Historian Mark Fox traces the colourful past of professional playhouses in the UK
The very first performers were minstrels and travelling players who passed the hat round wherever they were able to find an audience. It was in the Elizabethan era that purpose-built venues were first created, making drama into a commercial business.
In June 2020 it was announced that builders discovered the site of the first known English playhouse - The Red Lion in Whitechapel, London. Opened in 1567 and built by John Brayne it was named after the drinking establishment next door which was key to its success.
This was the first golden age of theatre, when Jonson, Marlowe and Shakespeare provided plays for acting companies supported by Noble and Royal patronage. The modern reconstruction of The Globe Theatre on London’s Southbank provides some idea of what the live experience would have been like.
The second great age followed King Charles II’s restoration when in 1663 he granted patents to present legitimate drama including what became Theatre Royal Drury Lane, the oldest theatre site in the United Kingdom still in use. It is not the oldest building as the current venue, itself undergoing a major renovation this year, is the fourth on the site and opened in 1812.
The Georgian era saw a great boost in the theatre industry through royal patronage. The Bristol Old Vic opened in 1766 making it the oldest continually working theatre building in the English-speaking world. The Georgian Theatre in Richmond, Yorkshire is the UK’s oldest working theatre in its original state, a square auditorium with the walls lined with boxes, having opened in 1788. The Theatre Royal in Margate dates from 1787 and was home to the first acting school in the United Kingdom while Bath Theatre Royal (1805) and London’s Old Vic (1818) are both fine theatres from the period that were still operating successfully until COVID-19 enforced their closure.
The biggest theatre building boom was in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras which saw massive population and wealth growth allowing commercial operators to take advantage of the desire for mass entertainment.
The biggest theatre building boom was in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras when population growth gave commercial operators the opportunity to provide mass entertainment by building chains of theatres across the country. Chains of theatres sprang up across the country, the largest by Sir Edward Moss and Sir Oswald Stoll, built by famous architects like CJ Phipps, WG Sprague, Bertie Crewe and Frank Matcham. These might be playhouses with their own repertory companies or larger music halls, variety or opera houses hosting different travelling companies each week. This meant there was a lot of work available for performers but only the biggest stars received large wages and “turns” were responsible for providing their own wardrobes, travel and accommodation.
About a third of this building stock was lost in the 1960s and ’70s, which is what led to the formation of the Theatres Trust in 1976 to protect the UK’s theatre buildings.
Post-war was the age of subsidy when local councils built their own smaller theatres to serve the community. The advent of the National Lottery saw theatres benefitting with major building renovations bringing old theatre stock up to modern standards and adding revenue opportunities with new café and bar facilities.
Who can tell what the future holds for the UK’s theatres? Fingers crossed for all concerned that performances will be able to begin again in the near future and audiences will return to auditorium across the country.
Theatre historian Mark Fox is chair of the Frank Matcham Society and Friend of the Theatres Trust. More in-depth look at theatre design over time can be found at www.theatrestrust.org.uk
* This article is part of The Show Must Go On, JPIMedia's campaign to support live arts venues