Happy Birthday, William Wilkins!
Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds, which he himself designed for the town. It opened its doors in October 1819, making it the only Regency-built theatre still in regular use today. It is a gem of a theatre and William Wilkins was very proud of it, but it didn’t at first get the reception from the townsfolk that he expected.
Wilkins - and his father before him - ran the Norwich Company which toured seven East Anglian venues. Bury St Edmunds was the most profitable of these, despite playing in a very cramped space on the upper floor of the Market Cross, so William decided to reward the town with a lovely new theatre.
He was very keen on classical architecture and was addicted to the idea of pure air circulating around his building. He was also concerned that his best patrons should be spared the indignity of mixing with the more disreputable members of the audience at any point during the proceedings.
To facilitate this, the four separate areas of the theatre had their own entrances, the Dress Circle box patrons wafted straight through the spacious, arcaded foyer into their semi-enclosed boxes, the Upper Circle boxes were up one flight of stairs from the foyer, the Pit customers jostled downwards and around from an outside entrance, and for the cheap seats in the Gallery - 120 of them! - people would have to squeeze through a narrow side door and up two flights of stairs.
The townsfolk, though, weren’t at all grateful. As far as they were concerned, the New Theatre was on the very edge of the unfashionable side of town and far more inconvenient to get to than the old Market Cross right in the centre. So - for the first week at least - they voted with their feet, leaving the Norwich Company to play to empty houses. Audiences did pick up in the subsequent weeks, but it must have given William Wilkins a very nasty turn, thinking of his huge investment that he might not get back!
Now, of course, Bury St Edmunds has expanded and the Theatre Royal is seen as being in the historic centre. Which brings us back to the party - the question we were asking was what do you give a man who is 233 years old? We came to the conclusion that posterity isn’t a bad gift.