Tucked away behind ordinary shops in Church Street, Leatherhead Theatre is one of the best theatres of the 1960s. Since its opening in 1969 it remains an important piece of architecture and centre for culture and community. It was converted from the 1930s Cresent Cinema, turned Fire Station HQ, by an architect fascinated by theatre Roderick Ham and experienced director Hazel Vincent Wallace. The theatre houses 530 seats, a bar, a coffee bar and a gallery with meeting rooms and workshop facilities.
The shops came before the theatre so access is by way of a short corridor. Hence the surprise when you come in for the first time and see three stories of wood-shuttered concrete balconies and staircases rising to a dramatic ceiling of light-boxes, cleverly contoured to exclude direct sunlight, using light and bringing theatrical form. This was different.
A feature of the theatre is that all the foyer areas and the auditorium are accessible to wheelchairs. Standard now, this level of consideration of the disabled was outstanding when it opened in 1969, and won the building a new disability award in 1971.
It is a proscenium (vertical, arch-framed) theatre with a contintental layout of seating without aisles, unaltered, with its original decor and its brick-tile walls with four expressive lighting slits curving out. It has a sense of enclosure and focus, making the Thorndike one of the most intimate and architecturally accomplished theatres. It is Ham’s last exercise in orthodox modernist theatre-design. It is well-preserved, despite past threats of demolition, and Grade II listed.