Gateway Theatre, Chester.

Gateway Theatre,

Hamilton Place,

Chester, CH1 2BH.



Owners:  Chester City Council.

Total seating capacity (stadium plan):  440.

Architect:  Martin Graden of Michael Lyell Associates.

Building cost:  £177,000.

Chairman of the theatre:  Alderman R.E. France-Hayhurst.

Theatre Director:  Julian Oldfield.

First stage director:  Douglas Austin.

Date Opened:  Friday 22nd November 1968.

First production:  ‘The Double Case History of Dr Valmy’ by Antonio Buero Vellejo.

First General Manager:  Michael Ladkin.

Last professional production (main auditorium):  ‘The Wizard of Oz’, 1st December 2006 to 13th January 2007.

Final production (main auditorium):  Tip Top’s production of ‘Hello Dolly’.

Date closed (main auditorium):  Saturday 31st March 2007.

Final performance (Studio Theatre):  ‘Three Little Pigs’, written for Tip Top by Phil Cross. 17th – 22nd February 2020.

Building closed:  Saturday 22nd February 2020.

Building extant: Demolition pending.



The Gateway Theatre was a small producing and receiving theatre in the city of Chester.

The Chester Gateway Theatre opened on 22 November 1968. Plans for the Gateway started in 1961, when developers of the Forum, a shopping centre, proposed a 200 seat lecture theatre. The building was designed by Martin Graden of Michael Lyell Associates and work on the theatre began in March 1967. It cost around £177,000 to build and ended up seating 440.

At that time the theatre director Julian Oldfield was appointed. He trained at the Old Vic theatre school and before joining the Gateway was the first director of the Civic owned Crewe Theatre. The first production at the Chester theatre was ‘The Double Case History of Dr Valmy’ by Antonio Buero Vellejo. This was its premiere, having been banned in Spain. Many plays required the actors to smoke and cigarettes were provided by Chester’s Grosvenor hotel.

Michael Ladkin was taken on as the general manager. He was a former actor, who had worked with Oldfield at Crewe. Chairman of the theatre was Alderman R.E. France-Hayhurst and the stage director in 1968 was Douglas Austin.

A young Matthew Kelly spent two years working at the theatre as stage manager before being allowed to tread the boards as an actor by Oldfield. Kelly would later become a household name thanks to TV shows ‘Game for a Laugh’ and ‘Stars in their Eyes’. Other famous names who appeared early in their careers include, Rodney Bewes, Patricia Hodge, James Bolam and David Suchet, who would become a patron of the Gateway Theatre Club, a fundraising club for friends of the theatre.

There was no balcony at the Gateway, and the stage area wasn’t that big. Below the main hall was a studio theatre called The Manweb Studio Theatre, which seated 140 and opened in 1998. Originally a producing house with its own set building capability, workshop, wardrobe and a full complement of technical staff, the Gateway later became a receiving house, taking in popular touring shows, comedy nights, community theatre and the like. Both theatres closed in 2007.


With the site containing the Gateway earmarked for re-development and the local authority looking to build a replacement, the last professional production in the main auditorium was ‘The Wizard of Oz’, which ran from 1st December 2006 to 13th January 2007. The last production in the main auditorium before it closed was Tip Top’s ‘Hello Dolly’, running from 26th March to 31st March 2007. Cast member Kevin Keegan as Horace Vandergelder uttered the very last words to be spoken in a production on the main stage – “Wonderful Woman”. A farewell party for the theatre was (somewhat ironically) held on 1st April 2007 with many former staff returning for the 60s themed party.

The last Chairman of the Gateway Theatre Trust, Peter Swingler OBE cut a cake on the stage surrounded by some of the remaining staff members, and the curtain was brought down for the final time. The main auditorium was then permanently closed and the seating together with all the technical equipment was stripped out and sold off.

