The Georgian Theatre Royal is the oldest working theatre in its original form in Europe. It was built in 1788 by Samuel Butler who was both an actor and theatre manager. The theatre seated 400 when first built. Box seating cost three shillings and pit seating cost two shillings.
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The theatre closed in 1848; the pit was floored and the building was turned into a wine vault, then became an auction room, a chandler’s, and lastly a salvage depot. Restoration began in 1960 and in 1963 the theatre reopened to again present plays. 2003 saw further restoration.
There is a fascinating behind-the-scenes tour. One of the theatre’s unique features is its proscenium with two side doors and balconies. This allowed actors to enter either onto the main stage or by the proscenium doors onto the forestage.
On the tour of the theatre visitors will see:
The stage: same space size as the auditorium which was divided into the sunken pit stalls, the boxes, and the gallery; candles lit the area; a removable plank allowed footlights to be raised up. Above the Juliet box is an inscription “S. Butler built this theatre in 1788”. There were three trap doors. A fireplace on the stage’s back wall was used for heating.
Dressing rooms: reached from the stage are the old dressing rooms that had fires and were often used as lodgings by actors. New dressing rooms, bar, and coffee bar were added during restoration.
The pit stalls: At one time seating was wooden benches and was not reserved; it was first come, best seats. During the performance the audience would talk, eat, and walk around.
Gallery: stairs were added during restoration for safety reasons. Playbills and photographs of modern productions are on display. An old “kicking board” at the front of the gallery at floor level served as a stomping board for viewers to let the actors know what they thought of their performances.
BoxesThese are reached by the original staircase; they are on eye level with the stage.
Old Pay box and foyer: A staircase leads to here from the boxes and then to the foyer.
The museum, in back of but connected to the theatre, is home to a collection of original playbills and the largest complete set of Georgian scenery in Britain. There is information on Georgian times, the lifestyle of the players and theatre goers, the plays performed, details on the politics and morality of the times, production methods, props, costume and makeup.
In the museum visitors will see:
Gallery one: In this gallery is information on the construction, management and operation of the first part of the theatre’s existence. Samuel Butler had to clear the site where he built his theatre and then pay an annual rent of £5. On view are a 1724 map of Richmond, original letters of application for licenses, a copy of the theatre circuit, original playbills, and engravings of artists.
Gallery two: a scale model of the stage is on view.
Corridor from Gallery two: playbills from productions in 1943 before restoration given to honour the 850th anniversary of Richmond becoming a borough.
Gallery three: records of the restoration work on display and photographs of the 1963 performance.
Gallery four: five model theatres showing theaters from ancient Greece to the 20th century; costume display.
Last gallery: photographs of Royal visits to the theatre and artists who have performed.
Georgian Theatre Royal and Museum
Victoria Rd, Richmond (near the market place)
Tel. 0 1748 823 710; box office 0 1748 825 252
Open: by guided tour only, Mon-Sat, 10am-5pm on the hour
shop; café; parking off Victoria Rd and in Market Place
Web: Georgian Theatre Royal
Photo of theatre interior courtesy the Georgian Theatre