Amulet Theatre

A gift to Shepton Mallet by the local Babycham brewing family, the Amulet is an unusual Brutalist theatre with unique retractable seating system which may be the only one in existence in the UK.

Courtyard of Market Place, showing the entrance to the Amulet back right.
Address
7 Market Place, Shepton Mallet, BA4 5AZ
Risk Rating
6 (Community Rating: 2, Star Value: 1, Risk Factor: 3)
Local Group
Local consortium of four organisations
Owner
Private
Architect
Unknown
Date of Construction
1974
Listing
Not listed
Capacity
270

Significance

The Amulet was built in the early 1970s, opening in 1975. Originally known as The Centre it was re-named in the 1990s following discovery of a Roman amulet in excavations nearby. A philanthropic gift from the Showering family, local brewers famed for Babycham, the theatre was part of a major redevelopment of Shepton Mallet funded by the family and was intended to provide a cultural and creative legacy.

Architecturally it is Brutalist in style, flanked by a block of offices and retail units along Market Square that were part of the same development. The theatre is located at first-floor level and features a fly tower and large foyer. It was built with the best theatre technology of the time and designed to be flexible. Significantly, it includes what is believed to be the UK’s last remaining example of a motorised ceiling carrying seats, which descends to convert the flat floor of the theatre into a space with raked seating.

The Amulet hosted theatre, live music and film screenings and as the only theatre in the town and with limited provision in the wider area, it became an important venue in this part of Somerset.

The Amulet is an unusual style of building for this area with unique theatre technology and an interesting social history with its connection to the Showering family.

Why is this theatre at risk?

The Amulet is new to the Theatres at Risk Register in 2022.

The Amulet was acquired by the Bristol Academy of Performing Arts (BAPA) in the mid-2000s, refurbishing the building and using it as an education and training centre known as the Academy with a full programme of public theatre and performance use maintained in the evenings. BAPA went into administration in 2011 and the Amulet was acquired by a private owner and has been closed as a theatre since. The auditorium has been in use as a gym but there is no record of planning permission having been obtained for this use.

In July 2020 the owner of the Amulet submitted a planning application to convert the building into apartments with a portion of the ground floor converted to a retail unit. This would see irreversible alteration that would result in the permanent loss of this theatre as an asset for the town and its people. It would also see a private individual profiting from what was a gift to the people of Shepton Mallet.

Theatres Trust submitted a strong objection to the proposals, as did a number of local individuals, Shepton Mallet Town Council, and a consortium of local cultural organisations. Our submission cites lack of evidence that the theatre is surplus to requirements and therefore the proposals conflict with local and national planning policy. While the building has been vacant for some years, this is not through lack of want in the community. We understand that requests from community groups to view or hire the building have been left unanswered, and that rents demanded were far in excess of what would be reasonable for a theatre of this size in this location. The application remains undetermined because Somerset is an area where decisions on residential developments have been halted due to phosphate levels.

In November 2021 a further application was submitted to progress the retail element of the scheme in the interim and we objected on the same basis. We are also concerned that there is a lack of clarity regarding the extent of the building that the proposed change of use applies to and that this could unwittingly cause the loss of the building’s protected theatre status. The proposal has been supported by Shepton Mallet Town Council, although this carries no legal weight. The application remains undetermined by Mendip District Council.

Theatre potential

Although the theatre has been used as a gym it is thought that it remains substantially complete and that it could be quite easily reverted to live performance use, or used for compatible mixed arts, community and cultural use. There is no other provision within Shepton Mallet, little within the wider area and great interest in the facility amongst local theatre and community groups.

The building remains in lawful theatre use (Sui Generis). We believe as a theatre or cultural facility the Amulet could be a catalyst for drawing people into the town centre, benefitting other shops and businesses.

Current situation

Theatre use ceased with the administration of its previous operator in 2011. The auditorium and now the ground floor of the building have been used as a gym within the last few years without planning permission for change of use. There has in the recent past been a planning application permitted for change of use of the ground floor to a pub / drinking establishment, but the auditorium above would have been retained, as would the potential to utilise it again for performances.

The 2020 planning application which proposed converting the building into residential apartments remains undetermined. A campaign group consisting of local arts and cultural organisations want to see the building re-established as a cultural venue, and they have worked together to engage a planning consultant to object to the plans.

In late 2021 the theatre’s owner, working with the 501 Gin bar (located adjacent to the theatre), announced plans to use part of the ground floor space of the Amulet as a venue for live performance. The detail of the cultural offer, the design of the space and the owner’s intentions for the remainder of the building have yet to be clarified.

The ambition to reopen part of the building after such a prolonged period of closure is attracting cautious but positive responses from the community. It is hoped that this may be the start of wider, more fruitful discussion with the owner regarding the overall future use of the building. A live performance / bar venue on the ground floor could complement a theatre and arts space at the first floor level. However, until such time as more information is provided there remains concern that the proposals – as they stand – may fall short of the local demand for arts, community and cultural use. We also wish to ensure that any change of use that may be approved for the ground floor of the building does not compromise the potential reuse of the theatre space at first floor level and the greater reuse of this building for arts and culture.

Theatres Trust seeks to work with the owner, the local council and community groups to see the Amulet brought back into cultural use.

Photo of the Amulet by Karen Mercer.