The Old Vic

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The Old Vic
Royal Coburg Theatre
Royal Victorian Theatre
Royal Victoria Hall and Coffee Tavern
Waterloo the old vic 1.jpg
The exterior of the Old Vic from the corner of Baylis Road and Waterloo Road
Address The Cut
Lambeth, London
United Kingdom
Coordinates 51°30′08″N 0°06′35″W / 51.5022°N 0.1096°W / 51.5022; -0.1096
Owner Old Vic Theatre Trust
Chief Executive Sally Greene
Designation Grade II* listed
Type Non-profit Producing Theatre
Artistic Director Kevin Spacey
Capacity 1,067
Production Noises Off (Dec 2011-)
Opened 1818
Rebuilt 1871 J T Robinson
1880/1902 Elijah Hoole
1922/1927 by Frank Matcham
1933-8 F Green and Co
1950 Pierre Sonrel
1960 Sean Kenny[1]
1983 Renton, Howard, Wood and Levine.
Architect Rudolphe Cabanel of Aachen
Old Vic official website

The Old Vic is a theatre located just south-east of Waterloo Station in London on the corner of The Cut and Waterloo Road. Established in 1818 as the Royal Coburg Theatre, it was taken over by Emma Cons in 1880 when it was known formally as the Royal Victoria Hall. In 1898, a niece of Cons, Lilian Baylis assumed management and began a series of Shakespeare productions in 1914. The building was damaged in 1940 during air raids and it became a Grade II* listed building in 1951 after it reopened.[2]

It was also the name of a repertory company that was based at the theatre. The company formed the core of the National Theatre of Great Britain on its formation in 1963, under Laurence Olivier. The National Theatre remained at the Old Vic until new premises were constructed on the South Bank, opening in 1976. It underwent complete refurbishment in 1985. In 2004 American actor Kevin Spacey was appointed as new artistic director of the Old Vic Theatre Company which received considerable media attention.[3]



Royal Coburg Theatre in 1822

The theatre was founded in 1818 by James King and Daniel Dunn (formerly managers of the Surrey Theatre in Bermondsey), and John Thomas Serres, then Marine painter to the King who managed to secure the formal patronage of Princess Charlotte and her husband Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg naming the theatre the Royal Coburg Theatre. The theatre was a "minor" theatre (as opposed to one of the two patent theatres) and was thus technically forbidden to show serious drama. Nevertheless, when the theatre passed to George Bolwell Davidge in 1824 he succeeded in bringing legendary actor Edmund Kean south of the river to play six Shakespeare plays in six nights. The theatre's role in bringing high art to the masses was confirmed when Kean addressed the audience during his curtain call saying "I have never acted to such a set of ignorant, unmitigated brutes as I see before me." More popular staples in the repertoire were "sensational and violent" melodramas demonstrating the evils of drink, "churned out by the house dramatist", confirmed teetotaller Douglas Jerrold.[4]

When Davidge left to take over the Surrey Theatre in 1833 it was bought by Daniel Egerton and William Abbot who tried to capitalise on the abolition of the legal distinction between patent and minor theatres, enacted in Parliament earlier that year.[5] On 1 July 1834 the theatre was renamed the Royal Victoria Theatre, under the "protection and patronage" of Victoria, Duchess of Kent, mother to Princess Victoria, the 14-year-old heir presumptive. The duchess and the princess visited only once, on 14 November of that year, but enjoyed the performance, of light opera and dance, in the "pretty...clean and comfortable" theatre. The single visit scarcely justified the "Old Vic" its later billing as "Queen Victoria's Own Theayter".[5][6] In 1880, under the ownership of Emma Cons to whom there are plaques outside & inside the theatre, it became The Royal Victoria Hall And Coffee Tavern and was run on "strict temperance lines"; by this time it was already known as the "Old Vic".[7] The penny lectures given in the hall led to the foundation of Morley College,[8] an adult education college, that moved to its own premises nearby, in the 1920s.

Old Vic company[edit]

The theatre at night

With Emma Cons's death in 1912 the theatre passed to her niece Lilian Baylis, who emphasised the Shakespearean repertoire. The Old Vic Company was established in 1929, led by Sir John Gielgud. Between 1925 and 1931, Lilian Baylis championed the re-building of the then-derelict Sadler's Wells Theatre, and established a ballet company under the direction of Dame Ninette de Valois. For a few years the drama and ballet companies rotated between the two theatres, with the ballet becoming permanently based at Sadler's Wells in 1935.

Wartime exile[edit]

The Old Vic was damaged badly during the Blitz, and the war-depleted company spent all its time touring, based in Burnley, Lancashire at the Victoria Theatre during the years 1940 to 1943. In 1944, the company was re-established in London with Ralph Richardson and Laurence Olivier as its stars, performing mainly at the New Theatre (now the Noël Coward Theatre) until the Old Vic was ready to re-open in 1950. In 1946, an offshoot of the company was established in Bristol as the Bristol Old Vic.

National Theatre company[edit]

In 1963, the Old Vic company was dissolved and the new National Theatre Company, under the artistic direction of Lord Olivier, was based at the Old Vic until its own building was opened on the South Bank near Waterloo Bridge in 1976.

Staircase of the Old Vic

In July 1974 the Old Vic presented a rock concert for the first time. National Theatre director Sir Peter Hall arranged for the progressive folk-rock band Gryphon to première Midnight Mushrumps, the fantasia inspired by Hall's own 1974 Old Vic production of The Tempest starring John Gielgud for which Gryphon had supplied the music.


After the departure of the NT, the Old Vic continued as a home for classic and new drama, and was significantly restored under the ownership of Toronto department-store entrepreneur 'Honest Ed' Mirvish in 1985. In 1998, the building was bought by a new charitable trust, The Old Vic Theatre Trust 2000. In 2000, the production company Criterion Productions was renamed Old Vic Productions plc, though relatively few of its productions are at the Old Vic theatre.

In 2003, actor Kevin Spacey was appointed as new artistic director of the Old Vic Theatre Company receiving considerable media attention. Spacey said he wanted to inject new life into the British theatre industry, and bring British and American theatrical talent to the stage. He appears in one or two shows per season, and performs some directorial duties on other shows.[9]

Current developments[edit]

The Old Vic Tunnels[edit]

In February 2010, The Old Vic acquired a new sister performance space beneath London Waterloo station; a series of cavernous tunnels formerly owned by British Rail. Now operating under the artistic direction of Hamish Jenkinson, this venue plays host to productions, performances and installations. The Old Vic Tunnels was presented the Big Society Award by David Cameron in 2011.[10]

Artists in Residence scheme[edit]

There was an Artist in Residence Scheme with a resident photographer, graffiti artist, designer, and filmmaker. In 2011 The Old Vic appointed German film director Grigorij Richters and producer Alex Souabni as their filmmakers-in-residence. During that time they developed their feature film 51 Degrees with the help of Hamish Jenkinson who later came on board as the Executive Producer on the film and Brian May became the composer.[11][12][13][14][15][16] The film will have its first private screening at the 2014 Starmus Festival which will feature Speakers such as Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins and Brian May.[17][18]

Old Vic New Voices[edit]

Old Vic New Voices is the education, community and emerging talent programme of The Old Vic. It aims to discover and nurture emerging actors, writers, producers and directors and draw more diverse audiences into the theatre. The director is Steve Winter. A parallel project, OVNV New York, has been set up in New York.[19]


  1. ^ Staff. "Kenny, Sean, 1932–1973.". National Art Library Catalogue. Victoria and Albert Museum. Retrieved 11 January 2009. 
  2. ^ English Heritage listing details 28 Apr 2007
  3. ^ "Spacey 'to run Old Vic'". BBC News. February 3, 2003. Retrieved March 9, 2014. 
  4. ^ Frick, John W. (2003). Theatre, culture and temperance reform in nineteenth-century America. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. p. 86. ISBN 978-0-521-81778-3. 
  5. ^ a b Rowell, George Presbury (1993). The Old Vic Theatre: a history. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. pp. 26–29. ISBN 0-521-34625-8. 
  6. ^ Newton, Henry Chance (1923). The Old Vic. and its associations; : being my own extraordinary experiences of "Queen Victoria's own theayter". London: Fleetway Press. OCLC 150444870. 
  7. ^ 'The Royal Victoria Hall – "The Old Vic"', Survey of London: volume 23: Lambeth: South Bank and Vauxhall (1951), pp. 37–9 accessed: 28 April 2007.
  8. ^ An endowment from the estate of Samuel Morley led to the creation of the Morley Memorial College for Working Men and Women on the premises, these were shared and lectures were given back stage, and in the theatre dressing rooms.
  9. ^ "Spacey to lead Old Vic theatre". CNN. 5 February 2003. Retrieved 15 February 2012. 
  10. ^ "The Old Vic Tunnels win Prime Minister's Award". British Prime Minister's Office. 18 February 2011. 
  11. ^ "The Old Vic Tunnels Artists in Residence"., Website. 
  12. ^ "Kevin Spacey collects Big Society award for Old Vic Tunnels". London-SE1, Website. 
  13. ^ Brian May IMDB
  14. ^ Brian May's Official Blog
  15. ^ Italian QUEEN fan site
  16. ^ QUEEN fan forum
  17. ^ Starmus announces 51 Degrees
  18. ^ Starmus announces Stephen Hawking
  19. ^ "Old Vic New Voices". Bermondsey, London: Ideas Tap. Retrieved 12 January 2012. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Guide to British Theatres 1750–1950, John Earl and Michael Sell pp. 128–9 (Theatres Trust, 2000) ISBN 0-7136-5688-3

External links[edit]