Theatres and Halls in Norwich, Norfolk
Also - The White Swan Playhouse / The New Theatre / The Grand Concert Hall / The Theatre Royal / Empire and Theatre Royal
Above - A Google Streetview image of the Theatre Royal, Norwich - Click to Interact
The Theatre Royal, Norwich which is situated on Theatre Street, opposite the BBC's regional television and radio centre for Norfolk, has a long and distinguished history. The Theatre's story began back in 1730 when the, until then, unremarkable public house, called the White Swan, became home to its own resident company of Comedians. The following year the pub was renamed the White Swan Playhouse.
In 1757 a new Theatre was built by Thomas Ivory on a site just to the right of the present Theatre Royal. The New Theatre, as it was named, cost £600 to construct and opened on the 31st of January the following year, 1758, with Richard Hurst as its Manager. The Theatre was built as the new headquarters for the Norwich Comedians who then moved from their old home, the White Swan Playhouse, and opened the New Theatre with a production of 'The Way of The World' by William Congreve. The Norwich Comedians would also branch out to tour many other Towns in the Eastern Counties. The White Swan Playhouse itself would continue however right up to 1820 when it finally ceased being a playhouse and returned to being just a public house, and would continue as such until it was demolished in 1961.
Above - A sketch of the north east prospect of the
1758 first Theatre Royal, Norwich - Courtesy Maria Andrew, Archivist
at the Theatre
As the New Theatre didn't actually have a Licence to perform plays however, in 1759 its owner, Thomas Ivory, renamed the Theatre The Grand Concert Hall, in an attempt to circumnavigate the Licencing Act, which had been passed in June 1737 and prevented actors from performing without the King's Patent. Nine years later though Thomas Ivory was finally granted Royal Assent for the Theatre and as a consequence it was renamed the Theatre Royal on the 8th of March 1768.
In 1801 the Theatre was remodelled by the local builder and architect, William Wilkins, who gutted the Theatre and reconstructed the interior, leaving only the outer walls in place. The interior was again refurbished in 1814.
In 1826 a replacement Theatre was built by William Wilkins the second, who had inherited the Lease of the original from William Wilkins when he died in 1815. The new Theatre Royal was built at a cost of £6,000, ten times more than the original, and constructed on a slightly different site, to the left of the original Theatre and where the present Theatre Royal stands today. The Theatre opened on the 27th of March 1826 with a production of R. B. Sheridan's 'School for Scandal'.
In 1836 a new innovation was installed at the Theatre, namely gas lighting, previously the Theatre had been lit by oil lamps and candles which were even more of a fire hazard than the later gas lighting. But it wouldn't be until in December 1887 that a new fireproof asbestos curtain was installed to save the Theatre in case a fire should occur in the building, something which was all to common in Theatres of the period. At the time the fire curtain was installed the Gas lighting was also overhauled and the exits were improved and new ones added.
In 1894 the Theatre closed for several months for reconstruction to the designs of the renowned Theatre Architect, Frank Matcham. The ERA reported on the newly enhance Theatre in their 22nd of September 1894 edition saying: - 'This theatre has been closed for several months past, in order to carry out a scheme of reconstruction and redecoration from the designs of Mr Frank Matcham. The work is now rapidly nearing completion, and the building will be opened to the public on the 24th of this month by Mr Garthorne's company in The Colonel.
Mr Fred Morgan, the lessee, has spared no expense in the alterations and seconding Mr Matcham's endeavours to make the old theatre into a modern one, with all the latest improvements. The exterior has been much improved, the walls being cemented and ornamented with mouldings and elaborate carved designs; there is a handsome iron and coloured glass shelter over the principal entrance. The front will be illuminated with the electric light, and what was a very dismal exterior will now be bright and cheerful.
The entrances and exits have been entirely remodelled, new staircases being erected, and extra openings formed with folding doors fitted with panic bolts, and the safety of the public considered in every way. The principal entry is by pairs of folding doors bright with polished glass, opening into a crush room with a panelled and enriched ceiling, and tesselated tiled floor. To the right is the entrance and new staircase to the upper circle. The large and handsome vestibule is beautifully decorated, with raised ornamental ceiling, the walls covered with Japanese paper and floor carpeted. This spacious and comfortable room is the forerunner of what the patrons of the theatre may expect on entering the auditorium.
Left - A programme for 'Yes,We Have No Pyjamas' at the Theatre Royal, Norwich for the week commencing the 19th of February, 1979 - Courtesy Maurice Poole.
