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Backstage at Buxton Opera House

December 7, 2023
December 7, 2023 - Backstage at Buxton Opera House

Exploring the vibrant offerings of the Peak District and Derbyshire is a must for us at Hoe Grange. We love delving into the local scene to curate the best recommendations for your adventures. And, let's be honest, it's basically a working holiday!

We're helped in our task by our local tourist board, Visit Peak District and Derbyshire, who regularly organise industry visits to local attractions.

Recently, our new General Manager Caroline joined them for a behind the scenes tour of the Buxton Opera House. Here's what she discovered:

Immerse yourself in timeless elegance

Stepping inside Buxton Opera House was a little bit like stepping back in time. And it wasn't just the memories it brought back of sticky fingers covered in ice cream and shouts of "He's behind you".

Built in 1902-3, the theatre is an exquisite example of Edwardian design, providing a stunning historic backdrop for performances from the panto to ballet, from comedy to live music.

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Walking across the mosaic design on the floor, up the thickly carpeted stairs and into the auditorium covered in finely sculpted decorations and buckets of gold leaf, you really get a feel for the luxury that wealthier Edwardian theatregoers expected.

We were lucky enough to have a behind the scenes tour, which has left me with plenty of stories to ponder when I'm next sat waiting for a show to start - as well as the secret of which seats to book to get the best view!

11 things you didn't know about Buxton Opera House

1. A kiss for the Mrs

The theatre was commissioned by John Willoughby, then manager of the Pavilion Gardens in Buxton. The first performance in the opulent new theatre on 1 June 1903 was the aptly-named play 'Mrs Willoughby's Kiss'. Coincidence? Or an inside joke or affectionate nod from the founder to his wife?

2. Magic Matcham

Buxton Opera House is one of fewer than 20 surviving theatres designed by the prolific architect Frank Matcham. Others include London’s Victoria Palace, The Palladium, London Hippodrome, and Blackpool’s famous Tower Ballroom - so Buxton is in good company! The iconic building is now Grade II listed to preserve the theatre for future generations.

Buxton Opera House plans

3. An ingenious touch

Matcham was an innovator, and wanted the theatregoing experience to be safe and comfortable. He installed a very early form of air conditioning in the main auditorium, which has only just been replaced by modern systems over 100 years later. You can spot it if you look up - the decorative metalwork in the very centre of the ceiling is a gasolier. When lit, it draws warm air (and once upon a time, cigarette smoke!) up from the seats below.

A view of the painted ceiling in the auditorium at Buxton Opera House, with six inset classical style paintings featuring six different cherubs

4. Fire, fire!

Matcham was ahead of his time when it came to health and safety too. He was one of the first theatre designers to put in fire escapes that open outwards onto wide corridors - it might sound obvious now, but at a time when there were lots of theatre fires from the hot lights, his design was revolutionary! They still meet today's much stricter safety standards without any change needed.

5. Functional grandeur

The two striking towers that you see outside the Opera House also served a purpose. They were used for water storage, one for domestic water and the other for the hose pipe system in case of fire. 

The front view of Buxton Opera House, an Edwardian theatre, with two towers with domed tops on either side and the words "Opera House" in gold lettering in between. There is a stained glass canopy over the entrance, and signs pointing towards the Upper Circle, Dress Circle, Stalls and Private Boxes

6. Cherubic mysteries

The ornate auditorium ceiling is beautifully painted with cherubs depicting the six arts - comedy, literature, dance, music, poetry and painting - showing the sheer variety of performances. But no-one is quite sure which is supposed to be which... Can you work it out?

Buxton Opera House ceiling

7. Tiles and wallpaper

Whilst ahead of its time in construction, the theatre adhered to the restrictive class distinctions of the Edwardian era. The entrance for the well-to-do was at the front of the theatre with the beautiful stained-glass canopy. However, the entrance to Gallery for the lower classes was tucked out of sight at the side of the theatre and the "common folk" had to stay in their seats at the interval. You can even spot where the early dividing partition in the Stalls was - when you visit, look out for where the tiles change to more luxurious wallpaper!

buxton Opera House Upper Circle

8. "It's just not proper!"

In the Edwardian period, upper class ladies were not allowed in bars so they took their drinks in the Upper Circle or Dress Circle cloakroom. Their drinks were delivered by a dumb waiter, whilst the men retired to the bar. The ladies' areas were so small they were nicknamed the Crush! Thankfully, times have changed and everyone can socialise together.

9. The rise of the talkies

The theatre was converted into a cinema in 1927, originally showing silent films. In 1932, the theatre was wired for sound and the "talkies" took Buxton by storm! The Opera House continued on as a cinema until the mid-1970s. when it closed and fell into disrepair. It took a huge community effort in the late 1970s to bring the theatre back to life and start the long restoration project!

10. Pesky Buxton springs

Backstage is very functional, and the dressing rooms are basic, small and painted dark brown. There are no carpets on the floor and there is little room in the wings for props. Then you go further down into the orchestra pit which is prone to flooding. Buxton is known for its natural springs, one of which comes up under the theatre. There are electric pumps continually going to keep the place dry and prevent members of the orchestra having to wear wellies...

11. What you've been waiting for...where are the best seats in the house?

In many ways, the theatre was ahead of its time when it was built. The Upper Circle and Circle were constructed from steel and concrete, suspended from the walls using a clever cantilever technique without the need for supporting pillars to allow an all round view of the stage. This means no pesky pillars or awkward angles for anyone! However, the best seats in the house in my opinion are the ones on the Upper Circle. You get a brilliant view of the stage, there aren't too many rows up there, the seats are the most comfortable, and you're closer to the spectacular designs in the gods.

Buxton Opera House auditorium

Unveil the mysteries backstage

As for who is the biggest diva to have ever graced the stage? Or made the most outrageous demands? I've been sworn to secrecy... You'll have to book a backstage pass tour yourself to find out!

Exploring behind the glamorous exterior is the perfect activity for a rainy day. I would have taken Mum and Dad too, but they've spent plenty of time on stage at Buxton Opera House in their past, usually dressed in outrageous costumes and telling terrible jokes as part of regional Young Farmers Club drama competitions. Luckily they didn't give up the day job! 


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