You don't notice it straight away, indeed I nearly missed it, but what the Market Theatre in Hitchin is very proud of is that once people do find it, they usually come back!
For hidden away in a converted industrial unit in the back streets of the lovely Hertfordshire market town, is an intimate professional theatre producing some seven or eight shows a year, with a cosy upstairs bar where theatergoers can relax, chill out and meet the cast members.
Currently in the middle of the annual three month run of their infamous adult pantomime, they are gearing up for the new season and a successful eleventh year of existence.
Assistant Manager Glyn Doggett told us more.
Let's start by talking about the Market Theatre's latest production because your regular adult panto is always so popular – and this year's title is very intriguing?!
Glyn: Yes - it's called The Emperor's Newd Clothes! The adult pantomime has become a sort of cult thing now in Hitchin as we do it every year and this year it will run until March. It's all sexual innuendo and a sort of Carry On farce style of comedy but it's one of those things that has grown so much in popularity now that we sell out literally every night which is great!
Can you tell me some of the characters who are in this show?
Glyn: There's the Emperor Binhadup Forrit who's the main man, then there's the Empress Gagging Forrit and the damsel in distress, Fanny Usedalot! So that gives you some idea of the level we are aiming at! You have the occasional swear word in the show but really it's all about the Carry On aspect - mistaken identity, innuendo and that sort of thing. There are only three in the cast but they work so hard.
What are some of the other adult pantos that you've done?
Glyn: The first ever one we did was called Send me A Fella (our take on Cinderella!). Then there's been Puss and Dick, Sinbad the Seaman, Snow White and the Dwarf - which doesn't sound crude but it was - Little Red Riding My Manhood and then last year we did Slapper Beauty.
And you do a touring version too?
Glyn: Yes for the past four years we've been going to High Wycombe to do the same pantomime that we're doing here but with a different cast. That's grown too and this year we're selling out every night which is brilliant!
How long has the panto been going?
Glyn: The adult panto has been going since the theatre opened in November 1996. It's definitely our biggest seller of the year.
So, the Market Theatre then - what was the idea behind setting it up?
Glyn: The idea was to create a small community theatre in Hitchin that would appeal to people who don't normally go to theatre. 20 per cent of the UK population go to the theatre and what we wanted to do was draw in that 80 per cent of people that don't normally go.
So, the idea was that the shows weren't to be too long, and wouldn't have an interval. People could just come along and see a simple play, something that everyone could enjoy and so draw in those people who didn't normally attend live theatre. I think it has succeeded in doing this - beyond our wildest dreams really.
You have a very loyal audience then?
Glyn: Definitely yes. And we get people coming even now who still didn't know we are here so we're still bringing in new people and it's very much grown by word of mouth.
Now, it doesn't look like a conventional theatre - what was it before?
Glyn: It was an industrial unit in 1996 and Kirk Foster the Artistic Director, along with Glen Davies, found it and converted it. Kirk had this dream to convert it to what it is now but I think it's gone beyond that. Ten years ago it was just an empty unit all the way through and now it's a 70-seater theatre!
And upstairs you've got this lovely chill out kind of room?
Glyn: Yes - the Long Bar is our new edition which we added on in October last year (2006). It's really made the theatre into a bigger thing because people can stay afterwards now and chat and meet the cast.
It does feel like you could sit here most of the night drinking wine!
Glyn: Yes - I have done quiet a few times!
How many shows do you do a year?
Glyn: We tend to do about seven or eight but it varies on the length of run of each - our shows run about seven or eight weeks at a time on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings.
We do different types of plays and we've got certain areas that we cover over the year. We do a thing called a Whodunnit and that's a murder mystery but it's quite nice the way we do it.
People watch the show, then they get time to write down who they think did it and how and why. Then we collect their answers in before they watch the last part of the show which tells them the answer and if they win it they get a bottle of wine.
A bit like Emmerdale at the moment then?!
Glyn: Yes! We get a lot of people come to that. As well as that we do something called the “Scary”, which is always a thriller or a ghost story of some kind. And because of the size of the theatre it just works so well because of the atmosphere and how close the audience is to the stage - you're almost in the show, it's incredible!
Then there's our Farce, which is another big thing for us. The theatre opened ten years ago with a farce called For Sale – and that's the thing we at the Market Theatre still like to have as our basis and the thing that we do well.
Then last year we did a musical theatre cabaret which we will repeat when this show finishes and also last summer we started a thing called Weekenders which is an outside soap.
Again it's kind of interactive in that the audience just sit in a cafe which we set up outside in the courtyard. The actors will serve you food and drink, then they'll just go into this ten minute soap opera. Then each week people can come along and watch the soap continue. This year we plan to run it for 12 weeks through June, July and August time and we hope it will do really well.
It sounds like you've got a mini Edinburgh festival there?!
Glyn: Yes - it is - that's the idea! We do also have a lot of shows that come here to trial before they go to the Edinburgh Festival. The venue size is similar to what you'd get there and we've also taken some of our shows to the London fringe in the past as well.
So can you give us a sneak preview of this year's offerings?
Glyn: Well - we have the musical theatre cabaret on after the adult pantomime. The dates for the others aren't confirmed yet but we will have a comedy whodunnit called The Clue, then we'll have our Farce but we don't know what that will be called yet though.
Then we've got something a bit different based on Nell Gwyn and that will be interesting because it's fact based.
And are these written in house?
Glyn: Yes - we encourage a lot of new writing so a lot of the stuff is written at the theatre by the Artistic Director.
And it's a professional theatre?
Yes - all the actors are paid.
And where do you get the performers from - do you audition?
Glyn: A lot of our actors are local. We're connected quite heavily to the Hertfordshire Theatre School and a lot of our actors who trained there come back after they've left and do shows here. We also have a big base of actors that has just grown over ten years. It's great to come back and great thing to do when you're not doing anything else. I'm an actor as well and it's nice when you're not doing other acting work to come here and do a play for six or seven weeks instead of doing a temping job.
So what would you say to people to encourage them to come down here?
Glyn: I would say just come and give us a go, especially this time of year with the adult pantomime - it's a great thing for you to come and see to get you involved in the Market Theatre.
It's difficult to understand if you haven't seen the theatre. The plays that we do are all very different and people will now book shows without knowing what we're doing. It's become that kind of thing where people don't really mind what it is that they are coming to see they'll just come and see the next show that's on - it's word of mouth and it's growing and growing.
So I'd just say just come down and give us a try, and you'll like it and you'll come back! Hopefully!