A great alteration has been effected in the pit, the very old, undesirable entry down the long side passage being abolished, and a new wide entry formed leading direct to the rear of the pit, down the centre of which is a wide gangway with the seats ranged at the sides. These are made very comfortable, and upholstered with velvet corduroy.
A new entrance staircase has been erected leading to the rear of the gallery, and this part of the house has been entirely reseated, and the sight lines improved. The upper circle has also received attention, the old divisions and barriers removed, and the whole reseated with comfortable upholstered seats in velvet. There is a fine promenade at the rear, and the floor of this part of the house is covered with linoleum, and the walls and ceilings decorated.
The greatest improvement, however, occurs on the dress circle. The old partition at the rear of the seats has been removed, and a dwarf barrier with posts and arches over, decorated in cream and gold, takes its place. The promenade is now thrown open, and is richly decorated and furnished, and a capital view of the stage is obtained. The circle has been fitted with tip-up seats and the floors carpeted. The appearance of the auditorium is greatly improved, two large circular-headed private boxes being added each side of the stage, with raised plaster work richly decorated in gold and colour, and fitted up with amber valances and curtains. The new proscenium is also fitted with similar handsome tableaux curtains. The ceiling is panelled out with elaborate mouldings and ornaments in raised plaster work, as is also the gallery front, and the whole richly decorated in gold and colours.
The auditorium is now brilliantly illuminated with Stott's Thorp sunlight,
and new floats and battens added to the stage, and entire re-arrangement
of the lighting of the entrance, &c., carried out. The theatre throughout
has received every consideration from the hands of the
architect, and the alterations reflect great credit on him and the
contractors, Messrs Youngs and Sons, Norwich, who have so ably carried
out his designs and instructions; and there is no doubt that Mr Morgan's
endeavours to provide the public of Norwich with an up-to-date theatre
will receive due appreciation.' - The ERA,
22nd September 1894.
In 1903 Fred Morgan, who had been the Lease holder since 1885, left the Theatre Royal to open a new Theatre in St. Giles Street called the Grand Opera House which opened on the 3rd of August that year. But the following year that Theatre was bought by Bostock and Fitt and renamed the New Hippodrome, staging variety, and Fred Morgan returned as Lease holder of the Theatre Royal again. Morgan then reintroduced his policy of staging plays and musical comedies there.
In 1913 the Theatre's auditorium was altered by adding orchestra stalls seats to replace the pit benches and the stage was enlarged at the same time.
In November 1915 the Theatre's name was changed to the Empire and Theatre Royal when it took to staging twice nightly variety and a revue season. The following year Fred Morgan retired and the Hippodrome's Bostock and Fitt took over the management of the Royal and reintroduced once nightly plays again. However, they would relinquish their management in 1926 to Collins and Gladwin who put in new seating and lighting, and added central heating and a new bar and foyer to the Theatre, reopening it with a policy of variety, reviews, and Christmas pantomimes. Collins and Gladwin bought the Theatre Royal outright a few years later in 1928.
Right - A photograph of Jack Gladwin - Courtesy Maria Andrew, Archivist at the Theatre Royal, Norwich.
In 1934 the building's long history was brought to an abrupt halt when it was destroyed by fire on the 22nd of June. Undeterred however, the owners immediately set about rebuilding the Theatre and on the 30th of September 1935 the new Theatre Royal opened with the play 'White Horse Inn.' The Theatre's remarkably quick rebuild was thanks to Gladwin being able to use designs which had previously been used by Odeon Cinemas for several of its own Theatres. This 1935 Theatre Royal is the one which is still on the site today, although it has been much altered over the years.
Left - A photograph showing the damage to the Theatre Royal, Norwich in June 1934 - Courtesy Maria Andrew, Archivist at the Theatre Royal, Norwich.
Prince Littler took over the Lease of the Royal in 1939 owing to Jack Gladwin becoming ill, and apart from the three weeks at the outset of World War II he kept the Theatre open for most of the remainder, despite the air raids and the buildings next door and the church opposite being gutted by fire.
At the beginning of 1956 Kemp and Collins ran a short season of variety at the Royal and then began showing films there too, and on the 17th of April Jack Gladwin Leased the Theatre to them on a more permanent basis. J. Will Collins, by the way, was Joan Collins' father. However Kemp and Collins soon realised that they were not doing as well as expected and Gladwin Leased the Theatre instead to the Essoldo Cinema chain, who would eventually buy the building outright.
