There can be few theatres in the country that have felt the tread of such distinguished feet. The boards have responded to the regal touch of the Queen Mother and of Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon. They have resonated to the very different rhythms of Rick Wakeman and Humphrey Lyttelton and echoed to the beat of Evelyn Glennie, the deaf percussionist. Nigel Kennedy has played there as have a pantheon of stars from the world of classical music from Benjamin Britten to Dames Janet Baker and Myra Hess.
The walls have stood in silence as audiences have laughed at Joyce Grenfell’s famous comic monologues or have cried in response to Dame Peggy Ashcroft’s tragic tones.
Rosehill Theatre is unique and it has been unique now for fifty years. Built in old stables on the edge of a country estate in the far reaches of the country a few miles from the Cumbrian coast, it is, and was, the most unusual venue to attract the great names of music and theatre.
The idea was first mooted by Miki Sekers, the owner of the fine Georgian mansion of Rosehill at Moresby. Sir John Kennedy remembers how, over lunch, Sekers had pointed to the stables and said, “Some day I shall have a theatre there.”
But it was such grand gestures that made the theatre happen. Sekers, a Hungarian refugee, had made his money with a silk mill. He bought the interior of the semi-derelict Royal Standard Theatre in Whitehaven for £50. The plan seemed simple: “The theatre building is already in existence, we only have to build the foyer and the club rooms.” However, even though he engaged the best administrators and designers in the country – Muriel Large had run the Edinburgh Festival, Oliver Messel had designed Glyndebourne – all did not go well. The wall of the barn collapsed. Plans were changed and by 3rd September, 1959, the Theatre was ready to open to the public.
Sekers, in his accustomed manner, had arranged for the opening concert to be broadcast live by the BBC. A few hours before curtain-up workmen spilled a large bucket of glue down the wall, ruining the rose-red felt which covered it. Sekers came to the rescue. Conveniently he had two magnificent eighteenth century candelabra tucked away in his attic and they provided the perfect camouflage for the ruined wall.
Rosehill Theatre went from strength to strength. Sekers’s personal contacts and his reputation as a superb host brought the finest London artists to Whitehaven at token fees. His aim was to provide “anything of educational value from music to plays, lectures and art exhibitions.” Forty-one of the forty-three performances in the first year were sell-outs. A theatre of rare distinction had been established in one of the most unlikely places in the country.
Fifty years later, Rosehill Theatre is still alive and well. Inevitably, it has not been able to compete with those early glory days that were so much the product of one remarkable personality. In their last full season the theatre hosted sixty-three evenings of live entertainment and they were still able to attract artists of international standing such as Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen.
Rosehill has a proud record to look back on. It began life when theatres were closing throughout Britain. Over the years it has shown that it has the determination and flexibility to flourish and thrive in difficult times.
Joe Blackadder, who has been closely associated with Rosehill over many years and is now the theatre’s archivist, has written a thorough and well-researched account of this jewel in the West Cumbrian cultural crown.
Let us hope that Rosehill will continue to provide the finest entertainment for the next fifty years.