Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Turn for the Dramatic

I spent a week in Yorkshire recently and took the opportunity to visit Richmond because I had heard that they possessed the most complete Georgian theatre still operating in the UK. I had seen the lovely Regency theatre in Bury St Edmund's while I was researching for The Notorious Mr Hurst, but this one is older, and opened in September 1788. Samuel Butler had been managing a troupe of travelling players who were struggling, like other actors were, with the results of the Licensing Act of 1737 which forbade the production of plays for reward. The only way round it was to put on a concert and insert a "free" play in the interval. Only the big London theatres and a handful in major cities, had special patents to permit them to put on "proper" plays. But there was a breakthrough in 1788 with the Theatre Licensing Act which enabled companies to put on plays for up to sixty days at any one time. Butler seized the oportunity and took over a large barn-like stone building in Richmond, converting it into a theatre in four months. The theatre was in a "courtyard" form - rectangular with a pit, boxes and rows of galleries on three sides. The stage was raked and two dressing rooms - with fireplaces - were installed underneath. There was even an open fire at the back of the stage. Those three fires were the only heating for the shivering players. The theatre museum posseses a wonderful hoard of playbills that were found in a local home. I don't have any in my collection for Richmond, but the two illustrated, for Hull and Norwich, look identical and give a real flavour of the kind of entertainment these provincial theatres were providing. In 1848 the theatre closed and was used for a variety of purposes - an auction house, a wine store, a chandlers store - but by some miracle the galleries, boxes, stage and ticket office all survived with their original paint. Even the names of great actors painted benath the fronts of the gallery could be read. Beneath the best box - the one the Price Regent had used - was Shakespeare's name and this has been left unrestored. In 1939 the theatre was rediscovered and in 1963 it re-opened after restoration and is now a fully working theatre. Unfortunately photography is not allowed inside and the images in the guidebook are copyright, so I can only show you the original main entrance, tucked discreetly round a corner. You can see a little more at the theatre website http://www.georgiantheatreroyal.co.uk/ Louise Allen

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