We are often described as being a big old barn, having one of the largest auditoriums in the country with over 2,300 seats. The building however is a mere shell, it is the people and productions who come and work here that make us a living breathing theatre.
You may have known us in our many different incarnations over the years from Empire to Gaumont to Mayflower, and throughout this time we have been a place of entertainment.
A short history
Our theatre was built in 1928, by T. R. Milburn; an architect who designed a number of theatres in the UK such as Sunderland Empire and London’s Dominion Theatre.
We took full advantage of being close to the train line and actually had a train track which ran right up to the back of the building. This made offloading the large sets into the theatre much easier.
When we opened, we were called Empire Theatre, and the first ever show was a musical called Winona.
The Empire survived World War II fairly unscathed, aside from minor damage caused by bombs hitting the back wall. During this period, the theatre saw a change of use when a projector and screen were installed so that films could be shown.
The Empire was not just a cinema, live acts continued including Julie Andrews who performed a Sunday night concert in 1945, when she was aged just ten. In 1950 The Empire became The Gaumont, and the next few years saw the return of musicals.
The late 50s and early 60s were our rock ‘n’ roll years as The Gaumont was established as part of the Rank Organisation touring circuit. There’s a long list of popular bands and artists who performed here, including Buddy Holly and the Crickets, The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones.
Famous bands continued to grace the stage for the next couple of decades; Queen, The Beach Boys, Led Zeppelin, Genesis, Duran Duran, Black Sabbath featuring Ozzie Osbourne, Cliff Richard, Culture Club, The Police, Madness, Elton John, Simple Minds… the list seems endless.
It didn't last and by the end of the eighties, the top names were moving from theatres to the new large concert halls and arenas, where they remain today.
As we entered the 80s, The Gaumont wasn’t making enough money and the then owners wanted to run the building down and even turn it into a bingo hall, as these were very popular at the time.
Southampton City Council and the local community really got behind us, campaigning to save our theatre and eventually the council bought it, pledging to re-open the theatre as a charitable trust. It was also around this time that the building was awarded Grade II listing.
A year was spent extensively refurbishing the theatre, and it re-opened in 1987 as The Mayflower – a name that was the result of a public competition. Dennis Hall took over the reigns as Chief Executive, and he set about putting together a whole new programme of events, which included a wave of mega musicals including 42nd Street and Evita and laid the foundations for the wide range of West End shows that we are known for.
We continue to invest in our theatre every year, keeping technical systems up to date, developing our front of house and auditorium, as well as the backstage area.
We have arrived at a varied and vibrant program of events, and are excited about welcoming future generations to experience the arts, and offer our community a wide-range of events and more opportunities to participate.
In October 2012, Michael Ockwell took over as Chief Executive of the theatre. Michael came from the Chief Executive role at Belfast’s Grand Opera House having worked as Managing Director of HQ Theatres where he developed the organisations portfolio to 7 regional theatres. Michael started as an actor and appeared in several prime time television series as well as with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Under Michael’s leadership the good ship Mayflower changed its course with an objective to develop new audiences in the local community. Michael developed a new programme with the aim to develop and nurture new audiences through a youth engagement strategy – Mayflower Engage came into existence in 2013, and the department has grown and expanded ensuring the theatre delivers its charitable aims and reconnects with local people. A highlight of Engage has been the annual Summer Youth project, following the inaugural production of Bugsy Malone in 2013. The youth project has developed over the years and in 2016 over 160 talented young people performed The Pirates of Penzance to inspire the next generation of theatregoers. In the past three years over 73,000 local people have been involved in an educational or outreach event run by the Engage team.
In summer of 2013 building work commenced on the theatre foyer and after 9 weeks a new substantially larger foyer was unveiled to the public. The modern extension to the front of the building was initially welcomed and reviled in equal amounts, and since has gone on to be extremely popular giving audiences an appropriately sized space to enter the theatre to begin their amazing experiences.
Not content with a major building project, and directing the theatres youth productions, Michael initiated a re-brand of The Mayflower itself. The process of rebranding triggered the creation of a new look website, new logos and a new feel for “Mayflower Theatre” as we are now known.
Michael has broadened the programme to include a wider variety of dance and to focus on presenting only original artists. The balance of large scale musicals combined with drama, opera, one night comedy and musical acts has ensured the theatre continues to offer entertainment for everyone.
Mayflower Theatre has gone from strength to strength with record attendances and participation through Engage events. In 2014/15 we had a blockbusting year with the highest attendance ever – over 600,000 people attended the theatre seeing West End favorites War Horse, Disney’s The Lion King and Wicked.
Michael is a Board Member of Culture Southampton and also Hampshire Chamber of Commerce and is Chairman of Art at the Heart, a forum for the large cultural organisations within Southampton.