The Savoy occupies the oldest known theatre site in Wales.
The site has had a splendidly varied history. The Bell Inn which stood on the site in the eighteenth century was known to have put on theatrical presentations and a visitor to Monmouth in 1773 records seeing a performance of David Garrick’s The West Indian.
The building in which the present theatre is housed was constructed on the foundations of the Bell Inn. Originally known as the Assembly Rooms, it opened in around 1832 as the Bell Assembly Rooms, part of the Bell Hotel. The venue was first granted an entertainment licence in the same year.
It was refurbished as the Theatre Royal in 1850 under J. F. Rogers, and later became the town’s Corn Exchange. It has been through many owners and name changes down the years: Flannel Exchange & Assembly Rooms, Oddfellow’s Hall, Bell Assembly Rooms, New Theatre/Theatre Royal, Corn Exchange, The Bell Rinkeries Living Picture Palace, Palace, Scala Cinema, Regent, New Picture House, Magic Lantern Theatre and of course Savoy to name but a few!
It became the Bell Rink in the late nineteenth century when the roller skating craze hit the UK.
In 1907 to 1909 it screened films between skating sessions. In June 1910, The skating craze had faded and The Rinkeries, as it was then known, was re-opened under the name of the new ‘Picture Palace and Variety Theatre” with a showing of ‘The Funeral Procession of Edward VII’.
Over the next few years, The Palace continued to show variety acts which featured conjurors, comedians, soloists and singing troupes in addition to silent films.
During this period the theatre was owned and run by Charlie Colbourne and John Smith, the latter being a well known figure round the town with his bowler hat and rolled up umbrella. For reasons that have faded into the mists of time, the theatre was put up for auction in 1926 and bought by the Albany Ward Group. It was extensively refurbished and the Grand Opening of the ‘New Picture House’ was held on March 5th 1928 with Syd Chaplin in “The Better ‘Ole”. It was later taken over by Gaumont British Theatres in February 1929. The last known live variety act performed in early 1930 after which talking pictures became the vogue and the golden era of cinemas began.
In 1955 CinemaScope was installed, and it then operated with 522 seats.
Leased by an independent operator from 5th January 1958, after some redecoration it was re-named Regal Cinema from 4th April 1971.
By the early 1980’s it was operating with only 200 seats because of the deteriorating fabric of the auditorium and closed as a cinema, later reopening as a bingo hall and again closing in 1983
After a few years it was then taken over by a group named ‘Save Britain’s Heritage’ and re-opened as the ‘Magic Lantern Theatre’. This was not successful and closed in the early 1990’s. The lease was then taken by Michael Blakemore who renamed it The Savoy. He went into partnership with locals to form a Trust in order to qualify for much needed grants to refurbish the interior. ‘The Savoy Development Trust’ was formed to try and save the building and after an ESF funded refurbishment in 2005 it became fully operational with 400 seats.
The Savoy Theatre became a Grade II Listed building in 1989.
In 2009 the Savoy Theatre Development Trust went into liquidation and there was a real prospect of prolonged closure. A group of volunteers took on the theatre to see if it could be made to pay its way and The Monmouth Savoy Trust was formed. The Trust re-instated high quality live performance which now combines with new films to make a much more cohesive use of the building. In 2012 the cinema became fully digital and further improvements have been made to sound and technical facilities. The future of the Savoy looks much more rosy now than it has at any time in the last fifty years.
The 1928 building is still entered through an altered late Georgian three storey three-bay building. It is a fine and complete example of a richly detailed Ciné Variety house with a single balcony, a segmental vaulted ceiling with enriched ribs and grilles. and plaster panelled walls with garlanded figure medallions. The three boxes at the rear of the circle are believed to be evident in only one other cinema in the whole of the UK.
1832. Design/Construction: as Flannel Exchange and Assembly Rooms.
1849 – 1851. Alteration: Converted to Theatre Royal
1875. Alteration: converted to roller skating rink.
1910. Alteration: converted to cinema.
1917. Alteration: redecorated and entrance moved to Church Street.
1927. Alteration: completely rebuilt as The New Picture House
- 1930: First talking pictures presentation.
1958. Taken over by a Birmingham Cinema Operator B.T. Davis. (The Theatre is still owned by his Daughter and grandsons).
1989: Listed Grade II*
1995: leased to Mike Blakemore and re-named The Savoy.
2005: Leased by ‘The Savoy Theatre Development Trust’. Refurbished.
2010 to present: Operated by ‘The Monmouth Savoy Trust’.
In 2008 Mon TV made a video about the Savoy when it was run by the previous Trust. The 35mm equipment seen in the film has been superseded by digital projection but it is still on site. Tim Williamson who features in the film no longer works at the theatre but his infectious enthusiasm and passion for the building is shared by all the current staff and Trustees.