In 1961, the Public House which started the whole history of the Theatre Royal way back in 1730, the White Swan, was demolished. And in 1965 Essoldo announced that it didn't intend to renew its licence for the performance of plays at the Theatre Royal and applied instead for a Bingo Licence, but this was refused. Instead, in 1967 Norwich City Council purchased the Theatre from Essoldo for £90,000 with the idea of turning it into a multi purpose Civic Theatre but they dropped this idea in 1969. Instead the following year, 1970, the Theatre was closed for refurbishment and reconstruction by the Norwich City Architect's Department who modernised and extended the building and added a new dressing room block. The Theatre reopened in 1972 with a one night Gala featuring the Royal Festival Ballet performing 'The Nutcracker'.
Right - A photograph showing the damage to the Theatre Royal, Norwich in June 1934 - Courtesy Maria Andrew, Archivist at the Theatre Royal, Norwich.
In 1972 the former Church Hall, opposite the Royal's stage door, which had been being used as a rehearsal room, was converted into a 200 seat Theatre.
In 1989 an appeal was started for funds to renovate the Theatre Royal but by March 1990 the Theatre had closed and the Chairman of the Theatre Royal's Trust had resigned. The position was taken up by Sir James Cleminson in October and by January 1991 all the old members of the Trust had resigned and a new Trust was created with a new board of 11 members to run it. Work on the renovation of the Theatre was finally started in December the same year and included a new fly tower, extended wing space, and a new extension to the West Wing of the Theatre for offices and a function room. The Front of House was redecorated, and the auditorium was redecorated as well, in a new blue and gold colour scheme. The architect for the refurbishment was Jim Meering of Norwich City Council. The Theatre reopened on the 16th of November 1992 with a Concert by the Syd Lawrence Orchestra.
Above - The Theatre Royal, Norwich during the run of the Christmas pantomime 'Aladdin' in 1981 - Courtesy Maria Andrew, Archivist at the Theatre Royal, Norwich
In 2007 further modernisation of the Theatre Royal included the joining of the building to Dencora House next door which extended the FOH facilities and reshaped the whole of the frontage and spaces within, enabling a new restaurant, bars, sales areas, and toilet facilities to be added to the Theatre. At the same time the auditorium was fitted with a Carmen Electronic Architecture system which upgraded the acoustics of the Theatre to a Concert Hall standard. The auditorium seating was also replaced with red seating and the ventilation system was renewed. The architect for all this work was Tim Foster of Tim Foster Associates.
Left - The Theatre Royal, Norwich in 1967 during the run of 'Song of Norway' - Courtesy Maria Andrew, Archivist at the Theatre Royal, Norwich.
The Theatre Royal, Norwich celebrated its 250th anniversary on the 31st of January 2008 and is one of the Country's oldest established Theatres. Many well known acts have played the Theatre Royal over the years, including the Drury Lane comedian Ching Lau Lauro, William Charles Macready, Charles Kean , Tom Thumb and his wife (Mr and Mrs Stratton), Paganini, Donald Sinden, Bernard Cribbins, The Bolshoi Ballet, and countless others.
Some of the history for the Theatre Royal on this page was written using details from the Theatre's own website, with kind permission the Theatre Royal, Norwich. Archive newspaper reports were collated and sent in for inclusion by B.F.
You may like to visit the Theatre's own website here.
If you have any more information or images for this Theatre that you are willing to share please Contact me.
Above - A Google Streetview image of the Maddermarket Theatre, Norwich - Click to Interact
The Maddermarket Theatre, Norwich opened in 1921 and was a conversion from a former chapel which had been built in 1794. The chapel had seen various uses over its later years but when it was spotted by Nugent Monk he thought it would be an excellent home for his 'Norwich Players' amateur theatre company.
The original plan was to turn the chapel into a recreation of an Elizabethan Theatre with a thrust stage but lack of funds meant a compromise of an end stage had to be fitted instead. Over the years however, the Maddermarket has had a number of extensions and improvements, including the addition of a thrust stage as originally planned, and today the Theatre stages more performances than at any previous time. The Theatre is a Grade II Listed building and is also home to professional tours and concerts.
You may like to visit the Theatre's own website here, which has a more detailed history on the building and the Norwich Players.
