Writing this article, I was reminded of a quote by the comedian Eddie Izzard while he was on a world tour. “I grew up in Europe, where the history comes from.” He’s not wrong. Trips to the US and Canada have made me realise just how much goddamn history we have in the UK, so much so that old buildings and monuments are often forgotten, no matter their importance.

Take the Assembly Rooms Theatre in Durham. This building has an impressive 300-year history. It also sits cheek by jowl with Durham’s world famous castle and cathedral. But you could walk right past it and not know that it’s there. 

Hopefully, this is about to change. Owned by Durham University which has put in just short of £3 million to refurbish it, this 175-capacity space has had a new lease of life. Yes, it needed a lot of love and a lot of support, but it has finally received just that.

Following a year-long, £2.5 million restoration project, the Assembly Rooms Theatre has reopened. The theatre will be home to local theatre companies Grim Up North and Elysium Theatre, as well as Durham University Student Theatre, and the goal is that the talent on display will enhance the city’s cultural scene.

Kate Barton is the venue’s theatre manager and also head of student theatre for Durham University. She says: “There’s a massive student theatre scene here at the university so part of my role is trying to control the world of student theatre as we have 28 different theatre companies. But also, as a venue, we are open to students, we are open to touring professionals, we are open to community groups, and really we are trying to create the fringe theatre of Durham.

“We’ve got the Gala on our doorstep which is a fantastic commercial space but there’s not really that space for fringe work and for smaller scale touring. So mid to small scale is kind of what we look at. We’re really trying to build our presence and use this relaunch as an opportunity to put our mark on the city and also give the theatre back to the city. It’s been owned by the university since 1930 but before that it was the city’s Assembly Rooms, and before that the Ballroom, and before that the first ever cinema in the city. It’s got this fantastic history.”

The building can be traced back on a map to 1720 but it’s probably been there slightly longer. When the refurbishment was happening, workers discovered a medieval wall which, it is thought, traces back to the outer wall used for the defence of the castle and the cathedral. In addition, there were discoveries of medieval animal bones and lots of Victorian paraphernalia. Nevertheless, it was officially a theatre from the late 1800s. 

Barton says: “The building has had a strange life of being done up in odd ways. It’s still got an Art Deco feeling. The front looks very 1930s whereas the box office is modern and very 1970s. So it’s kind of a bizarre mix and a bit mashed together.” 

Prior to the reopening of the theatre, in the summer a pop-up venue called The Spare Room was created with a mixture of programming. The ambition was to launch a venue for up-and-coming emerging theatre and one of the first participants was 53two from Manchester.

The main theatre opened its doors in October and the current show is Stephen Sondheim’s Company. Upcoming productions include Salomé and Sita

“I think the North East has a fantastic theatre scene but no one knows about it,” says Barton. It’s got such a hidden gem of venues like Alphabetti doing incredible work and Live and Northern Stage and Washington Arts Centre as well. There are so many things going on and I think ARC Stockton‘s arts platform has been really important trying to bring programmers together as well as championing our successes and what we do. There’s a fair bit going on but I’m not sure the North East knows about it, never mind the rest of the country. But I think there are big plans to come from the North East.”

Watch this space – and watch it closely.

By Helen Nugent, Editor of Northern Soul

Images: Design pictures by PHp Architects; building site images by Helen Smith.


Assembly Rooms Theatre, Durham