The Beginnings of Newport’s Dolman Theatre Revisited

On the 50th anniversary of Newport’s Dolman Theatre, Andy Howells visits its archive for a brief overview of its history.

A hub of performing arts and amateur theatre in South East Wales, The Dolman Theatre celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

The theatre’s history stretches back to 1924, and the formation of Newport Playgoers which was founded by a bright 19-year-old called Ifan Wyndham Kyrie Fletcher.

Fletcher would ultimately become a well-published scholar of the performing arts, but at the time it was his vision to make Newport Playgoers a source of both enlightenment and joy while the people of Newport could similarly turn to the society for entertainment and mental recreation.

Newport’s Dolman Theatre under construction in the 1960s. Photo: Dolman Theatre Archive

Initially a small club, the new society steadily grew in membership as they performed in various halls in and around Newport.

In the 1930s, the Playgoers membership grew to some 2400 people. Arthur Dolman, a councillor, alderman, solicitor and friend of Fletcher had by now become an integral part of the society and came forward to give valuable advice that would ultimately benefit the cultural future of Newport.

In 1937, to give Newport Playgoers a regular base for their performances, Dolman encouraged the society to purchase St James church in Lower Dock Street. The building would become known as the Newport Little Theatre and Arts Centre and was subsequently purchased by the society as well as several other buildings in order to store scenery.  In a time, when television was in its infancy, theatre proved a popular medium to see live performances and over the next two decades the Society’s audiences continued to grow in their new home.

An early photograph of the main stage of Newport’s Dolman Theatre

The changing face of Newport saw the city centre proposed for a major redevelopment programme by a private company in the 1960s. As part of the redevelopment, the company required the land on which the Newport Little Theatre and Arts Centre stood and subsequently approached Arthur Dolman, by now, President of Newport Playgoers, to see if they could purchase the property.

Through astute negotiation and dogged perseverance, Dolman convinced the would-be purchasers of the arts centre that if they required the land the original arts centre stood on, they would need to provide a purpose-built theatre for the society in return. Overcoming obstacles, criticism and scepticism while smoothing paths with opposition along the way, Dolman eventually won through and got his theatre.

Arthur Dolman with Princess Margaret at The Newport Little Theatre and Arts Centre in 1968

Situated inside the new shopping complex and encompassing a theatre auditorium seating some 430 people and a studio holding a further 60, The Newport Little Theatre and Arts Centre opened its doors in 1967.

Dolman, himself must have felt some pride the following year when HRH Princess Margaret visited the theatre as part of her visit to Newport during the unveiling of the new development.

During the following decade, and the subsequent passing of Dolman, the theatre was renamed in his honour.

A programme for Newport Playgoers performance of Doctor In The House at The Dolman Theatre (then named Little Theatre and Arts Centre) in 1968 Image: Dolman Theatre Archive

Half a century later, the theatre continues to thrive. Not only does it present the annual Playgoers season but also productions and shows from other local societies.

Between September 2016 and July 2017, The Dolman Theatre showcased over 180 performances of drama, comedy, musicals and dance, showing that in just short of a hundred years what initially started out as a small club is now well and truly a community facility that continues to grow and nurture local talent.

  • The 50th anniversary of The Dolman Theatre will be commemorated with a 50th anniversary dinner dance at the Coldra Court Hotel on October 13. The dance will consist of a three-course meal with entertainment.