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The Old Vic Theatre, King Street, Bristol

Formerly - The Theatre Royal

See also - The Theatre royal, Park Row, Bristol

Bristol Index

A Google StreetView image of the Bristol Old Vic Theatre - Click to Interact

Above - A Google StreetView image of the Bristol Old Vic Theatre - Click to Interact

 

The prologue spoken at the opening of the Theatre Royal, Bristol in 1766The Grade I Listed Old Vic Theatre in King Street, Bristol was originally built by Thomas Patey and opened as the Theatre Royal with a production of the play 'Conscious Lovers' on the 30th of May 1766. This was preceded by a prologue written by David Garrick and spoken by one of the Theatre's Managers, Mr. Powel (See Cutting Right). Despite many changes over the years the Theatre remains Britain's oldest working Theatre. This Theatre Royal should not be confused with the Theatre Royal, Park Row, Bristol which would later become the Prince's Theatre.

The auditorium of the Theatre Royal, King Street, Bristol in 1942 - From an article in the Illustrated London News

Above - The auditorium of the Theatre Royal, King Street, Bristol in 1942 - From an article in the Illustrated London News

The Theatre's auditorium was reconstructed in 1881 by T. Pope, the City architect, and the well known Theatre Architect C. J. Phipps. Phipps also built Bristol's Prince's Theatres. At this time the stage was also reduced by five feet in depth from the front and is said to have been modeled on the Theatre Royal Drury Lane's auditorium of the time. However, the Bristol Theatre Royal auditorium currently seats 668 whereas Drury Lane's present auditorium, remodeled in 1922, now seats nearly 2,300.

 

The original 1766 Frontage of the Theatre Royal, Bristol - From a Programme for 'The Truth' at the Theatre Royal on April the 12th 1915.

Above - The original 1766 Frontage of the Theatre Royal, Bristol - From a Programme for 'The Truth' at the Theatre Royal on April the 12th 1915.

A programme for an all star tribute matinee held at the Prince's Theatre, Bristol on the 5th of May, 1931, to celebrate the 165th birthday of the Theatre Royal - Courtesy Michael Crew (Crew Archive)In a programme for an all star tribute matinee held at the Prince's Theatre, Bristol on the 5th of May, 1931, to celebrate the 165th birthday of the Theatre Royal (Shown Left) a brief history of the Theatre was printed saying: 'The Theatre Royal, King Street in the parish of St. Nicholas, Bristol, was erected by a company of shareholders, which was formed in the year 1761. The number of shareholders was 48, of £100 shares. The Theatre Royal was opened on the 30th of May, 1766, by David Garrick under the management of Messrs Powell, Arthur, and Clarke. At the opening there was a great opposition by the sect called the Quakers, and a threat was held out that the Act of 1737 should be put in operation by which any person acting in an unlicensed place was liable to be imprisoned as a rogue and a vagabond. This was got over on the opening night by the manager giving a "concert of music" and a comedy entitled "The Conscious Lovers," and a farce entitled "The Miller of Marshfield." A prologue and epilogue was written by David Garrick, who pronounced the Theatre to be the most complete for its dimensions in Europe. The proceeds of the first performance was £63, and was given to the Bristol Infirmary. It was not till 1778 that a patent was granted by King (George the Third) to legalise the Theatre, a privilege for which £275 had to be paid.

The Theatre Royal is the oldest in the Kingdom, and probably the only one in which such stars as Shuter, Young, Quick, Siddons, the Kembles, the Keans, and Macready appeared. In more recent times its boards have been graced by George Melville, Helen Fawcit, Miss Bateman, Marie Wilton (Mrs Bancroft), Madge Robertson, (Mrs Kendal), HenrietteaHoson (Mrs. Labouchere), Kate and Ellen Terry, Charles Coglan, Arthur Stirling, Arthur Wood, Fosbrooke, the Rignolds. It was here in the sixties that the late Henry Irving (Sir Henry Irving) who was a clerk in a merchant's office in Bridewell Streetr (Budgett & Co.), applied for his first engagement, one not being vacant. The Company leaving the Theatre Royal went to Sunderland, where one of the leading men was taken ill, and a telegram brought Henry Irving, who made his first appearance on any stage. The Theatre Royal, Bristol, was then worked by stock companies and was under the management of Macready followed by Mr. and Mrs. James Henry Chute (Macready's daughter), and the success of these actors and actresses on the London stage caused the Theatre Royal, King Street, to be reckoned as amongst the best schools for actors in England. The Theatre was leased in December, 1924, by Milton Bode, Robert Courtneidge and Douglas Millar, who in May, 1925, purchased the freehold.'