Following discussions between Tip Top Productions and the local authority, who owned the building, the 140 seat Manweb Studio re-opened in September 2007 as The Forum Studio Theatre. The first show was ‘We Love Musicals’, a concert style musical theatre compilation show.

With the closure of the main auditorium, it was felt that Chester had become something of a ‘cultural desert’ during this period, but Tip Top successfully filled the gap left by the Gateway, putting together a varied season each year, which included a mix of their own productions and visiting companies alongside tribute acts, comedy nights and other events.

Several music acts including the popular folk group ‘The Houghton Weavers performed regularly. Shows staged by Tip Top during this period included ‘Fawlty Towers’, ‘Dad’s Army’, ‘Allo Allo’ and ‘The Killing of Sister George’.

Although mostly ‘Black box productions’ usually requiring little in the way of sets, occasionally the productions would call for fully built sets, and it was always remarkable to see just what could be achieved in the limited space in the auditorium. With no stage in the Forum Studio theatre and the only audience access via the staircase down from the foyer of the main theatre, audience members would have to make their way across the set to get to their seats, often picking up props and examining them as they went. Tip Top member Paul Crofts recalls: “I was working backstage on a production of ‘Blithe Spirit’ and we had various things rigged up to provide ghostly happings during the play. At one point, ornaments were meant to be pushed off the mantel piece on the set by a malevolent ghost. This meant myself and a colleague standing behind a curtain behind the mantel piece with two wooden dowels ready to be pushed through the holes in the curtain, positioned directly behind the ornaments. At the appointed time we would push the dowels through the holes and push the ornaments off the mantel piece. Unfortunately, on one occasion, and unknown to me or my colleague, an over curious audience member picked the ornaments up during the interval but didn’t put them back in the correct place, and so instead of two ornaments crashing mysteriously to the floor, all the audience saw quite inexplicably was two bits of wood appear and disappear through the small holes in the curtain. After that I instructed the ushers to keep a close watch on the set before the start and during the interval. Happily the ornaments went flying off the mantel piece every night afterwards for the remainder of the run.”

Tip also re-introduced pantomime to Chester after a gap of some forty years. The last pantomime was performed in the city at the Royalty. Written by Peter Swingler OBE, pantos at the Forum proved to be hugely popular.

Originally only due to stay for one season as the theatre was earmarked for demolition, as part of the Northgate development, which was to originally start in 2008, Tip Top went on to enjoy fourteen successful years at the Forum Studio theatre, which was run throughout their tenure solely by Tip Top’s members and volunteers. Tip Top Productions vacated the building in 2021 due to the Covid 19 pandemic and the pending re-development of the site.

The final show was Three Little Pigs, written for Tip Top by Phil Cross, which ran from the 17th – 22nd February 2020.

In 2022 the theatre still remains, standing empty some fifteen years after the main auditorium closed. It is now awaiting demolition as part of the long-awaited phase two of the Northgate development.

Deputy front of house manager Mark Newman fondly recalls his time there.

“The nine years I worked at the GatewayTheatre, between 1988-1997 count as some of the happiest of my working life. Friends I made there remain friends today, and there are few occasions we meet now when we don’t dredge up some shared memory or anecdote of our time there.

“As Deputy Front of House Manager I would arrive at the theatre at about 6pm, having been in earlier to stock the bar and ensure everything was in order for the audience that night. Actors would often be having something to eat in the coffee bar and would always be ready to have a chat and a joke. Not long after, early audience members arrive and the actors would drift backstage. More audience would arrive, and slowly but surely the excitement could be felt growing as we headed towards curtain up at 7.45. (There generally wasn’t a curtain to pull up on the stage but theatre vernacular persists even when it is illogical or superfluous – our Green room wasn’t green either).

“Once all the audience had arrived and were seated our Front of House Manager, the unflappable Carol Eden, or myself would radio the Stage Manager and give them clearance – the message that they could start the performance.

