6 Murray Street, Perth, Perth and Kinross, PH1 5PJ
Architect: Alexander Cattenach (T Bowhill Gibson as advisor)
Listing: B-Listed (1991) No of Seats: 1,700
Status: Open and Operational as a Cinema Opened: 1933 Closed: N/A
Official website: https://perthplayhouse.co.uk/
Opened in 1933 for a local company, the Playhouse in Perth became the flagship cinema for the Inverness-based Caledonian Associated Cinemas (CAC), when that chain was formed in 1935. The Playhouse, like many cinemas of the time, was booked from Glasgow by Alexander B King. The architect was Alex Cattenach Jr., who worked from the Kingussie-based practice started by his father, Alex Senior. Between building cinemas, Alex Jr. managed to find time to become a Colonel in the TA.
Perhaps arising from work on a few cinemas which the elder Cattenach had carried out in his practice, his son went on to specialise in cinema buildings, and the Perth Playhouse remains as probably the best-preserved of this body of work, despite later subdivisions. Several of his cinemas were designed with help from the Edinburgh cinema specialist, T. Bowhill Gibson, (and also by William Henry Sayers, an assistant of Gibson), but it is not clear exactly how much influence they had on the final design. Construction of the cinema took shape in only nine weeks, which was thought to be a record at that time. The auditorium sat 1,687, and incorporated a café and two shops; of note was the fact that the balcony was of a cantilevered design.
The Playhouse makes good use of the broad thoroughfare on which it is located in Perth city centre with a bold, unashamedly modern design. A central tower, possibly originally clad in marble, rises to three storeys in height, with three central windows at its base, placed between the vertical buttresses which run to the wall-head above.
This clean, monumental tower design is broken by a horizontal ribbed course near the top, and supports an illuminated name-sign and, originally, flagpoles and banners (the supports for which can still be seen).
Flanking the recessed tower feature are identical, symmetrical wings, each rising to two storeys. These have a strong horizontal emphasis, with protruding brick string courses, and each storey has long, metal-framed glazing which follows the brickwork by curving in to meet the recessed central tower section.
At ground floor, the main central entrance is again recessed, with four sets of double doors, with chromed handles and kickplates, terrazzo steps with inlaid mats, a curving canopy adorned with neon tubing, and a triangular fringed cornice where the wings to each side curve in to meet the doors. What were originally shop units to each side again appear to be clad in a marble-like stone.
Externally, Cattenach would return to an almost identical, although slightly less successful, design in 1938, when he built the Regal in Rothesay for a syndicate of local businessmen. Coincidentally, this would later also become part of the CAC chain. Intriguingly, Perth’s exterior also bears more than a passing resemblance to Alister G. MacDonald’s exterior design for the Broadway in Prestwick, which opened in 1935.
Inside, a spacious entrance area has been created by expanding the original foyer to incorporate both shop units, giving a light and airy feel, as well as allowing for ramped access. To the rear, the centrally-placed original stairs to the balcony have chrome and painted metalwork banisters and railings, ascending to a half-landing before splitting to the left and right to allow patrons access to the balcony foyer and original café areas.
This spacious foyer area, originally housed the café, behind the first floor windows of the central tower. The café area itself now forms the small Screen 2 (seating 56). Opposite this, we again encounter original glazed doors with chrome fittings, taking us up to a central vomitory to the former balcony area. This currently forms the main Screen 1 (seating 469), when the cinema was tripled in the late 1970s.
Despite the addition of a new proscenium forward of the original, and a new floor from the balcony front to this screen, much remains of interest in this area of the building. The ceiling has original decorative ventilation grilles and glazed light fittings to the rear, with a ribbed cornicing along the top of the sidewalls. The sidewalls themselves have several vertical recesses running up to this cornice, flanked by a jagged deco pattern, and clearly intended to be lit by concealed illumination from above or below at some point – the current modern downlighters seem poorly positioned.