The above text in quotes was printed in a programme for an all star tribute matinee held at the Prince's Theatre, Bristol on the 5th of May, 1931, to celebrate the 165th birthday of the Theatre Royal - Courtesy Michael Crew (Crew Archive)

 

A sketch of he facade of the Theatre Royal, King Street in its 1800 form - Courtesy Michael Crew (Crew Archive)

Above - A sketch of he facade of the Theatre Royal, King Street in its 1800 form - Courtesy Michael Crew (Crew Archive)

 

Poster for a Benefit performance at the Theatre Royal, Bristol for Mr. Dobbins, the Theatre's Treasurer, on February the 27th 1857 - Click to enlarge.In 1790 alterations were carried out to the Theatre by Thomas French which consisted of raising the auditorium ceiling, relining the boxes and redecorating the Theatre.

In 1800 an extra tier was added to the auditorium and the facade of the Theatre was altered by James Saunders.

In 1881 the Theatre's auditorium was again altered, this time by the well known architect C. J. Phipps, which involved reducing the stage by five foot from the front and installing Phipps Patent chairs and a star-studded ceiling with a new ventilator enclosed in heavy gilt moulding. Scenery stores and dressing rooms were also added at the rear of the Theatre at this time, and the understage machinery was overhauled and upgraded.

Right - A Poster for a Benefit performance at the Theatre Royal, Bristol for Mr. Dobbins, the Theatre's Treasurer, on February the 27th 1857 - Click to enlarge.

Programme for 'Mrs. Gorringe's Necklace' at the Theatre Royal, Bristol on April the 26th 1915.In 1903 the Theatre's facade was again altered, this time by W. Skinner and new dressing rooms were also added at this time, and a new fire curtain was installed along with a modified proscenium.

Left - A Programme for 'Mrs. Gorringe's Necklace' at the Theatre Royal, Bristol on April the 26th 1915.

Several other alterations were carried out to the Theatre in the 1940s and in 1946 a new Theatre company, formed from part of London's Old Vic Company, took up residence in the Theatre. Called the Bristol Old Vic Company they have remained there ever since. The Bristol Old Vic Company also produced some productions at the Bristol Little Theatre until 1980.

In 1973 the whole stage house was demolished, including its Victorian stage machinery, and then rebuilt with a flat stage which somewhat spoilt the sight lines in the process. A new entrance to the Theatre was also provided at this time through Cooper's Hall next door where a new facade was built, behind which was built a new Studio Theatre called the New Vic which seated 150.

The new studio Theatre was built where the original entrance had been and the new entrance through Cooper's Hall provided the building some much improved foyer space.

 

The Auditorium of the Theatre Royal, Bristol from a postcard.In 2011 the Theatre underwent a multi million pound refurbishment by the construction Company Galliford Try. Part of this included an archeological dig under the auditorium floor and stripping back part of the auditorium walls.

Right - The Auditorium of the Theatre Royal, Bristol - From a postcard.

By April 2011 the dig had already reached the Theatre's original 18th century level and the site manager Mat Lugar told the Theatres Trust: 'The project started approximately six weeks ago with the isolation of the M&E services [plumbing and electrical], which is now complete. We then started to strip out the auditorium, removing all the floor finishes exposing areas that are to be refurbished and enhanced. The concrete floor was covering the original flagstone floor under the stage area. Excavation continued to expose the Victorian steps to the stalls area, and the original orchestra pit. In the pit passage area, we have uncovered the original flagstone flooring. Quite a lot of this is damaged but we hope to reclaim enough to relay it somewhere within the auditorium.' Mat Lugar.

