The enduring appeal of Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre as it celebrates its 50th anniversary
PUBLISHED: 09:11 05 October 2015 | UPDATED: 12:05 05 October 2015
As the Guildford Yvonne Arnaud prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary, Aly Warner takes us behind the scenes at this much- loved theatre – and talks to everyone from Dame Penelope Keith to Dame Judi Dench to find out more about its enduring appeal
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine September 2015
Surrey is happily blessed with several notable theatres, but in the coming season, the county’s focus will be very much on Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud, which will be celebrating its 50th anniversary.
Since opening its doors in 1965, this striking riverside venue has become renowned for its high-quality drama, and today remains one of only a handful of producing theatres in the south-east.
Indeed, as Surrey resident and national treasure Dame Penelope Keith observes, the town just wouldn’t be the same without its famous playhouse.
“Guildford without its Yvonne Arnaud Theatre would be unthinkable,” says Dame Penelope, who has herself taken to the stage there on several occasions. “It has brought so much pleasure to hundreds of thousands of people over the years, and its terrific Youth Theatre is a wonderful asset too. Here’s to the next 50 years!”
Throughout its half-century, the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre has always kept faith with its name – one of the few theatres in the UK to have an actress’s name in its title. But who was this much-loved, eponymous French actress and why was the Surrey theatre seen as a fitting tribute?
Born in Bordeaux in December 1890, Germaine Jeanne Arnaud was raised in Paris, where she showed early promise as a concert pianist, touring Europe and the USA as a teenager performer. But it was when she herself was part of the audience – attending a musical in London in 1911 – that she found her true vocation and, just a few months later, went on to appear on stage at the renowned Adelphi Theatre.
Then, in 1912, a star was born when she appeared in the musical comedy The Girl in A Taxi at London’s Lyric Theatre. One captivated reviewer wrote at the time: “Arnaud is as clever as her ways are charming, and her voice is beautiful.” Having by then adopted her theatrical name, ‘Yvonne’, she would go on to become one of the most celebrated leading ladies on the London stage.
Needless to say, the director of the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, James Barber, is justifiably proud of the venue’s links with the famous French actress.
“She was a great West End star of her time,” he says. “Reading accounts of those who worked with her, they all said she had an irrepressible spirit and was an incredibly positive, energetic person.
“I think it was Sir John Gielgud who wrote about waiting in the wings on an opening night and being absolutely terrified whilst Mme Arnaud was literally pacing about with the excitement and couldn’t wait to get on stage and perform the play. I just wish I could have met her.”
Her Surrey connections date back to her marriage to fellow actor Hugh McLellan, whom she wed in 1920; they made their home at Banks Way Farm in Effingham Common near Leatherhead. At around the same time, an operation on her vocal cords went sadly wrong and she was forced to switch her performing talents from musicals to plays.
After starring in a multitude of roles in British and US theatre and latterly appearances on the small and big screen, she moved to Guildford; a blue plaque on her former home in London Road marks the place where she lived between 1956 to 1958. By that time, she was already heavily involved with the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre’s predecessor in Guildford’s North Street, having become a director and patron in 1946, and often gave piano recitals in the town too.
Whilst she never actually acted on stage in Guildford, she was nevertheless a generous benefactor and supporter of the town’s theatre right up until her death, following a sudden illness, in 1958. Her ashes were scattered in St Martha’s Church graveyard, high on a hill near Chilworth, with a spectacular, panoramic view of the Surrey countryside. A simple, granite memorial to Yvonne (and later her husband) is sited by a low, stone wall.
Back at the theatre, this leading lady is commemorated there, too, with some beautiful photographs adorning the walls. “We have four pictures of Yvonne Arnaud on display throughout the Front of House areas of the building for our visitors to enjoy,” says James Barber. “One of these is a great production shot of Yvonne Arnaud with Sir John Gielgud in Somerset Maugham’s The Circle, at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in 1944.”
Her husband Hugh stayed on as a board director at the theatre until his death in 1982 and gave his permission for her name to be used when the current theatre was opened by the River Wey in 1965. The building project took two years and was funded largely by monies raised by Guildford and Surrey play-goers, led by the founding chairmen, Archibald Graham-Brown and Jack Penycate.
Designed by architect John Brownrigg of Surrey-based Scott Brownrigg and Turner, the striking theatre has been compared to those of renowned architect Peter Moro, who designed Chichester Festival Theatre. And half a century on from its foundation, the audience finds little has changed.
“There have been very few internal alterations,” says Kate Carmichael, resources adviser at The Theatres Trust, a national advisory body for theatres. “This is a testament to the quality of the original design.”
In 2012, the Trust was instrumental in securing the listed status of the theatre for its distinctive design – and the Grade II-listed theatre is, says Kate, a “shining example of a post-war theatre built in the 1960s. Not only does the Yvonne Arnaud provide clear sight lines and excellent acoustics, but it also has unusually large stage wings.”
The first, triumphant performance at the Yvonne Arnaud starred Michael Redgrave and screen legend Ingrid Bergman in A Month in the Country. Since then, under the artistic directorship of first Laurier Lister, then Val May and now Barber (since 1992), the 588-seat main stage at the Yvonne Arnaud has built a reputation for top-quality drama.