The main ceiling has a central trough running towards the screen, which has two outer sections of straight banding flanking a central section of zig-zagged banding. The trough section would also likely have been highlighted by concealed lighting around its rim. Sadly, the banding has been recently painted in a uniform grey colour, which almost renders the zig-zags invisible when compared to earlier contrasting colour schemes, such as red and biege with gold trimming.
The building was B-listed in 1991, by which time it had been converted into a three-screen operation. The two screens situated in the rear stalls, now numbered 3 and 4 (seating 169 and 144), retain no obvious original features of interest.
As previously mentioned, Screen 2 was subsequently built in the top foyer café area, whilst Screen 5 was built in the stage and front stalls area (seating 127), with the seating reversed to face the main entrance of the building. This allowed the box for this screen to also serve Screens 6 & 7, which were built in 1999 in an extension to the rear of the building (both new screens seat 130). Their colour scheme and acoustic panelling decoration bear an uncanny resemblance to the screens created in the final large scale refurbishment of the Odeon in Glasgow’s Renfield St, which was carried out in the same year.
The 1991 listing notes also mention several features whose present existence unfortunately could not be verified when the current photographic survey was made in 2006. The ‘fine’ original plasterwork of the grilles flanking the proscenium were said to have survived behind the current modern screen 1, but this area is currently inaccessible.
Mention is also made of some original paint colouring in an office off the main foyer, and of the original foyer floor covering surviving beneath the current carpet, but again, these could not be easily verified in a working building.
After providing cinematic entertainment for the citizens of Perth for over 70 years, the Playhouse has proved a remarkable survivor – outlasting the all of the town’s other cinemas, including the mighty Gaumont/Odeon chain. Sadly, from an empire which once covered over 30 Scottish towns and cities, it is now one of only two cinemas that still use the Caledonian name, the other being the Elgin Playhouse. The lack of any nearby multiplex has worked in the cinema’s favour until now, but the financial viability of the cinema business in general has led to the owners seeking new ways of making the building more profitable.
In 2005, permission was applied for to further redevelop the building. This was subsequently granted by Perth and Kinross council in 2006, and involves the creation of a new extension in a gap infill site to the left of the present building. This will would house two new small screens, as well as an extended bar/restaurant operation. The design of this extension came in for some criticism from several bodies, including the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland and the council’s own architect, centring around whether the new façade should be in the style of adjacent older tenements, the cinema itself, or be totally contemporary.
The present building, meanwhile, would be altered too under these proposals – losing the original stairs at the rear of the main foyer, which would be replaced by a more central spiral stair. Upstairs, the small Screen 2 in the former cinema café area would be converted back to an open space, whilst the largest alterations would be in Screen 1 (the former balcony area). The plan involved this being converted to a dining area with screening facilities – a process which would appear to involve the removal of the original balcony rake – although it is not yet clear whether this would involve a single, level floor or a series of terraces.
The best that can be hoped for is that these works ensure the future survival of the Perth Playhouse as a cinema, and that the works respect the original art deco interior of the cinema by making good the decoration where the rake is removed. Although the owners have kept the cinema in excellent order, both in terms of cleanliness and decoration, it would be welcome if the current, rather cold colour scheme of blue, green and grey were replaced with a warmer, more appropriate scheme which could once again highlight the banding and other 3D-effects of the ceiling in contrasting colours.
The trend towards creating dining areas with screening facilities is a relatively recent proposal by cinema operators to try to make maximum use of their larger auditoria, but it has often proved contentious, as evidenced by the recent passionate public debate over the (now withdrawn) conversion plans for the Cameo in Edinburgh. Whilst it remains to be seen which element is considered more important in Perth, we hope that the most intact area of the original auditorium will still remain a place where films – as well as food – can be enjoyed in a favourable environment.
Many thanks to Gavin MacKenzie, Denise Ewins and the staff of the Playhouse and Cairnstar Limited for taking the time to show us around.