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The Theatre Royal, High Street, and the Theatre Royal Castle Street, Dundee

Theatre Royal, High Street - Theatre Royal, Castle Street - see also The Theatre Royal, Nethergate

Dundee Theatres

The Theatre Royal, High Street, Dundee

Formerly - The Trades Hall

The Dundee Trades Hall, High Street, home of the first Theatre Royal - Courtesy Graeme Smith

Above - The Dundee Trades Hall, High Street, home of the first Theatre Royal - Courtesy Graeme Smith

The first Theatre Royal opened in 1800 housed in the Trades Hall at High Street, at the foot of Castle Street, near Craigs Pier. In the decades towards the end of the 18th century a number of acting companies, including John Jackson of Edinburgh and Glasgow, tried to find a permanent place to open up but to no avail. The Trades Hall, of the Nine Incorporated Trades, was built for the merchants in 1776 to the designs of the architect Samuel Bell who had been appointed the first Town Architect. His fee was £42.10.0. and it was built by James Nicoll for the sum of £510. So pleased were the Trades with the workmanship that they rewarded him with the sum of five guineas to purchase a new suit. The building had shops on the ground floor and the Hall above, with an exchange and coffee room for members. The hall used for combined meetings of the Crafts and leased as required for various functions.

A drawing of the New Exchange, Dundee, and Shipping from around 1836 - Courtesy Graeme Smith

Above - A drawing of the New Exchange, Dundee, and Shipping from around 1836 - Courtesy Graeme Smith

Bell and Moss, an actor and company manager, opened the Theatre in the Hall on 23rd July 1800 when the building was described as being “fitted up in a very elegant and superior style.” The inaugural performance was of “The Merchant of Venice.” Moss played Shylock, one of his established parts, and Bell gave occasional prologue. Actors who performed in a number of the years included John Kemble and Edmund Kean (who styled himself upon Moss.) Moss was known in each of the three capitals, as a principal comedian in Dublin, and in the Theatre Royal, Edinburgh, and in Haymarket, London. He continued in seasons in Dundee until 1803 and two years later became manager of the Theatre Royal, Dumfries.

In time a larger place was found to be necessary and Samuel Bell was instructed in 1808 to prepare plans for a new Theatre, this time at the top of Castle Street. Meanwhile the Trades Hall continued as the merchants meeting place, styled the Dundee Coffee Rooms, until they too commissioned new premises. For some three decades the Hall became a store-house, but some performances were held during the 1840s, competing with the new Theatre up the hill. It was also used as a banqueting room. From 1838 to 1864 the Trades Hall formed the premises of the Eastern Bank, which was then absorbed into the Clydesdale Bank. It was also the offices of the new railway company formed in the 1840s. The Hall was demolished in 1881. Bell`s work which remains today includes St Andrews Church opened in 1774, with the support of the Nine Incorporated Trades.

The Theatre Royal, Castle Street, Dundee

Later - McFarland’s Varieties - Theatre Royal

The Theatre Royal in Castle Street, Dundee from a publication of 1822 - Courtesy Graeme Smith

Above - The Theatre Royal in Castle Street, Dundee from a publication of 1822 - Courtesy Graeme Smith

A Playbill for Alex Davidson and W. M'Gonagall in 'Hamlet' and 'Macbeth' at the Theatre Royal, Dundee on the 2nd of December 1858 - Courtesy Graeme Smith.The new Theatre Royal, built at the top of Castle Street, was opened on the evening of 27th June 1810, by a concert given for the benefit of the funds of the band of the Western Regiment of Forfarshire Local Militia. The first dramatic performance was given on 13th August by the Edinburgh Theatre Royal Company, with the comedy "The West Indian" and the farce "Fortune's Frolic."

The first manager was Henry Siddons, son of actress Sarah Kemble. And companies of actors came from Edinburgh, Glasgow and England under differing managers.

Right - A Playbill for Alex Davidson and W. M'Gonagall in 'Hamlet' and 'Macbeth' at the Theatre Royal, Dundee on the 2nd of December 1858 - Courtesy Graeme Smith.

