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The History of Theatre Royal Nottingham

24 September 15 words: Dom Henry

Celebrate with us as we take a look back at an iconic building that has been home to thespian, punter and memory a plenty...

1865
Among the booming lace industry of 1860s Nottingham, local lace factory owners and philanthropists John and William Lambert had a hankering to give something back to the city that had made them wealthy. Already known for their factory welfare reforms, church activity and work supporting public parks, their attention was drawn to a run-down part of the city, off what is now Market Street. The street was a dangerously steep and narrow alley called Sheep Lane, which led sheep drovers to Old Market Square over slippery cobbles, flanked on either side by ramshackle buildings and neglected tenements.

The council, with the Lambert brothers sitting as councillors, decided to pull down Sheep Lane and redevelop it into a wide, modern street flanked by all new buildings – many of which are still with us today – fitting of the cities increasing prosperity.

Opposite the newly created junction with Parliament Street lay a number of derelict buildings. The brothers invested £15,000 to build a first-class theatre here, to crown the top of the new street and offer the city a “temple of drama” for locals to enjoy educating entertainments and intellectual culture.

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John Bull - 1865

While Market Street was emerging from the rubble of Sheep Lane, the Theatre Royal sprang up in just six months using a neoclassical design from a fresh new architect. It was the second English theatre design of upcoming architect Charles J Phipps, who went on to become Britain’s first great theatrical architect with an impressive list of theatres across the country to his name.

Phipps’ resplendent design had a classical theme closely modelled on the Salle Favart theatre in Paris, featuring six Corinthian pillars in Ancaster stone soaring over the entranceway, supporting a large attic with ornamental vases. This new, dignified, white building rose from the murky industrial skyline just like a classical temple, exactly as ordered.

Within the temple, the class system of 1860s Victorian England was at work, with five brass handled doors beneath the grand colonnade reflecting the status quo. There were stairs to the upper circle and two doors on the left for the middle classes; another two doors for the wealthy with ‘large dress ready’ marble staircases to the dress circle and private boxes in well-served opulence; the final door leading down to the gentleman’s cloak room.

Everyone else, you ask? Nottingham’s working classes entered via doors at the side of the theatre to access the pit (stalls) – standing room only. In all, it had a 2,200 capacity, nearly twice its modern, all-seater capacity.

Once inside, a sumptuously painted cylindrical interior featured bright frescoes over crimson velvet seats, and was illuminated by an enormous, 170-jet gas flame chandelier. Along with gas-fired ‘lime light’ stage lights and yet more gas jets on the stage. Fire safety wasn’t what it is today.

Phipps’ genius wasn’t just making it look stylish. In terms of function, he kept the impressive front portico straight, while having the cylindrical auditorium and stage areas off at a thirty degree angle, keeping in line with the frontage of South Sherwood street on the east side – all cunningly hidden away by the flash frontage. Secondly, he didn’t skimp on the facilities backstage, featuring a large dock for scenery, a capacious stage area with a deep double cellar for all manner of winches and widget-driven stage magic, as well as spacious dressing rooms, green rooms and workshops for the in-house set makers. He did the Lamberts proud, and secured numerous other commissions off the back of this handiwork.

The opening night on 25 September saw a packed house sell out weeks in advance to see Sheridan’s The School of Scandal, drawing large crowds of curious Nottingham townsfolk. When the bearded Lambert brothers arrived to take their seats in the auditorium, they received a standing ovation from the swooning audience, who were beaming with civic pride.

1866
Theatres of this type were an entirely new experience for Nottingham, a new way to spend disposable income for the increasing numbers who could afford entertainment as commodity prices fell. While some empty seats were to be initially expected, numbers continued to be lower than predicted throughout 1866, and the Lamberts opted to turn their theatre into a joint stock company.

1867
The first manager of the Theatre Royal, acclaimed American actor Walter Montgomery, who directed the opening night production, left in 1867 for reasons that are unclear. There is some speculation on his relationship with the Lamberts, as well as his management skills. However, in the few years following his departure, the theatre established itself as a key destination for touring theatre companies, and by the 1880s was attracting big names such as Lillie Langtry, Henry Irving and Sarah Bernhardt.

Capitalising on the revitalising draw of the new Market Street and Theatre Royal, the Lamberts built a plush hotel to the west side of the theatre, the Clarendon Hotel, which would eventually become the fondly remembered County Hotel.

1887
Remember all that gas lighting? On 5 September 1887, the Phipps-designed Theatre Royal in Exeter went up in flames after a gas light accident set fire to the drapes. 160 people were killed in the inferno, ending Phipps’ career. This was on the back of other horrific theatre fires in Europe with 91 recorded between 1870 and 1900 alone.

Parliament rushed through legislation and the first theatre safety precautions were introduced. The Theatre Royal installed emergency exits and fireproof corridors, as well as upgrading the seating.

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Theatre Royal Nottingham c. 1895 courtesy of J Buist and www.picturethepast.org.uk

1895
The Nottingham Theatre Company who were managing the Theatre Royal ran into financial difficulty and failed. Northern theatre-owning entrepreneur Robert Arthur stepped in to take over the lease.

1897
With some expensive renovations needed, Robert cut a deal with music hall kingpin Edward Moss, owner of the Empire chain, to upgrade the Theatre Royal. The other part of the deal was to build a second theatre next door aimed at variety and music hall, while keeping the Theatre Royal as a serious venue for drama, ballet and opera-focused theatre. The decidedly bling Empire Palace of Varieties opened on 28 February 1898.