“Over the past 50 years, so much of the theatre’s work has toured the country and also enjoyed West End success,” continues James Barber. “Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre has become a name in its own right and we should celebrate that and, in doing so, celebrate Yvonne Arnaud herself.”
Indeed, as Kate Carmichael goes on to explain, regional theatre is integral to the success of the UK’s theatre scene as a whole. “Local theatres nurture the talent of future actors, directors, technicians and producers,” she says. “In addition, the buildings are also part of the history of their towns and cities and help to tell their story. They make places special and bring them alive.”
Furthermore, in these times of austerity, the economic benefits are also crucial. By attracting theatre-lovers from within the UK, as well as from abroad, towns and cities often become associated with the work of their theatres, which in turn attracts more visitors and tourists.
“The Yvonne Arnaud plays a key role in the cultural life of Guildford, contributes to its economic vitality and is also an iconic building in Guildford’s streetscape,” adds Kate.
Use it or lose it
Keeping the theatre going, however, is not always easy, particularly with the risk to funding a constant worry. Like many other theatres, the Yvonne Arnaud lost its Arts Council funding in 2009 and relies on fund-raising and its Guildford Borough Council grant to maintain it as a vibrant part of the local community.
“Along with the majority of other regional theatres, we face the enormous challenge of keeping afloat financially, whilst also getting the best possible work onto our stage,” says James Barber.
“It’s incredible that despite all the regional theatres that have closed around the country, including Surrey, the Yvonne Arnaud is celebrating its 50th birthday. I feel very blessed to have worked in this beautiful theatre, in this beautiful place, for 35 of its 50 years.”
Today, the theatre’s many fans are loyal and vocal, including the outgoing Lord-Lieutenant of Surrey, Dame Sarah Goad, who finishes her tenure this month: “How lucky Surrey is to have such a delightful theatre, entertaining us with such a variety of good things, and promoting thespian talent in young people,” she says. “May the next 50 years be golden too.”
While the name Yvonne Arnaud may not mean very much to the younger generation of theatre-goers, her eponymous, theatrical legacy lives on in Guildford with each and every successful show. Take a bow, Yvonne Arnaud.
• Guildford Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Millbrook, Guildford GU1 3UX. Box office: 01483 440000. Web: yvonne-arnaud.co.uk
Share your favourite memories of Guildford's Yvonne Arnaud Theatre with us, by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org
A message from Dame Judi Dench
“How wonderful that Guildford’s special theatre is celebrating its 50th birthday! The Yvonne Arnaud was built by local enthusiastic theatregoers and has served its community brilliantly for half a century.
“The fact that it is alive and flourishing is a real testament to the determination of its audience, local businesses, those who support it through donations, however large or small, those who work there and, of course, Guildford Borough Council, who have invested so much in it over the years and continue to do so. The council should be proud of its support, as should everyone involved.
“A very Happy Birthday to Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre!”
- Dame Judi Dench, actress and Surrey resident
Did you know?
• Guildford’s first theatre was built in 1789. Later, from 1908 to 1932, the Theatre Royal occupied the corner site of North Street and Leapale Road. In 1963, the destruction by fire of the Guildford Repertory Theatre galvanised support for a new theatre, for which the Borough Council donated the site
• Theatres named after actresses are rare. One example is The Ashcroft Theatre at Fairfield Halls, Croydon, named after Dame Peggy Ashcroft, and the Questors Theatre in Ealing will soon be renamed the Judi Dench Playhouse, in honour of the Surrey actress
• The majority of Yvonne Arnaud productions tour throughout the UK and transfer to the West End. Most recently, they have had sell-out productions of The Duck House with Ben Miller and Twelve Angry Men with Tom Conti
• In 1993, the Yvonne Arnaud opened the 80-seat Mill Studio for small-scale drama and to host the theatre’s youth activities. The historic Old Town Mill dates from the 18th century and had previously been used as the theatre’s scenery workshop
• The ever-popular, annual pantomime began in 1965 and continues to draw families from all over Surrey to this day
The Guildford Yvonne Arnaud Theatre’s 50th anniversary celebratory season, on its main stage and in the Mill Studio, runs from until January 2016, and offers something for everyone – from new work, classics and award-winners to ballet, pantomime, film and the Royal Opera House’s Live Cinema Season.
A highlight will be the West End smash-hit comedy Handbagged with Susie Blake starring as the Queen in Moira Buffini’s Olivier Award-winning production (Monday September 21 to Saturday September 26).
The theatre will also present six performances from the Royal Opera House Live Cinema Season, including Romeo and Juliet (Sunday September 27); Carmen, Viscera, Afternoon of a Faun and Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux (Sunday November 15); and The Nutcracker (Wednesday December 16).
And the must-see this autumn for fans of crime thrillers is Sherlock Holmes and the Ripper Murders (Monday September 28 to Saturday October 3), which explores “one of the darkest plots ever to shake the foundations of England”.
For more details of this busy and exciting season, which also includes Brian Blessed roaring to the stage (Sunday October 11), a night with Sir Roger Moore (Sunday October 18), Robert Powell in the award-winning play King Charles III (Monday November 9 to Saturday November 14) and the celebrated annual panto, call the box office on 01483 440000 or pay a visit to the theatre’s website at yvonne-arnaud.co.uk.