The Old Vic Theatre, The Cut, London, SE1
Formerly - The Royal Coburg Theatre / Royal Victoria Theatre / Victoria Theatre / New Victoria Palace / Royal Victoria Hall and Coffee Tavern
Above - The Old Vic during the run of 'Groundhog Day' in August 2016 - Photo M.L.
The Old Vic Theatre originally opened as the Royal Coburg Theatre on the 11th of May 1818 with three different styles of entertainment in one night; a Harlequinade 'Midnight Revalry'; an Asiatic Ballet 'Alzora and Nerine'; and a Melodramatic Spectacle 'Trial by Battle or Heaven Defend the Right' by William Barrymore.
The Theatre was built on former marsh land known as Lambeth Marsh and took several years to construct due to lack of finance. The Foundation stone was laid by the Prince of Saxe Coburg and Princess Charlotte of Wales in September 1816, and building began that year, once a licence had been issued by the Surrey Quarter Sessions to the Prince and Princess of Coburg on behalf of a Mr. Jones, who had formerly run the Surrey Theatre nearby. Work was halted in early 1817 though when the money ran out and was only begun again in October when Joseph Glossop, who was a wealthy Merchant's son, provided further funding. Glossop took over the management of the Theatre and it finally opened on the 11th of may 1818.
Above - The auditorium of the Old Vic from the Stalls during the run of 'Groundhog Day' in August 2016 - Photo M.L. (Note the un-cantilevered auditorium and its supporting pillars.
The Old Vic, as the Theatre is known today, was originally designed by Rudolph Cabanel and the final cost was £12,000. Some of the construction material for the Theatre is said to have been recycled from the former Savoy Palace in the Strand.
Right - The auditorium of the Old Vic from the Dress Circle during the run of 'The Winslow Boy' in April 2013 - Photo ML (Note the un-cantilevered auditorium and its supporting pillars.
A contemporary Theatre Programme advertised the new Royal Coburg Theatre in its pages, (reprinted in 'The Theatres Of London' by Mander and Mitchenson,) saying:- 'Royal Coburg Theatre, opposite Waterloo Bridge Road, Lambeth. The Nobility, Gentry and the Public are respectfully informed that the above new and splendid theatre, which has been erected according to the plans and designs and under the superintendence of the celebrated architect Mr. Cabanel, will open on Whit Monday, the 11th May 1818, under the immediate patronage of His Royal Highness of Saxe Coburg, with entirely new entertainments now preparing on a scale of magnitude and great expense.
The audience part of the theatre will be lighted by a superb Central Lustre, while others of a most costly description will shed a beautiful and brilliant light over the whole house. The Decorations of the interior and Grand Panoramic Marine Saloon designed and executed by Mr. Serres (Marine Painter to His Majesty).
Left - The auditorium of the Old Vic from the Dress Circle during the run of 'The Winslow Boy' in April 2013 - Photo ML (Note the un-cantilevered auditorium and its supporting pillars.
The ceiling and proscenium designed by Mr. Cabanel and executed by Mr. Latilla and Assistants. The burnished gold and silver ornaments by Mr Collet and Assistants.
The company already engaged include many performers of High Celebrity from the London and principal Provincial Theatres. The scenery is entirely new and painted by the following celebrated artists: Messrs Serres, Latilla, Morris, Scruton, Stanfield, S. Morris and Assistants.' - From a contemporary Theatre Programme.
The Theatre was redecorated in 1833 and reopened on the 1st of July that year as the Royal Victoria Theatre with a production of 'Black-Ey'd Susan' which had first been produced at the Surrey Theatre in 1829. Paganini had his farewell performance at the Theatre on June the 17th 1834.
In 1858 a false fire alarm caused a panic in the Theatre and sixteen people were killed trying to escape. This was followed by years of lean times until 1867 when the Theatre's fortunes increased for a while, but in 1871 the Theatre was sold off.
A major reconstruction of the interior was then carried out by the new owners to the designs of Jethro T. Robinson. The Building News and Engineering Journal reported on the changes in their December 8th 1871 edition saying:- 'Some couple of months ago that intensely popular place of entertainment entitled the Victoria Theatre, familiarly known by young Englanders of the New Cut as "the Vic.," and which some fifty or sixty years ago started upon its career as " the Royal Coburg," was closed to an admiring audience, but closed only with a view to being reopened again, restored, improved, adorned in every feature and circumstance, under the imposing denomination of a " Palace of Amusement" at Christmas.
