Majestic then, majestic now
The Stag Sevenoaks now operates as a charity, and includes a theatre, two digital cinema screens, and an alternative performance and conferencing facility.
The Stag was originally built as the Majestic Cinema, and opened on August 22 1936 with the musical farce ‘When Knights Were Bold’ which the Daily Express described as “a rare triumph of unimaginativeness”. Now 80 years later, the shell of the building looks almost identical. But the 1930s shell hides a dark and twisting story, a tumultuous, ongoing drama which has refused to stick to the script.
Despite the long-term economic downturn which followed the Second World War, the cinema enjoyed a golden era through the 1940s and 1950s. The stage area of today’s Stag was, at that point, one of the largest screens in the region. The cinema seated 1360 in total, with a large stalls area and a dress circle which is now the theatre auditorium.
In the early 1970s, the cinema was converted into a triple-screen complex, and plans were even hatched to include a discotheque.
But the 1980s brought gloomy times for cinema. The advent of video and the flagging film industry meant that the cinema was increasingly unloved. Planning permission for the disco was refused.
Sevenoaks had for years suffered through the lack of its own theatre. Local thespian Margaret Durdant-Hollamby, created the Sevenoaks Theatre Action Group whose acronym has given The Stag its modern name. She had campaigned for a theatre in Sevenoaks for almost 17 years.
In August 1982, the campaign group received a call from the Rank Organisation, which owned the cinema (called the Ace Film Club at that time), offering the building for use as a theatre.
In just 18 months the former cinema was transformed into a theatre. The two lower-level cinemas were retained, and the large auditorium converted to house the new stage. The stage was constructed without charge by contractor Deacons, which was building a nearby car park at the time for Waitrose.
The grand opening took place on the night of December 18, 1983.
Unfortunately the complex did not survive financially and in 1992 the District Council acquired the building writing off the debts. It carried out a £3.2m refurbishment and extension creating The Stag Plaza, a self-contained venue used for drama, music, conferences and more.
The revamped Stag’s opening, which included the unveiling of The Stag Plaza, took place in December 1993.
It had a hand-to-mouth existence and after a sequence of poor management and commercial failure the complex closed again in 2008. Sevenoaks Town Council took the bold step for a town of only 19,000 people to re-invent the venue as a Community Arts Centre.
It took over the venue on January 2 2009 with a 25-year lease following a formal bid process with more than 20 bids. The first show was the Sevenoaks Entertainers pantomime in January maintaining a 20-year tradition of never missing a year at The Stag Theatre. After pressure from the local community, the cinemas re-opened ahead of schedule on February 13 2009.
Since then, The Stag Sevenoaks has enjoyed success upon success. The Stag’s inaugural 3D screening took place on July 19 2010 and it began showing live National Theatre productions via its digital cinemas in 2013. The Stag became a charity on August 11 2010, operating on its current not-for-profit basis re-investing income directly into facilities in the Arts Centre. Events are run mainly by volunteers.
The 1980s theatre seats were replaced in 2013 alongside heavy investment behind the scenes of the theatre and stage to improve facilities for hirers. The 1990s cinema seats were replaced in 2016 with an overall investment of £110,000 improving cinema picture quality, sound quality and operational flexibility for people to enjoy attending their local family friendly cinema in Sevenoaks.
Since 2009 a total investment of more than £550,000 has been put into The Stag by Sevenoaks Town Council and the not-for-profit charity which invests all of its returns back into The Stag.
The venue hosts an array of events and performances which appeal to audiences of all ages. Its management, its staff, its volunteers, the town and district councils and the Sevenoaks community are all determined that The Stag remains at the heart of Sevenoaks: Majestic in times past, and majestic today.