One of the finds was a very heavy iron ball which has turned out to be a counter weight which was once used to raise the Theatre’s curtain. The next major challenge would be covering the Theatre's roof with a huge tent so that the original timbers could be exposed.

The first phase of the redevelopment of the Theatre, which cost some £12 million, was completed in the Autumn of 2012 when the Theatre reopened with a beautifully refurbished auditorium, a new stage grid, and new flying and lighting systems carried out by the Theatre Consultants Charcoalblue. Furthur redevelopment is projected to continue until 2016 however. More information on the redevelopment of the Theatre can be found here.

The Old Vic Theatre is a Grade I Listed building and you may like to visit the Theatre's own website here.

 

Georgina Lee at the Theatre Royal, Bristol in the late 1800s

A Photograph of Georgina Lee in costume in the late 1800s - Courtesy Ian Haddrell A Photograph of Georgina Lee in costume in the late 1800s - Courtesy Ian Haddrell

Above - Two photographs of Georgina Lee in costume in the late 1800s - Courtesy Ian Haddrell who writes: 'I am compiling a history of my Haddrell family who lived in the Temple area of Bristol in the late 19th and early 20th century. My grandfather Thomas Haddrell was a haulier, who on occasions moved scenery & equipment to the Theatre Royal from temple Meads station. My grandmother Georgina Lee, born in 1877, was a dancer at the theatre, or the "Old Gaff" as it was then known, and it was whilst making a delivery to the theatre that they first became acquainted, marrying in October 1898.'

 

Harry Tate in 'Little Bo-Peep' at the Theatre Royal, Bristol in 1938/39

A programme for Harry Tate in 'Bo-Peep' at the Theatre Royal, Bristol in 1938/39 - Courtesy Tony Craig.

Above - A programme for Harry Tate in 'Bo-Peep' at the Theatre Royal, Bristol in 1938/39 - Courtesy Tony Craig.

The 1938-39 Panto Season at The Theatre Royal Bristol, was a production of 'Little Bo-Peep, with Harry Tate as the Baron and is thought to be Tate's last pantomime as he died the following year in 1940. The programme extracts and cuttings shown here were kindly sent in by Tony Craig whose mother, Jessie Jewel, played the 'Principal Boy' and his Uncle, Joe Ring, played the 'Dame' Joe Ring also produced the production.

A Cutting from the Bristol Evening Post of Friday, December 23rd 1938, on 'Bo-Peep' at the Theatre Royal, Bristol - Courtesy Tony Craig.

Above - A Cutting from the Bristol Evening Post of Friday, December 23rd 1938, on 'Bo-Peep' at the Theatre Royal, Bristol - Courtesy Tony Craig who says 'In the three adverts, Harry Tate is obviously the one in the false moustache
and Mom (Jessie Jewel) is the 28 year old girl in the fur coat.'

Harry Tate, Jessie Jewel, Betty Love, Arnold and Archie, Ronald Tate, The Saxon Sisters and Nan, Billy Blyth, Joe Ring, in a cast of 40, in 'Bo-Peep' at the Theatre Royal, Bristol in 1938/39 - Courtesy Tony Craig. Harry Tate, Jessie Jewel, Betty Love, Arnold and Archie, Ronald Tate, The Saxon Sisters and Nan, Billy Blyth, Joe Ring, in a cast of 40, in 'Bo-Peep' at the Theatre Royal, Bristol in 1938/39 - Courtesy Tony Craig.

Above - Harry Tate, Jessie Jewel, Betty Love, Arnold and Archie, Ronald Tate, The Saxon Sisters and Nan, Billy Blyth, Joe Ring, in a cast of 40, in 'Bo-Peep' at the Theatre Royal, Bristol in 1938/39 - Courtesy Tony Craig.

A Handbill for 'Bo-Peep' at the Theatre Royal, Bristol in 1938/39 - Courtesy Tony Craig.

Above - A Handbill for 'Bo-Peep' at the Theatre Royal, Bristol in 1938/39 - Courtesy Tony Craig.