As The Apollo Theatre celebrates its 50th anniversary, we look back at the history of this iconic building in Newport, dedicated to the art of performance.
Newport’s Apollo Theatre started life as a Methodist Chapel in 1804. The building itself is Grade 2* listed and was transformed with the hard work and determination of John Hancock and his dedicated team.
The Wesleyan Methodist Chapel was extended in 1834. During that time, it often held school services in the building.
In 1967 John and his wife Patricia retired from Birmingham to the Isle of Wight. They were both keen amateur actors back home and joined the then well-established Repertory Club, who performed three shows a year in the school hall of Newport Secondary Modern. John thought the members of the group and the Island deserved its own theatre and one that could become a LTG (Little Theatre Group) Member.
Forming a sub-committee, he set about finding premises and the funds to buy it. His luck was in, as an advert was seen in the Isle of Wight County Press. 19th April, 1969: “Victorian Methodist Church, Pyle Street, Newport for sale £8,250”.
Thinking this sounded like the ideal solution, John and the team began the battle to make their dream a reality. As with any venture, there were some obstacles to overcome; other buyers coming forward then pulling out, meeting with the council to discuss the covenants that were set on the building if they were successful, timetables being changed and getting the funds together to buy the property.
The first donations of money came from the Newport Rep and the members who dug deeply into their pockets to fulfil this dream. After nearly a year, in April 1970, the estate agents informed John and his team that they had 12 days to get in on the final bid as the church would be selling to the highest bidder. They had secured £1,000 but to be in with a chance had to secure £5,000 more in those 12 days. So John approached local business owners to see if they would become Shareholders. Many did and with a handful of promises John went to the agents with a total £6,500. The Methodist trustees, anxious to close the deal, gave one final opportunity to each party to confirm a sealed bid. The other party offered £7,005 to John's bid of £7,070 and so the Apollo was bought.
Then the hard work really began, turning a chapel complete with pews, balconies and a fully working organ into a theatre. The pews were sold as garden seats, the 98-year-old organ was sold for £150, stripped down into 800 pieces and shipped to Uganda (if it arrived at its final destination we have yet to find out). A new heating system was installed, walls were rendered and painted and the stage was built. A raked seating area was arranged using floorboards which were removed, cleaned and refitted in the new configuration. Seats were purchased from Shanklin Pier and the new space was really taking shape. The majority of work was completed by volunteers from Newport Rep and some new members who came along to see how they could help.
By March 1972, after much hard work, the Apollo Theatre was ready for a trial season. This consisted of two plays, The Tiger and the Horse by Robert Bolt and The Waltz of the Toreadors by Jean Anouilh, orchestral concerts, Jazz and folk music and Art exhibitions.
On Saturday 9th September 1972, the grand opening and official start of the first seven-show season began with Hotel Paradiso, A French Farce by Feydeu and Desvallieres. Since that date the Players have put on seven different plays every season, including Dramas, Comedies, Farces, Musicals, Historical plays and Romances, from playwrights of all eras and from all over the world. Homegrown pieces are performed too. The Apollo Youth Theatre group meet every Saturday and have performed their own shows, scripted plays and been involved in the cast of Apollo Players’ main productions. Also on Saturdays, in the theatre bar, there are Coffee and Chat mornings. They are a great introduction to the theatre and some of the members (you may even get a tour!).
Workshops and groups have always been part of keeping the theatre membership engaged and learning new skills. Most recently a new Gateway Club has been launched, which happens on Wednesday afternoons. Members take part in a variety of play readings, workshops and singing. All are welcome, members or not.
The Apollo has had great external support over the years; in 1975 The Apollo was accepted into the Little Theatre Guild. It has taken part in The BT Biennial plays, hosted Newport Jazz and the Isle of Wight Jazz festival events. The Apollo welcomes touring companies and artists — and has had the privilege of hosting local school productions and school exams. The Apollo has also been honoured to have a great selection of local patrons: Jeremy Irons, Ray Allen and Jennie Lindon with Anthony Minghella and Jack Douglas who, over the years, have been great supporters of the theatre.
But the main thing that keeps the Apollo going is the membership. From day one, the Apollo has been run for the members, by the members. Everyone involved is a volunteer and does this for the love and enjoyment of the membership and its audiences. The Apollo team celebrated 50 dramatic years with an evening of gold, glitz and glamour, with many of its supporters from over the years.
“Here's to the next 50 years of fun, laughter and entertainment.”