The man for the theatre renovation work was famous theatre architect Frank Matcham, who directed local firm Henry Vickers on major renovations over sixteen weeks. The gas lighting was replaced with electric, the auditorium capacity was increased to 3,000, and the original balconies supported with iron pillars were replaced by a pillar-free, iron cantilever design offering better views. Unfortunately for the performers, Matcham sacrificed Phipps’ well thought-out backstage area and dressing rooms to fit in the Empire, the pokey replacements up steep stairs being much bemoaned.

1900 - 1920
The turn of the century was a boom time for UK theatres. Nottingham had several by 1910, including the sizeable Hippodrome opening just across from the County Hotel in 1906. However, the twin high-spec theatres of the Theatre Royal and adjoining Empire were Nottingham’s flagship venues, making the city one of the best theatre destinations in the Midlands. Aided by mainline railway services bringing big touring names to their stages, such as the famous ballerina Anna Pavlova, and one of the first touring shows to start outside London, The Dollar Princess.

With the gloom of WW1 and shortages to contend with, theatre became a popular morale booster through the war years. However, while the Theatre Royal survived, it was starting to see competition with the growth of silent cinema. Between 1908 and 1917, 28 cinemas were built in Nottingham, including the impressive Elite Cinema in 1921 that was a mere stone’s throw from what was Theatre Square.

1924
Moss Empires took over the Theatre Royal lease, which gave the theatre access to the group’s impressive touring roster as a premium venue. Moss Empires’ boss Sir Edward Moss was also a big panto fan, which saw panto season become a firm tradition.

1925 - 1945
The inter-war years saw increasing competition from other forms of entertainment, with a further 21 cinemas built in Nottingham before 1939. The popularisation of the radio via the wireless also helped see the growth of dance halls playing jazz and swing music.

However, the theatre had adjusted its audience and while many variety and music hall venues started to struggle, the theatre became one of the main venues outside London to see opera and ballet, including visits from the Royal companies. This was also a great period for drama and comedy, with whodunnits from the likes of Agatha Christie and Oscar Wilde farces.

WW2 theater once again become an important morale booster, where Nottingham folk could go to escape the grimness and shortages to see their favourite stars and artists such as Arthur Askey, Vera Lynn and Gracie Fields. The theatre luckily escaped any significant damage from the 439 high explosive bombs dropped on Nottingham during the Blitz.

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Theatre Royal Nottm c. 1960 courtesy of Nottm Local Studies Library and www.picturethepast.org.uk

1947 - 1968
After the war, UK theatres really started to struggle. The advent of TV sounded the death of music hall, with variety stars performing in Nottingham’s living rooms. By the fifties, the Empire was forced to stage review and striptease shows in order to stay open, before finally closing in June 1958. The impressive Hippodrome Variety Theatre saw out its remaining days as the Gaumont Cinema from 1948 to 1971.

The Theatre Royal too was in decline. The big touring companies now too large for Macham’s pokey changing facilities (rated some of the worst in the UK) stopped coming, including the Royal Ballet and Royal Opera which had a serious impact on income. Despite a growing live music market, the venue was considered too small for many touring bands being under the magic 2,000 capacity.

That said, they were still putting on great shows, including the longest running UK show The Mousetrap, which premiered at what Agatha Christie called her “Lucky Theatre”. Finances were tight, though, and the venue became increasingly tired in what was now a less-than-lustrous part of town. In a climate which had seen 85% of Victorian and Edwardian buildings lost by 1975, Theatre Royal’s fate was uncertain. In 1968 the Empire next door was demolished, and the County Hotel lay empty. Was Theatre Royal next in line?

1969 - 1976
Nottingham City Council took a bold step and bought the Theatre Royal following a popular campaign to save the venue. They took the courageous view that a redeveloped Theatre Royal, combined with a larger concert hall and a multi-purpose hall, could draw a broad range of entertainment and cultural activities to the city, at one of the best theatre and concert complexes in the UK.

The idea of a ‘Festival Hall Complex’ was a controversial one, carrying a £4.6 million price tag. It became a hot political potato, with the Conservatives railing against the proposed Labour expenditure. Public groups for and against petitioned their cases, especially when it emerged that the iconic County Hotel would be pulled down.

In 1975 Labour Council Leader John Carroll led the way with plans to rejuvenate Nottingham through the project, and by 1976 the plan was accepted to go ahead. Contracts were signed in 1976 for a new festival hall including renovation of the Theatre Royal. However, when the Conservatives won in May 1976, they immediately sought to halt the plans. Despite this, in March 1977 renovations commenced.

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Mother Goose - 1978

1977
The renovations took three main focuses: to upgrade the backstage areas with proper facilities for crew, actors and technicians; to make it safer and more comfortable with modern fire exits and seating; and to retain the best parts of Phipps’ design. The former County Hotel site would now form modern offices and backstage areas capable of handling world-class tours.

1978
After eleven months’ work, the newly refurbished theatre reopened on 7 February 1978 with a show from Ken Dodd, who started out doing variety back in the old Empire Theatre. Business boomed, and a year later the reborn venue received the Royal Institute of British Architects award 1979 as “an outstanding example of current architecture” with “a delightful unity both inside and out where the question of which is old and which is new hardly arises, but where the new is ashamedly modern and the old remains unashamedly old”.

1980 - 2015
The recent history of the Theatre Royal is a bright one. With the return of a Labour council, it was joined by the Royal Concert Hall, a venue widely regarded as having some of the best concert venue acoustics in Europe. Since then, it has boasted a plethora of memorable shows, from Elton John’s Royal Concert Hall opener to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Derek Jacobi as Richard III or Northern Ballet’s A Tale of Two Cities.

The venue goes from strength to strength, with their 2014 Hoff panto their most successful ever. The temple of drama lives on – the Lamberts and C J Phipps would be proud to know how much the people of Nottingham love their Theatre Royal.

Theatre Royal Concert Hall website

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