Later - ABC / Cannon Cinema
Above - A Google Streetview image of the former Regent Theatre, Norwich today - Click to Interact
The Regent Theatre opened on the 3rd of December 1923 and was designed by the architects G. Duncan Fitt with J. Owen Bond. The Theatre was built as a cine variety Theatre and had a raked stage of 30 foot width and 25 foot depth, a fly tower, and three dressing rooms. The auditorium had a plastered barrel vaulted ceiling and was set on two levels, stalls and one circle, with boxes either side at stalls level, and could accommodate some 1,800 people. The frontage of the building and its main entrance was set into a terrace with two shops, one on either either side, all of which can still be seen today. There was also a cafe and a ballroom attached to the Theatre.
The Regent was taken over by ABC in July 1929 but not renamed the ABC until 1961. The auditorium however was altered in 1939 and now had a slightly smaller seating capacity of 1, 523.
In 1973 the Theatre was tripled with one screen in the former circle and two more in the former stalls, and a few years later a video cinema was opened in the former cafe in 1978, and would later go on to show film instead.
The Theatre was taken over by the Cannon Cinema chain in 1986 but closed in the late 1990s when the interior was gutted and converted for nightclub use, opening in September 2003 as the 'Mercy' nightclub, a name it still has in 2012, although it is now marketed as Mercy XS. The building was subject to a £2 million revamp in 2011 when it was converted into four separate venues including a VIP lounge and cafe but the shape of the auditorium is still visible in the main space, and the circle is clearly that of the former Theatre.
If you have any more information or images for this Theatre that you are willing to share please Contact me.
Formerly - The Grand Opera House / The Norfolk Playhouse
Above - An early postcard showing the Grand Opera House, Norwich, later the Norwich Hippodrome - Courtesy Maurice Friedman, British Music hall Society.
The Norwich Hippodrome that some people may still remember today was constructed on St. Giles Street on the site of the former Norfolk Hotel. The Theatre originally opened as the Grand Opera House on the 3rd of August 1903 with a production of 'The Country Girl'. The Theatre was built for Fred Morgan, who had previously been Lease Holder of the Theatre Royal, Norwich since 1885.
The Theatre was first proposed in 1899 and its architect was to have been Ernest Runtz whose drawing and some details of its design can be seen below. However, the Theatre was eventually erected to the designs of the well known Theatre Architect, W. G. R. Sprague as an opera house and playhouse with a seating capacity of 1,836.
Above - Ernest Runtz's original 1899 design for the Norwich Grand Opera House - From the Building News and Engineering Journal of October 1899. The Theatre was eventually constructed to the designs of W. G. R. Sprague in 1903.
The Building News and Engineering Journal reported on Ernest Runtz's proposed Theatre in their October 20th 1899 edition saying:- 'This theatre, which is to be erected in St. Giles's, Norwich, on the site of the old Norfolk Hotel, which has been pulled down for the purpose of such erection will occupy about two-thirds of the site, and will accommodate between 2,000 and 2,500 persons; the remainder of the site will be occupied by a first-class restaurant and buffet.
The front main wall of the theatre will be set back from the main frontage of St. Giles's about 58ft., and will have a semicircular carriage sweep in and out, as shown on perspective. The theatre will be constructed on fireproof principles throughout, and the main front will be of white stone with richly-carved figures. Ample means of ingress and egress have been provided, and every modern principle has been employed in the designing of the building. The stalls and pit will be below, and the crush-room and circle will be upon a level with the street. There will also be an amphitheatre and gallery, and efficient saloon accommodation will be provided to all parts of the house.
The cloak-rooms, retiring rooms, and sanitary arrangements will be of the most modern and up-to-date kind. The building will be lighted throughout by electricity, and the decorations, furniture, and equipment will all be carried out from the designs, and under the superintence of, the architects, Messrs. Ernest Runtz and Co., of Walbrook. E.C.'
The above text in quotes was first published in the Building News and Engineering Journal, October 20th 1899. The article mentions Ernest Runtz as the proposed architect but his plan was never used and the Theatre was eventually designed by the Architect W.G.R. Sprague and opened in 1903.
In July 1903 the Building News and Engineering Journal reported on the near completion of the now Sprague designed Theatre saying:- 'The Grand Opera House, now in course of completion in St. Giles's and Goat-lane, will be opened on Monday, August 3, in the presence of the Mayor of Norwich (Lieut. -Colonel Harvey). It is a curious coincidence that a Colonel Harvey, who was then High Sheriff, opened the old Theatre Royal in Theatre-street, built from designs by William Wilkins, on March 27, 1826.
