History of Britain’s Theatres

Britains Theatres

This year London’s Old Vic celebrates its 200th anniversary. To mark the occasion, we bring you some of Britain’s oldest playhouses still delighting audiences

This year marks 200 years of London’s Old Vic, but the theatre that opened in Waterloo as the Royal Coburg is far from the oldest in Britain. That honour goes to the Bristol Old Vic, which opened its doors in May 1766 when King George III was on the throne, much of America was still a British colony, and a 10-year-old musical prodigy called Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had just finished wowing audiences in London.

Theatre Royal

Initially, the new theatre on Bristol’s King Street was named the Theatre Royal, and it soon began a long association with the great tragedienne Sarah Siddons, who is said to haunt the building today.

The auditorium was a classic horseshoe shape. Originally, it was quite plain; the current splendid red and gold colour scheme dates from a 19th-century refurbishment. Externally, the theatre was even more humble, being accessed until 1903 down a passageway between some medieval dockland housing. However, in 1972 an interim lobby
was replaced by the purchase of the building next door, a neo-Palladian structure called Coopers’ Hall, which was incorporated into the Bristol Old Vic. The old lobby of 1903 was then converted into a studio theatre.

The Royal Victoria

The theatre gets its current name from the Royal Coburg in London, which was renamed the ‘Royal Victoria’ in 1833 and became affectionately known as the ‘Old Vic’ at the end of the 19th century. Following the Second World War, London’s Old Vic formed a satellite company to come down to Bristol and reactivate the poor Theatre Royal, which by 1946 was standing empty. Thus the Bristol Old Vic was born – a theatre that kickstarted many careers, including those of Peter O’Toole, Jeremy Irons and Daniel Day-Lewis. Today the Bristol Old Vic is a busy producing house. Three-time Oscar winner Day-Lewis has called it ‘the most beautiful theatre in England.’

Theatre Royal, Drury Lane

The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane – the London theatre whose interior inspired that of the Bristol Old Vic – was built in 1662 following the restoration of King Charles II. The king’s mistress Nell Gwyn was one of the actors who performed in what used to be called The Theatre Royal on Bridges Street. The king often attended as did his Chief Secretary to the Admiralty, Samuel Pepys. In a diary entry for January 1667, Pepys wrote that he enjoyed The Humerous Lieutenant here and was introduced to Nell Gwyn: “I kissed her, and so did my wife; and a mighty pretty soul she is.”

The reason the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane is not referred to as the oldest theatre in Britain is because between 1666 and 1812 it burned down twice and was also demolished for rebuilding on one occasion, so the theatre we see today is a Regency-style construction from 1812. Nevertheless, the Theatre Royal is associated with many of Britain’s greatest stage performers: it provided a professional home to the Regency comedian Joseph Grimaldi, who introduced the pantomime clown to England; the Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean; and the composer Ivor Novello. These days it is owned by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and mainly stages long-running musicals.

Beyond London

Outside the capital there are several theatres still older than London’s Old Vic. Margate’s civic theatre (another Theatre Royal) was built in 1787 when this Kent port was establishing itself as a sea-bathing holiday destination. In the 1780s King George III’s visits to Weymouth popularised the benefits of immersing oneself in seawater and Margate followed suit. Architect Jethro T Robinson radically altered the Margate’s Theatre Royal in 1874, removing the Georgian boxes and creating a classic Victorian theatre with orchestra pit, raked seating and plush red seats. The manager was the actor Sarah Thorne, who also opened Britain’s first drama school in Margate. Miss Thorne departed the Theatre Royal in 1894 as its fortunes were declining. From 1918, there were reports that her ghost was haunting the theatre.

In Bath, there is another Theatre Royal that functions as a venue for shows that often transfer to London’s West End. Like Margate, it is a Georgian theatre, having been built in 1805. The original entrance was in elegant Beauford Square underneath a large royal coat of arms. Mrs Jordan (mistress of King William IV) and Edmund Kean appeared in Shakespeare productions at the Theatre Royal at different times.

The building was remodelled in 1862 after a fire. Fire was a constant threat to theatres in the 18th and 19th centuries because they were mainly made of wood and lit by candles. At
the time of the Victorian makeover of the auditorium, a street entrance on Saw Close was created that was gaudy compared to the stately Beauford Square facade. In the 20th century, the theatre was often in danger of demolition. It survived thanks to local campaigning.

Though it was built in 1819, 14 years after the Theatre Royal Bath, the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds seems older because it escaped Victorian refurbishment. With its low-rise and low-key facade, and an interior that resembles an Italian opera house – boxes and all – it’s a near perfect Regency theatre of the kind Jane Austen would have visited.

The original owner, William Wilkins, was also the architect. In the days before railways made London accessible, Wilkins employed a small company of players to undertake an annual tour of six local theatres, of which Bury St Edmunds was one. Each theatre would open for one or sometimes two short seasons a year but, like so many British theatres, they struggled to find a role in the 20th century. Now Bury St Edmunds is under the protection of the National Trust and it is much busier than it ever was in 1819.

Not all historic theatres in Britain were called Theatre Royal – although at one point in the 19th century there were more than 30 by that name. In Leeds, when a new theatre was built in 1878, it was called The Grand. The Grand was designed very differently. Gone were the neoclassical columns that fronted many 19th-century theatres. Local architect James Robinson Watson opted instead for Romanesque arches and turreted spires.

Class

Like many Victorian theatres there were separate entrances depending on the price –
or class – of your ticket. Inside, the auditorium was particularly grand with chandeliers, three tiers of curved balconies and a lot of gold leaf. Today, as well as being a receiving house of some repute, The Grand is also the home of Opera North and a tourist attraction in its own right.

British theatres