The Theatre stood above four shops, and had stone steps to each of its two levels. With its centre boxes, side boxes, pit, and gallery the Theatre held 1,200 people of whom those in the stalls mainly stood for the want of seats.

Many prominent actors "strutted across the stage", but the Theatre suffered at times from a lack of support, and changed hands often: at one time a waxworks opened. Later the Caledonian Hall opened nearby and gave stiff competition in concerts and musical evenings. However the works of Sir Walter Scott continued to be popular, in all Theatres.

From the 1840s Tom Powrie, Dundonian actor and known nationally, appeared as did Edmund Glover later of the Theatre Royal, Dunlop Street, Glasgow. Powrie married a daughter of Glover. In February 1857 the Theatre under Gomersal & Norton staged a Grand Performance with Powrie as the main tragedian - “ The Proceeds to be given towards the Fund for the erection of the NATIONAL WALLACE MONUMENT.”

From the 1850s onwards the Theatre recovered its position and staged plays, comedy, burlesques, opera, pantomime and equestrian drama. In 1864 J.H. Robb and his Edinburgh company consolidated the Royal`s standing and the Theatre was transformed:- “from a dusty and dreary den, which had more the appearance of a stroller`s barn than a respectable dramatic establishment, into a temple full of modern appliances and means to boot. The audience part was fashionably upholstered and there was an act-drop specially painted by Gordon of the Bath and Bristol Theatres, representing a charmingly designed medallion picture of Glamis Castle at sunset.”

One of many top actors was J.B. Howard – a future co-founder of Howard & Wyndham Ltd. In 1870 its “new act drop represented the Alhambra at Grenada and was painted from a design by David Roberts R.A.”

When William McFarland, who was running the Dundee Music Hall added the Royal to his portfolio in 1876 he introduced more seating, and a new act drop of Lake Como. He also started the Theatre`s own first successful stock company, supplemented by visiting artistes. The newspapers reported upon the time in 1879 when “Arthur Lloyd`s burlesque company with Miss Katty King (Mrs Lloyd who made her first public performance as a vocalist in the Dundee Exchange Rooms, now Music Hall, in 1864) performed to bumper houses.”

An 1879 programme of opera by Carl Rosa in the Theatre Royal can be seen in The Comet, a theatrical magazine, here.

In the 1850s one of its successful lessees was E.W. Gomersal whose son William Gomersal went on to be the first lessee in 1872 of the newly built Her Majesty`s Theatre in Guild Street, Aberdeen. The second lessee was William McFarland, from 1881 to 1891. That Theatre changed its name to the Tivoli Theatre of Varieties in 1910.

A Programme Cover for McFarland's Theatre Royal Varieties, Dundee in the 1880s - Courtesy Graeme Smith.William McFarland`s portrait is in Dundee Art Galleries, and can also be seen at the BBC Online Your Paintings Art pages, here.

In 1885 the Royal gave way to a newcomer, a more luxurious house, Her Majesty`s Theatre in Seagate which started with William McFarland as lessee. Ultimately on Saturday, 26th September 1885, the Theatre Royal was closed, the "benediction" being pronounced by Miss Jennie Lee in "Jo".

However McFarland continued the old building for a few years as McFarland’s Varieties - Theatre Royal, staging his popular variety programmes.

Left - A Programme Cover for McFarland's Theatre Royal Varieties, Dundee in the 1880s - Courtesy Graeme Smith.

Fire consumed the Theatre in 1888 and it was rebuilt behind the facade for commercial purposes. That building continues today, showing the bust of William Shakespeare at its apex, and contains commercial and retail businesses (see image below).

An 1886 playbill for McFarland`s Varieties – Theatre Royal can be seen here.

The above information on the Theatres Royal, Dundee was written for this site by Graeme Smith in February 2013.

A Google StreetView Image of the former Theatre Royal, Castle Street, Dundee - Click to Interact

Above - A Google StreetView Image of the former Theatre Royal, Castle Street, Dundee - Click to Interact

If you have any more information or images for this Theatre that you are willing to share please Contact me.

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