The history of Theatre on the Coast and Southwold Arts Centre

The Southwold Arts Centre is a non-profit making charity which is dependent on grants from other organisations and charities and on individual donations. The relationship between Theatre on the Coast and Southwold Arts Centre spans 80 years.

Shakespeare by the Sea workshops

A word from Sally Bird, volunteer at Southwold Arts Centre

In 1937, Christopher Rowan-Robinson (1915-2011), then working as an actor, brought a repertory company to Southwold for a summer season, performing in the Stella Peskett Hall.

In 1938 he brought the company for a second season, this time at St Edmunds Hall. One of the plays performed was Mary Rose and a photograph survives of the company sitting outside the entrance of the Hall (above). The photo also shows the poster for the following week’s production, Noel Coward’s Tonight at 7.30.

One of Chistopher’s crucial contributions to Southwold life in the post-war years was to persuade the St Edmunds Church Council to rebuild the bombed St Edmunds Hall as a proper theatre, with (limited) wings, lighting, and dressing rooms, a project which was completed in 1952.

He organised professional one-night shows there in 1949 and 1950, and also directed amateur productions like The Happiest Days of Your Life, in which he also acted. Another of Chistopher’s productions in 1953 with local actors was Gaslight, in which he played the wicked husband.

Christopher also collaborated with Caryl Jenner (1917-1973) to bring summer rep to Southwold in the early 1950s and this was the beginning of a great tradition of repertory theatre in Southwold which has continued to the present day.

Caryl Jenner in the 1950s, Richard Graham in the 1960s, Joan Shore and others continued to bring summer rep companies to Southwold until 1984 when Jill Freud started her remarkable 27-year run of the Jill Freud Company. Following her retirement in 2010, Suffolk Summer Theatre continued to provide summer rep here for the next eight years.

Matthew Townshend Productions (mtp) took over Suffolk Summer Theatre in 2019, rebranded to Theatre on the Coast. It was a successful first year for mtp and a virtual season took place in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic where all theatres were closed.