First auditorium (1923–1938) and former Big Game Museum
12 Woodstock Road, oXFORD
The striking building below, later popularly known as the Red Barn, was originally erected in 1906 as a Big Game Museum by Charles Peel. The walls were 20 feet high to the roof plate. When it closed in 1918 the collection was acquired by the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter where ‘Gerald’ the giraffe still remains an iconic mascot.
The building was acquired by Alfred Ballard, auctioneer and a leading amateur actor with the City of Oxford Dramatic Club. He intended to use it for auctions and as an auditorium. Meanwhile Jane Ellis (real name Helen Olive Stockbridge), a young London actress, was determined that Oxford should have its own repertory company. She persuaded the sympathetic Ballard to rent out the auditorium and approached the celebrated director J. B. Fagan, with whom she had worked at the Royal Court Theatre, to take on the challenge of the new venture. There was opposition from the Vice-Chancellor, anxious to protect undergraduate morals, but eventually the new venture was allowed to take off.
The opening production at the newly named Oxford Playhouse on 22 October 1923 was of George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House and Shaw himself attended a performance. He was reported to have congratulated Oxford on having a highbrow theatre at last. Fagan’s successors as directors diversified into a more mixed repertoire to attract a wider audience. Among the early Oxford Players who trod the boards were young actors who went on to become famous names of stage and screen: John Gielgud, Flora Robson, Tyrone Guthrie, Robert Donat, Margaret Rutherford, to name a few. In the first pantomime, Dick Whittington, in 1933, the principal boy was played by Joan Hickson, well known later as TV’s definitive Miss Marple.
The fledgling theatre always struggled to fill the seats and pay its way, lacking real support from the University and facing competition from the New Theatre and the growing popularity of cinema.
The inside of the roof
The discomforts of the building were perceived by the mid 1930s to be another serious handicap. However, the principle of an Oxford repertory theatre as an essential cultural amenity was now well established and funds were successfully raised by the then co-director Eric Dance for the purpose-built theatre at Beaumont Street. It opened in October 1938 with a production of And So To Bed by J. B. Fagan, a tribute to the founding director.
- Oxford Playhouse, High and low drama in a university city by Don Chapman (University of Hertfordshire Press 2008)
- The Encyclopaedia of Oxford by Hibbert and Hibbert (Macmillan 1988)
The plaque was unveiled at the former theatre at 12 Woodstock Road, now Oxford University Language Centre, on Thursday 14 October 2010 by Priscilla Tolkien who shared her early memories of performances there.
Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board
in the former
Big Game Museum
built in 1906
The Oxford Playhouse Trust