The first abbey buildings at Abingdon go back to at least the seventh century and in medieval times it was one of the country's largest abbeys. Following the abbey's dissolution in 1539 by Henry VIII, many of the buildings fell into decay but some parts were later used as a brewery for many years. By the 1940s, many of the surviving buildings were in a poor condition and, in some cases, under threat of demolition.
The Abbey Checker with its 13th Century chimney
At an inaugural meeting on May 4th, 1944, the Friends of Abingdon was formed. Its aims included the preservation and restoration of Abingdon's old buildings and over the next three years it acquired various buildings and land in the vicinity of the Abbey Checker (treasury) and Long Gallery. After 1812 the Checker Hall had been sub-divided into cottages.
In July 1952, Mr Alan Kitching proposed the construction of an Elizabethan-style theatre in the Checker Hall. Work began in the following November to a stage design by Mr Christopher Ellis of Radley College, with boys from the College providing some of the labour. The first production in the newly renamed Unicorn Theatre was The Two Angry Women of Abingdon in Coronation Week, June 1953. The summer season that year also included plays by Congreve and Priestley, three musical concerts, talks on the Elizabethan and Restoration theatre, and poetry readings. Alan Kitching was also the producer, between 1959 and 1974, of Unicorn stagings of twelve of Handel's Italian operas, unseen in England since the composer's lifetime.
Early conditions in the Unicorn Theatre were quite spartan but were gradually improved over the years with the first heating being installed in 1972 and the hard upright chairs replaced by upholstered seats in 1980. For modern audiences however, an evening at the Unicorn is now a much more comfortable experience, with the 88-seat auditorium providing a very intimate atmosphere within this ancient and beautiful setting.
Today, local groups such as the Old Gaol Theatre Company put on around a dozen theatrical productions a year in the Unicorn, ranging all the way from Greek tragedy to contemporary drama, pantomime, and old-time music hall. The buildings also host a large Craft Fair in October of each year. The Abingdon Tourist Information Office (01235-522711) can normally provide details of all forthcoming events.
A full account of the history of the Unicorn Theatre can be found in The Friends of Abingdon - A History of the Society 1944-1994 by RCM Barnes, published by the Friends of Abingdon, 18 Thames Street, Abingdon.
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