The work of reconstruction, which is of the most extensive kind, nothing but the four walls and the roof being retained, is being carried out from the designs of Mr. T. C. Robinson [sic], of Haverstock-hill, the contractors being Messrs. Snowdon, of Paddington, and the whole being superintended by Mr. Watson, their foreman. Having personally inspected the works, as well as the plans, we find them to be of sufficient importance and novelty to warrant our giving a somewhat detailed account of them.
To begin with, an entirely new stage has been constructed, 73 feet deep, and 30 feet wide at the proscenium, which is 29 feet 6 inches high. This stage, which is 5 feet lower than the former one, is a working stage, with traps, slides, and bridges throughout the whole extent behind the curtain, with ample depth and height for all possible apparitions from aerial or subterranean regions, as the "effects" of the scene may require.
Right - The auditorium of the Old Vic from the Stalls during the run of 'Groundhog Day' in August 2016 - Photo M.L.
But the solicitude of the management has been more particularly directed to providing ample accommodation and increased comfort for the numerous audiences which are expected to attend. The auditorium has been enlarged by throwing the stage 12 or 14 feet back, and retiring the front of the boxes 2 feet, making an addition of some 16 feet, the total depth from the stage to the back of the auditorium being 80 feet. The width of the auditorium from wall to wall is 66 feet.
On the pit floor is a promenade, or corridor, paved with stone, of about 10 feet wide, and of good height, probably some 12 feet or more, the walls being covered with silvered glass; and there is a similar promenade accommodation attached to the boxes. The ceiling is domed, 48 feet high in the centre. There is no central chandelier, the principal lighting being effected by means of a ring of gaslights of thirty-four feet diameter, external measurement, let into a channel lined with white enamelled iron. In connection with this arrangement provision is made for carrying off the heated air through the roof. Abundant provision, also, has been made for ventilation in other ways, shafts for the purpose being placed within the walls of the auditorium, extending from the basement to the open air, and communicating by means of ornamental trellis work with every floor. There are also other provisions in the interests of the health and comfort of visitor in all parts of the building which are highly to be commended. The staircases throughout are of stone, and the supports throughout are of substantial brickwork.
The decoration of the house has been designed in a liberal spirit, guided by good taste. The centre of the ceiling is panelled in white and gold, with movable medallions, capable of opening for the convenience of the acrobats and other aspiring artistes who may have occasion to ascend to those regions. The cooing round the ceiling is blue, with gilt stars. The ornamentation of the upper part of the proscenium is in gold upon a white or tinted ground. A similar style will prevail throughout the fronts of the galleries and boxes, the dress boxes being distinguished by festoons of flowers, whilst the two stage boxes on either side will exhibit medallions.
The house is calculated to hold about three thousand persons, more than one-third of them in the capacious gallery. So far as we can say from personal observation, the ranges of the seats in boxes, pit, and gallery appear to have been fixed with a special aim to affording all occupying them a fair opportunity of witnessing the performances without craning forward, or perching on the shoulders of those before them - a matter too much neglected elsewhere, even in our quasi "patent" theatres. The fittings throughout are well devised, and suitable to the occasion, with a due discrimination of the grades of society occupying the various parts. The boxes are handsomely and comfortably provided, and the South London flaneur, if he will pay the price of a stall - we know not exactly what, but it will be moderate, we are assured - may recline for five hours in a capacious armed seat, lined with velvet.
Left - The auditorium of the Old Vic from the Stalls during the run of 'Groundhog Day' in August 2016 - Photo M.L.
It being now an ascertained fact that food for the mind, whether at museums, International Exhibitions, or theatres, cannot be received and appreciated without the addition of an abundant supply of creature comforts for the inner man, the management of this "palace" have taken care to provide very extensive accommodation in this essential particular. Four capacious refreshment-bars will offer the "delicacies of the season " and the choicest drinks of native and foreign growth, to boxes, stalls, pit, and gallery, upon scales of tariff adapted to the patrons of the respective departments.
The externals of the house remain unaltered, with the exception of the front, where the effect of the quaint old shallow portico has been heightened by the addition of some structural ornamentation. The arrangements for entrance and exit appear to be well provided for, the boxes being approached through a vestibule by a double stone staircase, and there being four distinct entrances to the pit. These works were undertaken at a contract price of £5,600, and they will be carried on night and day till completion. The entire management of the amusements of the "Palace" will be in the hands of Mr. J. A. Cave.'
The above text in quotes was first published in the Building News and Engineering Journal, December 8th 1871.
