Royal National Theatre and the Peter Hall Company; regular visitors also include Glyndebourne on Tour, Scottish Ballet and Northern Ballet Theatre.
Large-scale musicals have included the award-winning Carmen Jones, Chicago, Cats and Miss Saigon, whilst the comedies, rock & roll musicals, children's shows and a Christmas pantomime also feature in the theatre's programme.
The theatre is split into three levels: Stalls, Royal Circle and Upper Circle, with the Royal Circle and Stalls having disabled seating available. The first three rows of the stalls (AA, BB and CC) are removed if space is needed for an orchestra pit.
Rhoda McGaw Theatre
The theatre seats 228 in 9 rows of raked seating and has been reported to have excellent acoustics. The stage is flat, 58’ wide from wall to wall, with a 36’ curtain opening. From the main tabs it is 19’ back to the cyclorama and 8’ forward to the front of the stage. The theatre has also been used by the Woking Drama Association ("WDA") to host the Woking Drama Festival and the British All Winners Festival on those occasions when it has been invited to do so by the National Drama Festivals Association. The venue has a unique relationship with the local council, whereby Woking Council owns and subsidises the theatre, with all the administration, staffing and technical facilities run by the Ambassador Theatre Group.
History of the Rhoda McGaw Theatre
Known to most simply as the Rhoda, construction work on the theatre was started in 1973 as part of the larger Woking Centre Halls complex; the cultural part of the redevelopment of Woking town centre at the time. The Centre Halls also included a Concert Hall for large functions, a library, a pool, and dining facilities (where prices ranged from £2.40 to £3.80 per head for a four course meal).
Work was completed on the complex in 1975 and the theatre was officially opened to the public under the management of Mike ‘wait-a-minute’ Kelly, who remained the Theatre Manager for many years. A brochure produced when the Centre Halls first opened describes the Rhoda as an ‘intimately styled theatre’ with ‘well tiered and comfortable seating - for theatrical, operatic, concert, film and other similar productions’.
Named the Rhoda McGaw Theatre in memory of the local councillor who inspired Woking Council to fund the local dramatic community (a partnership which has continued to this day), the Rhoda has been pivotal in providing a venue for amateur and professional performances for over 40 years.
Terry Chubb, who was Stage Director for the Woking Drama Festival when it moved to the Rhoda in 1975 (and is still an annual event to this day) remembers some of the challenges that came with the new building:
The architect and council representatives were a bit perturbed when I pointed out the bars for their stage lights were all the wrong size. It got worse when I told them the stage, which was a highly polished, pale golden wood surface, was very beautiful but totally unsuitable for theatre! When I enquired about a stage cloth to cover the stage’s wings I received totally blank looks, before being told there was no budget for one of them, whatever it was. Not to mention the state-of-the-art air-conditioning unit, which was so loud we couldn’t use it during performances! But these hiccups were soon sorted out and the theatre was an amazing place to perform.
The Rhoda continued to be an important part of the Woking community for the next 13 years, putting on a range of popular shows including musicals, opera, dance, ballet, talent contests and dramas, along with the annual Panto and Miss Woking Whirl competition. Bill Payne, Woking Festival Director from 1979 to 1998, recounts one of his favorite Rhoda memories from its early days:
We were doing a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. The theatre’s dressing rooms were in a block between the Rhoda and the Concert Hall, where there was wrestling being televised. Some wrestlers lost their way, and the sight of all our little fairies wandering around under the feet of Big Daddy and Kendo Nagasaki was only topped by seeing a fully made-up Titania having a heated debate with Mick McManus!
By the late 1980s, the theatre had become such an integral part of Woking life that when the whole of the Centre Halls complex was proposed to be demolished to make way for the creation of a new shopping centre and theatre complex there was outcry from the local community. After a series of arduous and protracted negotiations between local groups, such as the WDA, and Woking Borough Council, it was decided that the Rhoda McGaw Theatre would not be demolished, but instead ‘mothballed’ and incorporated into the new Peacocks centre.
The Rhoda closed in 1988 as the Centre Halls were demolished, and opened again 4 years later in 1992, with just a few modifications but now alongside the 1300-seat New Victoria Theatre. Overall control of both theatres, along with other arts and entertainment facilities in the new set-up, was vested in a company called Woking Turnstyle Ltd, creating a unique relationship with the local council, whereby the council owned and subsidised the Rhoda McGaw Theatre, with administration, staffing and technical facilities run by Woking Turnstyle Ltd. This was to insure the continued vision of councillor McGaw for the Rhoda to provide community theatre alongside the professional New Victoria Theatre, and to this day the Rhoda has been a venue to countless amateur performances by members of the WDA, schools, dance and drama groups, as well as professional touring companies. Terry Chubb describes what makes the Rhoda such an ideal venue:
Well equipped, with excellent acoustics, the 200+ seats are enough for most nights, but not so many that it feels empty with smaller audience, and the size of the stage and its equipment are a big step up for those accustomed to smaller venues, but not so big that it’s intimidating to those more accustomed to an average village hall.
In 1997, the commercial side of the theatre became the Ambassadors Theatre Group (ATG), and over the years since then the Rhoda has had constant improvements. In 2002 the WDA raised £5,000, and together with matching funds from ATG, more stage lights, lighting desk and stage closed-circuit television was purchased. Most recently, 2012 saw the start of a major £400,000 on-going overhaul and refurbishment of the Rhoda’s facilities, funded by ATG and Woking Council, to guarantee that the Rhoda stays a vital part of Woking life for at least the next 40 years.
One of the most successful productions to be performed at the theatre was Woking Amateur Operatic Society's 2015 winter production of Sweeney Todd, directed by James Fortune, which subsequently won two Noda awards for "Excellence in Direction" and "Best Technical Show in the entire South East of England".