Garrick Theatre

Important regional large-scale theatre that in its heyday accommodated touring theatre direct from the West End. Advertised as the most beautiful theatre in Europe on its opening, the building in all its Art Deco splendour remains largely unchanged.

Auditorium of the Southport Garrick in bingo use.
Address
Lord Street & Kingsway, Southport, PR8 1RN
Risk Rating
5 (Community Rating: 2, Star Value: 2, Risk Factor: 1)
Local Authority
Sefton Council
Owner
Private
Architect
George E Tonge
Date of Construction
1932
Listing
Grade II
Capacity
1,600

Significance

The Garrick was said to be the finest design of local architect George Tonge. Opening in 1932 and built to rival the ‘atmospheric’ cinemas popular at the time, it occupies a large plot at the south-west end of Southport town centre. It was constructed on the site to replace Frank Matcham’s Opera House, which was destroyed by fire.

Its elegant exterior is executed in brown brick with Portland stone dressings and punctuated by long window frames with deep stilted and tapered heads, the glazing ornamented with bands of an Art Deco chevron design. The site itself is accessible on four sides with the two main elevations on Lord Street and Kingsway joined by a curved corner featuring fluted stone pilasters behind which are generous foyers and the main staircase. The Lord Street elevation also contained ground floor retail units and, unusually, an external colonnade above first floor with an open promenade for audiences to use for pre-performance and interval drinks.

The auditorium remains largely intact with the original decorative proscenium arch with open-work design.

The stage is large and, it is believed, remains relatively intact. Designed to accommodate touring drama, musicals, opera and ballet, it was built with full flying facility and had dressing rooms to enable the hosting of large touring productions, opening with Firebird which transferred directly from the West End’s Playhouse Theatre.

The Garrick was purchased by Essoldo Cinemas in early 1957 but attempts to run it as a dedicated cinema were unsuccessful. It was converted to a bingo hall in 1963 and remained in operation until being forced to close in March 2020 by Covid regulations. In April 2021 its operator announced that, along with several other venues in the chain, it would not reopen upon lifting of restrictions.

The bingo years saw typical, limited alterations and lightweight, easily reversible insertions. The interior remains almost intact, the exterior is largely unchanged and the stage house is understood to be complete. It was given Grade II listed status in the early 1990s.

Why is this theatre at risk?

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

In April 2021 operator Mecca Bingo announced it would not be reopening the venue. This more or less coincided with the end of Mecca Bingo’s lease term on the building which was due to expire on 28 September 2021. The Garrick was subsequently advertised for auction with a guide price of between £700,000 and £750,000 but was sold prior to the auction date. The details of the sale and the new owner’s intentions for the site are unknown. Given the size of the building, and the architectural and theatrical significance of the Garrick, its vacancy is of great concern – as is the risk of unsympathetic development.

Theatre potential

The Garrick is believed to be substantially complete and could be easily reverted back to theatre and live performance use. Sefton Council is understood to be exploring options for the replacement of Southport Theatre for which the Garrick could be a suitable alternative, with the additional benefit of conserving a major heritage asset within the town.

In addition, Sefton Council has ambitious plans to regenerate Southport and to increase day and overnight visitor numbers by 1.2million. It is set to receive £37.5m in government funding as part of a Towns Deal for a range of projects across the town centre and sea front. While the Garrick is not included within the shortlisted projects for the Towns Deal, its restoration and reopening could certainly play a strategic role in increasing visitor numbers and boosting the local economy.

Current situation

The building has been unused since bingo use ceased in 2020 and the operator vacated the following year.

There is interest within the local community to save the building with local campaign group Save the Garrick Theatre Southport forming when Mecca Bingo announced it would not be reopening.

Stand Up For Southport, a grassroots community campaign formed by Southport residents wanting to create a positive voice for their town, identified a number of popular uses for the Garrick, with some in the community calling for it to be reopened as a theatre and others suggesting sympathetic uses such as a casino, pub or cinema.

We have been contacted by the current owner and understand that their intention is to retain live performance use within the auditorium of the Garrick Theatre with aspirations for hospitality and leisure use for the remainder of the building and wider site. We look forward to engaging with both the new owner and Sefton Council on the plans as they develop.

Main image, Garrick Theatre Southport by Ian Grundy.