Early birthday present for Britain’s oldest theatre

Bristol Old Vic auditorium. Credit: Philip Vile

The Bristol Old Vic, Britain’s oldest theatre, has received a boost of Lottery funding in the run-up to its 250th anniversary, plus we look back at some of our other historic playhouses.

Bristol Old Vic auditorium. Credit: Philip Vile
Bristol Old Vic auditorium. Credit: Philip Vile

Britain’s oldest theatre, Bristol Old Vic, has received an early birthday present from the Heritage Lottery Fund ahead of its 250th anniversary next May.

The theatre, which was built in 1766, has been awarded a development grant of £220,500 to support a nine-month period of work in preparation for the roll-out of a project that promises to herald a new era for the theatre.

The initial grant of £220,500 will enable Bristol Old Vic to carry out essential surveys to the plaster work in Coopers’ Hall and to test wall renovation techniques for the 18th-century theatre facade.

The historic thunder run, a tunnel sitting high above the theatre ceiling where metal balls would have been rolled from one end to the other to create the sound of thunder, will be surveyed and tested prior to its eventual repair.

Once this initial work is complete, Bristol Old Vic will submit an application for a confirmed grant of £2.26million. The project will bring to life 250 years of theatrical heritage, represented by both Bristol Old Vic’s historic architecture and its extraordinary archives, held between the University of Bristol Theatre Collection and Bristol Record Office.

Bristol Old Vic, the only surviving example of the 18th-century horseshoe-shaped auditorium, is Britain’s oldest extant theatre, but it has close competition….

The Georgian Theatre Royal of Richmond, Yorkshire, which dates back to 1788, makes a claim for the title of the oldest theatre in its original form in Britain, as it has never been remodelled, with its original features including the kicking boards, which audiences would use to make their disapproval heard.

No other site in Britain has a longer history of continuous theatre use than London’s Theatre Royal Drury Lane in London, where the royal patent, still in the possession of the theatre, was granted by Charles II to Thomas Killigrew in 1662.

The first theatre, which was built in 1663, burnt down in 1672. For the reconstruction Killigrew engaged Sir Christopher Wren, with, in 1775, David Garrick commissioning the Scottish architect Robert Adam to redesign the theatre – not the last of its remodellings. Today, Drury Lane shares with Theatre Royal Haymarket the distinction of being entirely pre-Victorian in external appearance, while the entrance vestibule, the grand staircase, rotunda and saloon of 1811–12 are by B D Wyatt and comprise the only substantial Georgian theatre fabric in London. However, the auditorium, dating back to 1922, is relatively modern.

The Grand Theatre Lancaster is also among the oldest theatres in the UK. Damaged by fire in 1908, the interior was reopened just eight months later in the form you see today. In 1978 the emergency (gas!) lighting system was found to be unsafe and the loss of the theatre licence with consequent closure loomed, but the funds to install an electrical system were found. Today, as a result of fundraising efforts, the Grand is in probably the best condition it has been since the rebuild of 1908.

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