“Whilst bar staff busied themselves getting the audience drinks poured for the interval, our Coffee Bar staff and front of house staff volunteers would wash all the cups and saucers downstairs. Most of our volunteers were retired, many from highly responsible and prominent roles; as varied and entertaining group of people as you could wish to meet (including the lady who turned up drunk for her first session and who I had to politely invite to return another night).

Directors would often take the opportunity to ‘sit out’ their own shows and wind down in the bar. I remember spending many evenings playing chess with one director whilst the audience inside were enjoying his quite fabulous production of Peter Shaeffer’s ‘Amadeus’.

“The Gateway saw its fair share of famous faces, as well as faces who went on to become famous, or at least successful working actors. Some of them visited to support acting offspring or partners. Tom Conti’s appearance at the box office one Saturday morning was quite discomposed my female colleague. My wife, then a member of the bar staff still fondly recounts being winked at by Leslie Phillips when she served him his gin and tonic.

“We delivered some simply fantastic productions over the years too – Noises off; Good; Someone to Watch Over Me and Amadeus. There were others too, of course, but these have particularly stayed with me.

“Inevitably productions ended and we would bid farewell to the cast – some of whom we became good friends with. They would be tears and laughter and because theatre was like life turned up to eleven, the tears would be more plentiful and the laughter more raucous.

It was quite a wonderful place to work and even though subsequent jobs may have paid more, or perhaps afforded a better work/life balance (the theatre was your life) none have provided the constant joy and reward of working with such wonderful colleagues, or becoming friends with regular theatre goers who had as much love for the place as we did.”

Paul Crofts






The Chester Gateway theatre opened on 22nd November 1968. Here is a look back at some of the Gateway’s productions in its last few years~

In February 2005 Tip Top Productions staged the musical ‘Oliver’. Jonathan Clarke portrayed him. The ear twisting Mr Bumble was played by Ken Williams and the kind Mr Brownlow by Mike Heathcote.

‘101 Dalmations’ was the spot-on Christmas show in 2004 starring Basienka Blake as the cruel Cruela de Vil. Basienka played the part on stilts.

Another Tip Top show was ‘Carousel’. The main character Billy Bigelow was played by Brian Fay. Julie Jordan’s role was taken by Jennifer Ball.

‘Dial M For Murder’ starred Chester actor Steven Pinder as Tony Wendice, a man who thought he could get away with the perfect murder. This production used video footage to good effect. The play also starred Richard Walsh, famous for playing Sick Note in the long running ITV series ‘London’s Burning’.

Another professional offering was ‘Daisy Miller’, which had an all-star cast. Former ‘Bread’ actress Jean Boht played Mrs Costello, Sandra Dickenson was Mrs Miller, Richard Grieve, who was in both ‘Neighbours’ and ‘Home and Away’ played Winterbourne. Former ‘Eastenders’ star Scarlet Johnson took the part of Daisy Miller and film star Shirley Ann Field was Mrs Walker.

The stage was an adult’s free zone in July 2005 when it was transformed into the roaring twenties for ‘Bugsy Malone’. Robin Miller- Stott took the role of Bugsy and Molly Waters was Blousy Brown.

It was a walk down the yellow brick road in December 2006 when the audience became spell bound by ‘The Wizard of Oz’.

In November 2004 former Dr Who star Colin Baker came to the Gateway to star in ‘The Haunted Hotel’ by Wilkie Cooper. Baker played Sir Francis Westwick and former Crossroads actress Lynette McMorrough played Lady Constance Westwick.

The theatre has played host to everything theatrical. It welcomed famous names galore and is now sadly missed by the theatre going public.

Tip Top were the last to tread the theatres boards in the main auditorium with their production of ‘Hello Dolly’.

After closure of the main theatre Tip Top productions operated from the Manweb Studio below the theatre. They staged many well received productions for a number of years. Their last production was ‘Three Little Pigs’ in February 2020. Tip Top vacated the building in 2021.

The once popular Gateway to the stars has remained empty and is awaiting demolition.

DAVID A ELLIS copyright