Century Theatre

Britain’s oldest surviving travelling theatre. Unique and ingenious, it toured England in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.

The blue exterior of the Century Theatre.
Address
Former Snibston Colliery Site, Ashby Road, Coalville, Leicestershire, LE67 3LN
Risk Rating
6 (Community Value: 3 Star Rating: 2, Risk Factor: 1)
Architect
John Ridley
Date of Construction
1948-1952
Listing
Not listed
Capacity
200

Significance

This unique mobile theatre was conceived after World War II and took to the road in 1952. The theatre, including the stage, dressing rooms, auditorium with fixed seating and entrances, comprised four large ex-RAF tractors, each pulling a 30ft trailer with a 10ft trailer hitched on behind. The rest of the convoy consisted of support services comprising six living quarters’ trailers, a dining car, kitchen, scenery van, booking office, double-decker bus, an office and bathroom and a conventional caravan and jeep.

The Century Theatre toured for 23 years before becoming a permanent fixture in Keswick, where it gained the nickname the Blue Box. One of the aims of touring was to raise interest in theatre and 17 of the towns visited eventually built permanent theatres of their own. The theatre made its final journey as a mobile structure in December 1996 to become a permanent performance space and museum exhibit at Snibston Discovery Museum in Coalville. Although the museum has since closed the theatre remains operational and an integral part of the Snibston Colliery Park

Across the stalls to the stage in the black walled auditorium of Century Theatre

Why is this theatre at risk?

The Century Theatre has been on the Theatres at Risk Register since 2014.

Snibston Discovery Museum was closed in July 2015 due to Leicestershire County Council budget cuts. It was physically demolished in 2016 leaving the theatre isolated and with poor access from the nearby town. Although the Century Theatre is currently operating as a receiving theatre, part of the former museum site was being considered for residential development thereby placing the theatre at potential risk of noise restrictions. It was also feared that access and necessary car parking could be under threat.

Theatres Trust attempted to list the theatre in 2015 but was unsuccessful due to the legislation being unable to cover mobile structures. However, Historic England did note the structure as being of ‘considerable significance as an ingenious engineering solution to the question of how to take a theatre to places where a permanent place for theatrical productions did not exist, and for its inspirational effect in helping to secure permanent theatre facilities in many of the places it visited.’

Theatre potential

The Century Theatre has been operational throughout all its years on the Theatres at Risk Register and hosts a varied programme. However, the operation has been restricted due to the building’s setting and the barriers that exist for audiences to attend. Providing improved physical access and general visibility of the theatre, enhancing its setting and better linking to the adjacent country park and nature trails, are all vital requirements to enable the Century to strengthen and grow its audience and improve the long-term sustainability of the venue.

In 2016 Leicestershire County Council unveiled proposals for a masterplan for the entire Snibston Colliery site which included new housing, however it also proposed vital improved access to the Century and listed headstocks that sit adjacent, with new heritage trails and facilities linking to the country park. A revised masterplan for the site was released in spring 2018, which further strengthened integration of the theatre in the proposals, therefore, giving it improved future protection. Theatres Trust fed into the proposals, providing comment through our role as a statutory consultee on planning applications.

In 2019 theatre operation was transferred to Leicestershire Traded Services, part of Leicestershire County Council, which has seen positive improvements for the Century Theatre and has helped reinforce its importance in the local area.

Current situation

Building work on the ambitious £3m masterplan proposals began in February 2020 providing hope for a positive future for the Century Theatre. In December 2020 Snibston Colliery Park officially reopened. While it is early days it is hoped that the overriding ambition of reconnecting the heritage of the site, including the Century, with the local community has been achieved. The physical improvements for the Century include a new adjoining café which is open for take-away business; the nearby playground and adjoining country park are already starting to pull in visitors, increasing footfall and raising more awareness for the theatre.

The pandemic has seen the theatre closed since March 2020. In October 2020 the Century Theatre was awarded a £250,000 grant from Culture Recovery Fund from Arts Council England to help it recover from Covid-19. The theatre will reopen as soon as permitted.

While the Century finds itself in a much stronger position, Theatres Trust feels it is prudent to keep the theatre on the Theatres at Risk list until the full impact and benefit of the rejuvenated park and facilities can be assessed.  

Photos courtesy Leicestershire County Council.