The Theatres Trust says of Robinson's 1871 redesign for the Theatre, which is still mostly extant today, 'The remodelling of the auditorium in 1871 by Jethro T Robinson produced one of that architects most satisfying interiors and is today one of only two surviving examples of his work (Margate Theatre Royal is the other). From the 1930s to the 1960s the Robinson auditorium suffered a series of radical attacks in the name of production fashion. By the 1980s the proscenium architecture together with the adjoining boxes had been obliterated. The RHWL works of 1983 for Ed Mirvish, however, restored the Robinson auditorium faithfully, being amended only to meet modern seating and lighting requirements, the latter being handled with particular sensitivity. This is an auditorium of lyric beauty. The ceiling, although completely remodelled by Robinson, still has some suggestion of Cabanels earlier design.' - The Theatres Trust.
Right - The auditorium of the Old Vic from the Stalls during the run of 'Groundhog Day' in August 2016 - Photo M.L.
After Robinson's reconstruction of the Theatre in 1871, which took several months to complete, the Theatre reopened on Saturday the 23rd of December 1871 as the New Victoria Palace, (This should not be confused with the present day Victoria Palace Theatre which opened much later in 1911, in Victoria). The Building News and Engineering Journal reported briefly on the Theatre's reopening in their December 29th 1871 edition saying:- 'The "Royal Victoria Palace" (late the Victoria Theatre), Waterloo-road, Lambeth, was opened on Saturday last, having been entirely remodelled internally. In the Building News for the 8th inst., we described the works then in progress. The architect under whose personal superintendence the whole has been carried out is Mr. Robinson, of Haverstock-hill, the "Victoria" Palace being the third theatre which he has designed during the present year - the others being Hengler's Circus, Argyll-street, Regent-street, and the Pavilion, Whitechapel. The builder was Mr. Thomas Snowdon, of Harrow-road, Mr. Watson and Mr. Fullicks acting respectively as foreman and clerk of the works. The cost has been £6,500.'
The above text in quotes was first published in the Building News and Engineering Journal, December 29th 1871.
A social reformer, Emma Cons, then bought the building and spent £3000 altering the auditorium and reopening it on the 27th of December 1880 as the Royal Victoria Hall and Coffee Tavern, (See sketch right.) This new image for the Theatre restored its reputation as it was run on strict Temperance Lines.
In 1900 the first Opera was performed at the Theatre, 'Bohemian Girl' and in 1912 Lilian Baylis, who was Emma Cons' niece, took over the management of the Theatre which was to become something of a passion for her for the rest of her life.
Baylis introduced early cinema, 'moving pictures', to the Theatre, along with regular Opera productions, and symphony concerts.
In 1914 Baylis decided, against popular opinion, to put on Shakespeare at the Theatre and was very successful.
Between 1914 and 1923 she put on the whole of the first Folio of Shakespeare's plays, something that no other Theatre in the world had done before.
It was during her time at the Old Vic that the National Theatre was born. Lilian Baylis died in 1937.
In may 1941 the Theatre was bombed and was seriously damaged causing it to close down completely for ten years, until in 1950 it was reconstructed and renovated by the architect Douglas W. Rountrett, and reopened on the 14th of November that year as the temporary and preliminary home of the National Theatre company.
Right - A signed photograph of Peggy Ashcroft as Viola in 'Twelfth Night' at the Old Vic Theatre in 1954 - Courtesy Marianne Macdonald whose late mother collected autographed photos personally in the 1950s and 60s.
The National Theatre company took over the Old Vic completely in 1963 under the direction of Laurence Olivier, followed by Peter Hall in 1974, but left the Theatre for their new home on the South Bank in 1976, where I worked myself for many years.
Above -The Old Vic during the run of 'A Moon For The Misbegotten' in October 2006 - Photo ML
Above - A 1970s Seating Plan for the Old Vic Theatre
Since 1976 the Old Vic has generally been a successful Theatre despite being some distance from the main hub of the West End across the river. In 2004 the Theatre became a producing house rather than a receiving one, and under the Artistic Direction of the Hollywood Actor Kevin Spacey, and Producer David Liddiment, this has become a very successful venture.
On the 1st of February 2013 Kevin Spacey announced that he hoped to raise £20 million for the Old Vic before stepping down as the artistic director of the Theatre in 2015. Spacey said, "Im now planning to leave in 2015 and am determined to raise £20 million by then as an endowment fund to make the Theatre fit for the 21st century... We can then use the £20 million to give us £1 million a year income to help refurbish the Theatre."
This was a blow to the Old Vic's many regular patrons as his tenure at the Theatre has been such a success, but his evident love for the Theatre, and plans to help generate funds for its refurbishment before he leaves, should be applauded.
Right - The Old Vic Theatre during the run of 'The Winslow Boy in April 2013 - Photo M.L.
The Old Vic Theatre today has a seating capacity of 1,067, you may like to visit the Theatre's own website here.
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You may find the following pages from this site of interest: