Theatre Royal, Bath

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Theatre Royal
Theatre Royal, Bath.jpg
The entrance from Sawclose which was added in 1863
Theatre Royal is located in Somerset
Theatre Royal
Theatre Royal
Shown within Somerset
Address Sawclose, Bath, BA1 1ET
Coordinates 51°22′56″N 2°21′46″W / 51.3821°N 2.3629°W / 51.3821; -2.3629
Designation Listed Building Grade II*
Type Provincial
Capacity 900
Opened 1805
Rebuilt 1863
Architect John Palmer,
George Dance,
Thomas Greenway

The Theatre Royal in Bath, England, was built in 1805. It is a Grade II* listed building and one of the more important theatres in the United Kingdom outside London, with capacity for an audience of around 900.

It was built to replace the Old Orchard Street Theatre, funded by a Tontine and elaborately decorated. The architect was George Dance the Younger with John Palmer carrying out much of the work. Initially successful receipts fell during the first half of the 19th century. A major fire in 1862 destroyed the interior of the building and was quickly followed by a rebuilding programme, by Charles J. Phipps, including the construction of the current entrance. Further redecoration was undertaken in 1892 and more extensive building work including a new staircase and the installation of electric lighting was carried out in 1902. Despite performances by some of the leading actors of the day the theatre was rarely very profitable.

In 1979 the theatre was bought by a trust and another refurbishment undertaken following public donations. This included rebuilding the stage and installing a new taller fly tower for scenery and lighting. In 1997 a new 150 seat theatre, known as the Ustinov Studio was opened. Further restoration work to the main auditorium was needed in 2010. In 2005 a children's theatre known as the egg was opened. The complex also includes bars and restaurants.


The original entrance from Beauford Square. The fly tower which was added in 1980 can be seen above the façade.


The theatre was erected in 1805, replacing the Old Orchard Street Theatre which had obtained a royal patent in 1768 enabling the use of the title 'Theatre Royal'; the first to achieve this outside London.[1][2] The Orchard Street site became a church and is now a Freemason's Hall.[3] The new theatre was first proposed in 1802 and several sites in Bath were suggested. The eventual site was chosen in 1804 and funding for it raised by the use of a Tontine, an investment plan that is named after the Neapolitan banker Lorenzo de Tonti, who is credited with inventing it in France in 1653. It combines features of a group annuity and a lottery. Each subscriber pays an agreed sum into the fund, and thereafter receives an annuity. As members die, their shares devolve to the other participants, and so the value of each annuity increases. On the death of the last member, the scheme is wound up. Shares which cost £200 were rapidly purchased with the prince regent who later became George IV and his bother Prince Frederick among the subscribers.[4] A similar scheme had previously been used for the construction of the Bath Assembly Rooms.[5]

The exterior of the building, with arches, pilasters, garlands and ornaments, which is visible from Beauford Square, was designed by George Dance the Younger who also designed the decorative sections of the interior. The main fabric of the building was by John Palmer who supervised the construction.[6][7] The ceiling was decorated with panels from Fonthill Splendens a mile from Fonthill Abbey,[8] which were painted by Andrea Casali and donated to the theatre by Paul Cobb Methuen.[9] Because of the potential damage from the gas lights, which were installed in 1827, the paintings were moved by William Blathwayt to Dyrham Park.[10][11][12]

The opening night was on 12 October 1805 with a performance of Richard III, with an unknown actor in the lead, and was not a success however the theatre soon established a good reputation and thriving business under the management of William Wyatt Dimond. Early performances included appearances by the child actors Master Betty and Clara Fisher, with adult leads from leading actors on the London stage including Dorothea Jordan, William Macready and Edmund Kean. In addition to Shakespeare and other serious drama, the productions included opera and comedy with Joseph Grimaldi playing the clown in a pantomime of Mother Goose in November 1815.[13]

The auditorium of the Theatre Royal in 1864 during a meeting of the British Association. First published in the Illustrated London News

Between the 1810s and 1850s there were a series of changes in ownership and management. These coincided with a Puritan revival, and a fall in Bath's popularity leading to a fall in receipts and combined with rising payments for actors from London, meant that the theatre underwent financial crises and fell into a period of decline. Fortunes began to improve when James Henry Chute, who was the manager of the Bath Assembly Rooms and the son-in-law of the owner Mrs Macready,[14] took over as the manager of the theatre and once again audiences began to rise.[15]

Fire and rebuilding[edit]

On 18 April 1862 a major fire destroyed the interior of the building including the stage, scenery, wardrobe and library leaving just the exterior walls still standing.[16] A new company was formed to rebuild the theatre and a competition held for designs. The winner was C J Phipps and rebuilding, which included the new entrance on Sawclose, started quickly.[17][18] The present main entrance to the Theatre Royal, in Sawclose, was built in 1720 by Thomas Greenway, and was previously Beau Nash's house.[19][20][21] Pevsner criticizes the mouldings of window-frames and of frieze and the volutes of the brackets of the door-hood as "characteristically overdone", and mentions Wood remarking on its "profuse ornament" and on how it was typical of a mason rather than an architect.[22] Chute remained as manager and employed Charles Kean and Ellen Terry to play in A Midsummer Night's Dream on the opening night, 3 March 1863.[23][24]

Initially the reopened theatre struggled to become profitable despite appearances by Henry Irving among others. In 1885 William Lewis took over as the lessee and was followed, in 1892, by his son Egbert Lewis. They redecorated the theatre in 1892 and attracted larger regular audiences to performances of melodrama and comedy while starting to put on Gilbert and Sullivan operas and other attractions.[25]

20th century[edit]

In 1902 the theatre closed for nine months to enable extensive building work to be carried out to comply with the terms of the Royal Charter which needed to be renewed. This involved a new staircase, the installation of electric lighting and a new fire curtain along with installation of hot water radiators throughout the auditorium. In 1905, the anniversary of the opening of the Theatre Royal, performances of many of William Shakespeare's play by the company of actors lead by Frank Benson were included.[26]

In 1914 the theatre impresario Arthur Carlton from Worcester took over the lease. He had 14 theatres around the country and appointed Mrs D. Valantine Munro as the local manager. Performances were maintained during World War I and, in 1916, included an appearance by Sarah Bernhardt as a wounded male French soldier in Du Théâtre au Champ d'Honneur. In the 1920s performances included the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova and appearances by Mrs. Patrick Campbell.[27] During the Great Depression of the 1930s the theatre was not profitable and closed completely for six months. In 1938 the lease was taken over by Reg Maddox, whose family were involved with the theatre for the next 40 years. During World War II the theatre did better with Donald Wolfit, Irene Vanbrugh, John Gielgud and Sybil Thorndike among the better known actors appearing. During the 1950s and 1960s audiences declined because of the growth in cinema attendance and the arrival of television. As a result, the theatre again lost money.[28] Unsuccessful proposals were made for a trust to run the theatre in 1968 and in the 1970s shares in the owning company were bought by the property developer Charles Ware and then sold to Charles Clarke a solicitor from Bristol. He organised redecoration of the building, however profits were still small and in 1976 it was sold to Louis I. Michaels who ran the Haymarket Theatre in London who owned it until 1979.[29]

In March 1979 the dilapidated theatre was purchased by a trust headed by the inventor, engineer, entrepreneur, adventurer and arts patron Jeremy Fry for £155,000.[30][31] The following year an appeal was launched to raise money for renovations including the complete rebuilding of the stage, installation of a steel grid above the stage to hold lighting and scenary and a higher Fly system, to allow major touring companies, including the Royal National Theatre under Peter Hall to be booked to perform. The total projected cost was £3.5 million of which £1.8 million was seen as being essential to reopening the theatre. Money and donations in kind were received from the city council, Arts Council England, Bath Preservation Trust, Leche Trust, Historic buildings council, Manifold Trust, South-West Stonecleaning and Restoration Company and many individuals. Work on the building started to designs by Dowton and Hurst,[20] however insufficient funds had been raised by 1982 for the full work and loans were negotiated with the Bristol & West and Lombard North Central, which were guaranteed by local councils to enable the rest of the work to be undertaken. The theatre reopened on 30 November 1982 with a performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream with a cast from the National Theatre lead by Paul Scofield which was attended by Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon.[32]

2010 refurbishment[edit]

The theatre in 2015

In October 2009, the '2010 Refurbishment Appeal' was launched by Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, Royal Patron of the Theatre Royal Bath, to raise money for a programme of work to preserve the Theatre Royal's 200-year-old building, while ensuring that it remained suitable for 21st century audiences.[33] The £3million refurbishment, the most extensive programme of work since the Theatre had been saved from virtual collapse almost 30 years before, by the Theatre's then Chairman Jeremy Fry, would include an expanded foyer; improved lift and other disabled access to the Stalls and Royal Circle levels;[34] complete refurbishment of the bars and the creation of a new bar, The Jeremy Fry Bar, in the former cellars of The Garrick's Head pub, and redecoration of the auditorium.[35] Technical improvements would include the rebuilding of the Main House stage, and an extensive rewiring and lighting programme around the entire building, with new fire alarm systems, air-conditioning and lighting, all designed to improve the building's efficiency and reduce the carbon footprint by some 30%.[36] The design was by architects of the Fielden Clegg Bradley Studios, and construction firm Midas were contracted to complete the building work.[37]

A successful campaign, led by writer and novelist Bel Mooney, who had been instrumental in previous fund-raising campaigns for the Theatre Royal Bath, saw almost a third of the money raised through donations and sponsorship,[36] enabling work to begin away from public areas in March 2010. The Theatre's Main House was closed in July 2010, to allow the work on the foyer, bars and auditorium to be completed.

The official re-opening took place on Wednesday 8 September 2010, just 10 and a half months after the original campaign was launched, with the building work being completed on schedule. The ceremonial re-opening was performed on-stage by actors Penelope Keith and Peter Bowles,[38] who were starring in the Theatre Royal's own production of 'The Rivals', Richard Brinsley Sheridan's classic Restoration comedy, set in and around 18th century Bath. In 2011, the Theatre won a British Construction Industry Award Conservation Award.[39]

The theatre itself is said to be haunted by several ghosts including The Grey Lady, who was an actress centuries ago. She has been seen watching productions in the Grey Lady Box, and she leaves the distinctive scent of Jasmine. She has been seen and scented in recent years.[40][41]


The Garrick's Head on St John's Close

The theatre, along with the neighbouring Garrick's Head public house, is a Grade II* listed building[42] and is considered a prime example of Georgian architecture.[43] The oldest part of the building is the former Garrick's Head on St John's Close. The three storey five bay building, with a basement, has a hipped roof with a part-balustraded parapet. Above the door is a bust of David Garrick which was made in 1831 by Lucius Gahagan. The Beauford Square side of the building originally designed by George Dance the Younger is of five bays with pilasters carrying a frieze of comic and tragic muses.[20] The central door was the main entrance with those on either side for the pit and galleries.[44] The east front which opens onto Sawclose and is now the main entrance was altered from a plain six bay entrance by the addition of the round arched foyer hiding four of the original bays. The auditorium has tiers of ornate plasterwork, with red and gilt decoration, and a Trompe-l'œil ceiling and glittering chandelier. It has three galleries in a horseshoe plan supported by cast iron pillars.[20]

The Ustinov Studio[edit]

Frontage of the Ustinov Studio

In 1997 a studio theatre was built at the rear of the building on Monmouth Street, called The Ustinov Studio, named after the actor Peter Ustinov.[45] The front of the building is decorated with a bronze winged figure which was designed by his son, Igor Ustinov, entitled Hopefully.[44] The 150 seat auditorium was originally a space for the youth theatre and small-scale touring productions, the Ustinov programme soon expanded to encompass classical concerts, stand-up comedy (including high-profile acts such as Bill Bailey, Stewart Lee and Lucy Porter) and in-house productions. To accommodate the technical needs of these productions, a refurbishment was planned to take place throughout 2007, improving the backstage & technical facilities, the foyer, bar and auditorium. The Ustinov Studio re-opened in February 2008, with their own production of Breakfast With Mugabe starring Joseph Marcell, Miles Anderson and Nicholas Bailey.[46]

It is currently under Artistic Director Laurence Boswell. In the 2012 American Season at the Ustinov Studio, Sarah Ruhl's In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) was the winner of the Best New Play — Theatre Awards UK 2012 and nominated for three Tony Awards.[47][48] The Ustinov Studio was also nominated for the prestigious Empty Space ... Peter Brook Award 2012.[49] The Daily Telegraph's Dominic Cavendish praised the venue as a "constantly bubbling fount of marvels" at the awards ceremony. The Ustinov also received a second consecutive nomination for the 2013 awards.[50]

In Autumn 2013, the Ustinov presented The Spanish Golden Age Season, three new translations of rarely seen plays, the tragedy Punishment without Revenge and romantic comedies Don Gil of the Green Breeches and A Lady of Little Sense, which ran in repertory with a cast of ten actors in all three plays, between September and December 2013 - this later transferred to the Arcola Theatre.[51]

The egg theatre[edit]

The front doors of the egg

In 2005 another new theatre was opened behind the Theatre Royal, the egg, which is a children's theatre, providing professional theatre productions for children and their families, alongside workshops and youth theatre productions.[52] It includes the egg Cafe, a family friendly cafe, which is also the venue for children's and family events, and occasional teenage arts events.


The Theatre's Vaults Restaurant provides pre-show dinners and matinée lunches, and a suite of rooms (The 1805 Rooms) are available for functions. The Theatre Royal is also licensed to host weddings & civil partnership ceremonies.[53]


Alongside the weekly touring productions which make up the majority of the Theatre Royal's programme, the Theatre Royal is host to several festivals each year, including the Family Theatre Festival, the Shakespeare Unplugged festival and, between 2003 & 2011, the Peter Hall Company Season.[54] Many plays start at the Theatre Royal before their official opening in London.[55]


  1. ^ "History". Theatre Royal. Retrieved 13 February 2011. 
  2. ^ Lowndes 1982, p. 22.
  3. ^ Lowndes 1982, pp. 33–34.
  4. ^ Lowndes 1982, p. 35.
  5. ^ Knowles, Rachel. "The Upper Assembly Rooms, Bath". Regency History. Retrieved 14 December 2013. 
  6. ^ Gadd 1971, p. 144.
  7. ^ Lowndes 1982, p. 36.
  8. ^ "Theatre Royal (ii) (Bath)". Theatre Trust. Retrieved 18 October 2015. 
  9. ^ Harris 2007, p. 17.
  10. ^ Lowndes 1982, p. 37.
  11. ^ "Immortality presiding over the Arts". National Trust. Retrieved 18 October 2015. 
  12. ^ "The Personification of History Writing on the Back of Time". Your paintings. BBC. Retrieved 18 October 2015. 
  13. ^ Lowndes 1982, pp. 37–43.
  14. ^ Swindells & Taylor 2014, p. 579.
  15. ^ Lowndes 1982, pp. 44–49.
  16. ^ "Destruction of Bath Theatre". Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette. 24 April 1862. Retrieved 18 October 2015 – via British Newspaper Archive. (subscription required (help)). 
  17. ^ Lowndes 1982, pp. 50–54.
  18. ^ "1805–2012". Theatre Royal. Retrieved 18 October 2015. 
  19. ^ Haddon 1982, p. 62.
  20. ^ a b c d "Theatre Royal and former Garrick's Head Public House". National Heritage List for England. Historic England. Retrieved 18 October 2015. 
  21. ^ "Theatre Royal". Pastscape. Historic England. Retrieved 18 October 2015. 
  22. ^ "Bath — Beau Nash's Houses". Astoft. Retrieved 5 May 2011. 
  23. ^ Marshall 2012, p. 180.
  24. ^ "Ellen Terry (1847–1928)". Stage Beauty. Retrieved 18 October 2015. 
  25. ^ Lowndes 1982, pp. 55–62.
  26. ^ Lowndes 1982, pp. 62–65.
  27. ^ Lowndes 1982, pp. 66–68.
  28. ^ Lowndes 1982, pp. 69–73.
  29. ^ Lowndes 1982, pp. 74–75.
  30. ^ "Jeremy Fry". The Telegraph. 20 July 2005. Retrieved 26 October 2015. 
  31. ^ "Jeremy Fry: Obituary". The Independent. 27 July 2005. Archived from the original on 11 July 2010.  In 1980
  32. ^ Lowndes 1982, pp. 76–82.
  33. ^ "Royal launch for theatre appeal". Bath Chronicle. Retrieved 10 September 2010. 
  34. ^ "Theatre Royal Bath to be revamped". The Stage. Retrieved 10 September 2010. 
  35. ^ "Bath Theatre Royal to reopen following £3 m upgrade". BBC. 7 September 2010. Retrieved 10 September 2010. 
  36. ^ a b "Refurbishment plans move a step closer as Midas is contracted to work on Bath's historic theatre". Theatre Royal. Retrieved 12 November 2010. 
  37. ^ "Midas wins refurbishment £2 m contract for Bath's historic theatre". Midas. Retrieved 10 September 2010. 
  38. ^ "Theatre Royal main house shuts for £3 m facelift". Bath Chronicle. Retrieved 10 September 2010. 
  39. ^ "Winners 2011". 2011. Retrieved 14 December 2013. 
  40. ^ "The Grey Lady". Theatre Royal. Retrieved 5 May 2011. 
  41. ^ Lowndes 1982, pp. 83–84.
  42. ^ "Garrick's Head Public House & Theatre Royal". Images of England. English Heritage. Retrieved 23 August 2009. 
  43. ^ Srivastava, Swapnil. "Georgian Architecture". Buzzle. Retrieved 5 May 2011. 
  44. ^ a b Forsyth 2003, pp. 257–258.
  45. ^ "Theatre Royal (ii) (Bath)". The Theatres Trust. Retrieved 23 August 2009. 
  46. ^ "Mugabe Heads to Bath". British Theatre Guide. Retrieved 14 May 2011. 
  47. ^ "In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play". London Theatre. Retrieved 27 October 2015. 
  48. ^ Champion, Lindsay. "Sarah Ruhl's In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play) Slated For West End Transfer". Retrieved 27 October 2015. 
  49. ^ "Finborough wins 2012 Peter Brook Empty Space Award". Whats On Stage. Retrieved 26 October 2015. 
  50. ^ "Double award nomination for the Ustinov Studio". Theatre Bath. Retrieved 26 October 2015. 
  51. ^ "Spanish Golden Age Season". Arcola Theatre. Archived from the original on 9 November 2013. Retrieved 26 October 2015. 
  52. ^ "Theatre Royal Bath". Bath Festival. Retrieved 23 August 2009. 
  53. ^ "Theatre Royal Bath Awards Lindley Heritage £4 m Catering Contract". Centerplate. Retrieved 26 October 2015. 
  54. ^ Shuttleworth, Ian (18 July 2009). "The Peter Hall Company at Theatre Royal Bath". Financial Times. Retrieved 5 May 2011. 
  55. ^ "Bath Opens Rivals & Master Class Pre-West End". Whats On Stage. Retrieved 5 May 2011. 


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