Mr. W. S. R. Sprague, of Arundel-street, Strand, W.C., is the architect, and Messrs. Langden and Sons, Limited, of Sheffield, are the contractors for the new Opera House, which has a stone and cement elevation of Italian character facing St. Giles's-street.
The entrance steps of the vestibule stand back 40ft. from the road. The vestibule, 27ft. by 8ft. 6in., leads into the grand crushroom, which is 30ft. by 20ft. There are four private boxes and numerous stalls. Over the pit is the dress circle, above that the balcony, and then the gallery. Each tier is cut off from the one beneath it by a fireproof floor of cement and concrete, and the stage is separated from the theatre by a fire-resisting curtain of steel and asbestos, the stage is 70ft. by 40ft., and 50ft. high to the " grid."
At the Goat-lane end, in a block quite separate from the theatre, are the dressing- rooms, twelve in number. Under the theatre itself, in addition to the stage-cellar, are rooms for electrician, transformer's-room, gas man's room, band-room, property-rooms, &c.
From the grand saloon at the front of the house a promenade opens over the St. Giles's frontage, forming a balcony 14ft. in width. The theatre is lit by electricity, and the paving in the vestibule, grand crushroom, and lavatories is to be of terrazzo, and elsewhere it will be granolithic.'
The above text in quotes was first published in the Building News and Engineering Journal, July 24th 1903.
W. G. R. Sprague's redesigned Theatre opened as the Grand Opera House on the 3rd of August 1903 with a production of 'The Country Girl'. Fred Morgan, who had previously been the Lease holder of the Theatre Royal since 1885, left that Theatre to run the Grand Opera House for its opening in 1903. The following year however, the Opera House was bought by Bostock and Fitt and renamed the New Hippodrome, for a new life staging variety, and Fred Morgan returned as Lease holder of the Theatre Royal again.
Right - A Poster for a twice nightly variety show called 'All Smiles' at the Norwich Hippodrome for the week beginning September the 12th 1927 - Courtesy Stephen Wischhusen. On the Bill were Teddie Stream, Johnny Clegg, Marjorie Lawrence, Arthur Goddard, Lawrence Edgley, the Ten Ohio Syncopators, Florence Le Roy, Billie Holmes, Nina Norre, Gladys Carlton, Edward Copus, and the Twelve All Smiles Girls.
Variety continued at the Hippodrome until 1930 when ABC took over the Theatre and used it as a Cinema. This policy continued until September 1937 when live shows were reintroduced at the Theatre.
The Hippodrome then housed revues for some years, and stayed open even during the early years of the war, but it had to close in April 1942 when it was the victim of a direct hit which killed the Theatre's manager and his wife, and a sea lion trainer.
After repairs the Theatre did reopen but the gallery remained closed for a number of years afterwards.
Above - Two 1950s Posters for the Norwich Hippodrome - Courtesy David Garratt
After the war the Hippodrome continued with variety shows and Christmas Pantomimes and was not finally fully repaired until 1958. After which it reopened as repertory Theatre and was renamed The Norfolk Playhouse but this was not successful and it then went though a faltering period of live theatre and cinema use under the Hippodrome name for two years until it was closed on the 27th of April 1960.
The Theatre then stood derelict for a number of years until it was eventually demolished in 1964 and the site was used for the building of a multi storey car park in 1966.
A visitor to this site has kindly sent in a photograph of the Cast of 'The Red Lamp' posing for a photograph outside the Norwich Hippodrome in January 1930 which can be seen below.
If you have any more information or images for this Theatre that you are willing to share please Contact me.
Above - The Cast of 'The Red Lamp' pose for a photograph outside the Norwich Hippodrome in January 1930 - Courtesy Peter Lawson whose grandfather, Billy Lawson, pictured 3rd row from the back in a white coat, was a stage artist in variety shows during the late 1920s and early 1930s. The photograph and programme page below are from from his involvement with 'The Red Lamp' written by Wal Langtry. The programme however, is from the Birmingham Grand Theatre production of 'The Red Lamp' in 1928.
Above - A page from a programme for 'The Red Lamp' in 1928 at the Grand Theatre, Birmingham - Courtesy Peter Lawson whose grandfather Billy Lawson, was in the production and is shown in the cast photograph above.
You may find the following pages from this site of interest: