The Royal Artillery Theatre and Opera House, Woolwich
Formerly - The Royal Artillery Recreation Rooms.
Above - Postcard of the Royal Artillery Barracks, Woolwich. The Royal Artillery Theatre can be seen to the right of the picture, with ventilators visible on the roof above the auditorium. - Courtesy the Val Earl Collection.
The Royal Artillery Recreation Rooms were a conversion, in 1863, of a former multi-purpose hall situated in the eastern end of the vast frontage of the Royal Artillery Barracks in Woolwich, London.
The recreation rooms were later altered for theatrical use and renamed the Royal Artillery Theatre. However, the interior was destroyed by fire on the 18th of November 1903 and a new Royal Artillery Theatre was then built into the shell of the old, opening on the 21st of December 1905.
Right - The Royal Artillery Barracks in 2007. The white colonnaded link between the two sections of the building's frontage was originally the site of the Royal Artillery Theatre. The colonnaded link was rebuilt as an exact copy of one which is further west, but out of shot, in the late 1950s and returned the building to its original 1802 appearance. - Photo M.L.07.
Above - Map showing the Royal Artillery Theatre in Woolwich with details of transport links - From a Wheeler and Salisbury Repertory Programme of 1949 - Courtesy Michelle Bowen.
A review from The Times of February the 11th 1897.
Royal Artillery Theatre, Woolwich.
Those who arranged the performance at this theatre on Tuesday afternoon would have been better advised to have retained the original triple bill, instead of adding a forth piece, by doing which they made the entertainment too long. But this and the fact that the waits were unnecessarily long sums up fairly well all there is to blame. The programme opened with a performance of the operetta Love's Magic, by Lieutenant-Colonel Joelyn, R.a., and the clever conductor of the Royal Artillery band, Cav. Zavertal, which was first heard in the same theatre precisely seven years ago Owing to indisposition Mr. Courtico Pounds was unable to undertake a part in this performance, and his place was filled at short notice by Mr. A. Court, upon whom it would be unfair in the circumstances to pass a final judgment. Mr. Broughton Black worked prodigiously hard as the magician, and Miss Maisie Turner acted with some brightness as his "supposed daughter."
Right - A Poster for 'Playbill' by Terence Rattigan at the Royal Artillery Theatre, Woolwich, which was the last production at the Theatre from the management of Wheeler & Salisbury in March 1950 - Courtesy Michelle Bowen.
The First of a Series, by Mr. W.M.George, which contained some excellent burlesque imitations of well-known actors, Mr. George should take care, however, to avoid speaking too rapidly. The second half of the entertainment included a new sketch entitled Pierrot and Pierette, by Messrs. F. Bowyer and John Crook, in which two statues come to life and discuss modern morals in conversation and song while their sculptor sleeps. It is a capital piece of its sort, in spite of much that is crude and common-place, and was excellently played by Miss Millicent Pyno and Mr. Courico Pounds as the statues and Mr. Black as the sculptor. The final number in the long programme was a new burlesque, Marie Tanner, for the arrangement, writing, and composition of which, Messrs. Black, Roland Henry, and J.W. Ivimay are responsible. Some of the ideas are admirably carried out, and there is a good deal of fun and merriment in the piece, in spite of the fact that some of those ideas which are most familiar are in themselves not far removed from the burlesque. The notion here applied of labeling characters in a piece which has a large and not easily distinguishable cast might be of real service occasionally. Miss Gaston Murray took part in the piece, in addition to several of those whose names appear above, and the composer conducted.
The Times of February the 11th 1897.
In 1904 The Royal Artillery Theatre's new auditorium (shown below) was built into the existing structure by the well known Theatre Architect W. G. R. Sprague, and this new Theatre opened on the 21st of December 1905 with a capacity of 1,000.
The building was leased by the Government to several different managements from 1905 to 1909 but Mrs Agnes Mary Littler had the first proper license for the building to produce professional theatre productions, she ran it from 1909 to 1939. In 1918 Agnes and her husband were both injured when a bomb dropped outside the Theatre. The Littlers who had the Theatre until 1939 were the parents of Prince Littler. There is much more on the Littlers here.
Right - Royal Artillery Theatre Leaflets advertising forthcoming productions - Courtesy Michelle Bowen. - Click to see them in detail.
In 1940 the Theatre was run by the Navy, Army, and Air Force Institute and Charles Benjamin until 1948 when Swift Productions Ltd and Robert Brighten Salisbury took over the management for a year.
Above - The Royal Artillery Theatre Auditorium - From a Wheeler and Salisbury Repertory Programme of 1949 - Courtesy Michelle Bowen.
The Theatre was used by various units of the services for entertaining the troops during the Second World War but was eventually damaged again by bombs and although it did carry on for some years the Theatre finally closed in 1956.
Left - Programme for the Pantomime 'Cinderella' at the Royal Artillery Theatre, Woolwich with a very young Tony Hancock in January 1949 - Courtesy Michelle Bowen. - Click to see the entire programme and details of the cast with pictures.
The Royal Artillery Theatre closed in 1956 and was demolished sometime afterwards. A colonnaded link was built in its place as an exact copy of one which is further west of the building's frontage, returning the building to its original 1802 appearance.
The textual information above about the Royal Artillery Theatre was gleaned from Diana Howard's 'London Theatres and Music Halls 1850 to 1950,' the Oxford Companion to Theatre' - Phyllis Hartnoll, the Theatres Trust Guide, and with the help of John Earl.
A Times review of 'Orders Are Orders' at the Royal Artillery Theatre, Woolwich - March 16th 1938
R.A. Theatre, Woolwich. 'Orders Are Orders' by Ian Hay and Anthony Armstrong
The long tradition of regimental theatricals at Woolwich shows no sign of falling away. A first night in the dusky old Royal Artillery` Theatre has still its characteristic note. Mess uniforms make a brilliant show against the faded plush of the stalls, and other ranks carrying out a friendly study of their officers' stage technique from the pit and gallery whistle the tunes played in the intervals by the regimental band which puts to shame the panotrope-ridden theatres of the West End.
Right - Programme for 'Honeymoon Beds' at the Royal Artillery Theatre, Woolwich in June 1950 - Courtesy Michelle Bowen. - Click to see the entire programme.
This military diversion might have been written to order, for though the Royal Artillery Officers' Dramatic Club in a history going back to 1820 has tackled everything from grand opera to burlesque, its members are naturally at ease in a piece which farcically represents the reactions of authority to an invasion of barracks by a pertinacious film company. Not that they make the mistake of supposing that an actor who is a colonel in real life must necessarily appear a colonel on the stage.
Left - Programme for 'Born Yesterday' at the Royal Artillery Theatre, Woolwich in April 1950 - Courtesy Michelle Bowen. - Click to see the entire programme.
Where such coincidences occur the standard of acting proves sufficiently strong to overleap the pitfalls, and Colonel Hogg's caricature of the colonel whose vanity opens the barracks to hordes of film stars from Hollywood owes much to the dryness of the actor's humour and little to his rank. It would be, an even better performance if the colonel were a good listener, a technical fault from which Brigadier Loughborough's smoothly ironic sketch of the crafty major-general is free.
Right - Programme for 'Mystery of the Mary Celeste' at the Royal Artillery Theatre, Woolwich in May 1949 - Courtesy Michelle Bowen. - Click to see the entire programme.
In Lieutenant Webb's blustering R.S.M. there is a spice of malice which the audience welcomes and R,S.M.s can well afford to smile at. Lieutenant Oldrey and Lieutenant Cox show that they understand and are not without sympathy with the "wangling" minds of batmen, and Captain Speechly makes a dashing attack upon the Americanisms of the irrepressible film director. The performance which has the most slickly professional air about it comes from Major Smyth as the susceptible adjutant, and the very Ian Hay-ish ladies arc played variously and well by Mrs. Oldrey. Miss Jennings-Bramly, and Mrs. Dickie.
Left - Programme for 'Flowers for the Living' at the Royal Artillery Theatre, Woolwich in June 1950 - Courtesy Michelle Bowen.
Text from The Times March 16th 1939.
Notes on the Theatre by Wheeler & Salisbury 1949.
'A well appointed, warm and comfortable Theatre within easy reach of your home. Many West End managements would be glad and proud to boast a playhouse in which so many facilities are all the year round at the disposal of its patrons; luxurious fully licensed bars, a spacious foyer, comfortable seating and a friendly atmosphere add enormously to the evening's enjoyment.
Right - Programme for a Wheeler and Salisbury Repertory Production of 1949 - Courtesy Michelle Bowen.
It is not a military Theatre though the Forces are very welcome; but the primary object of the Management is to provide good popular shows for the enjoyment of every member of the public - it is your own Theatre which caters exclusively for the needs of you all within a wide radius - a West End Theatre and Company at popular prices.
Such an ideal Theatre demands a first class Company in good plays of all types - these are yours in plenty, presented by the Wheeler & Salisbury Repertory Company established successes and new plays all at a standard which according to critics and regular patrons alike, can more than hold its own with West End productions.
Yet this talented Company's successes are not sufficiently widely realised - more regular support is essential if it is to remain your own Company in your own Playhouse. The Wheeler & Salisbury Repertory Company will be back for a trial season opening on January 23rd.
Left - Details from a Wheeler and Salisbury Repertory Production Programme of 1949 - Courtesy Michelle Bowen.
COME AND SEE FOR YOURSELF.
WE ARE CONFIDENT YOU WILL COME AGAIN
There is also a Theatre & Social Club for regular patrons - which organises Sunday lectures, dances, socials, etc.
If you would like details of productions and of the Club, please write to the Publicity Manager at the Theatre.'
Text in quotes above from a Wheeler and Salisbury Repertory Programme of 1949 - Courtesy Michelle Bowen.
Notice to patrons of the Royal Artillery Theatre by Wheeler & Salisbury, 1949.
As you will have already noted, we shall be returning on Monday, January 23rd. We have been invited to return for what might be called a trial season of six weeks. That is to say, whether we stay here permanently or leave after six weeks depend entirely on the size of the audiences during the first four weeks. The average attendance must be considerably higher than it has been if it is to be financially possible for the management of the theatre to allow us to remain.
Therefore, if you are a regular patron of ours, we do beg you most earnestly to be sure not only to support us yourselves, during those four weeks, but to bring as many friends as you can, and also to make our work here as widely known as possible. If, on the other hand, you are visiting the Theatre to-day for the first time, will you please come back at least once during the four weeks commencing January 23rd and make up your own minds whether we are worth supporting before it is too late?
Right - Signed photograph of Cyril Wheeler on the 18th of March 1950 - The back states 'Last show at the Artillery Theatre' - Courtesy Michelle Bowen.
Our policy will remain the same as it always has been - to give you as varied selection of plays as possible, each play being a good one of its particular kind.
May we take this opportunity of wishing you all a very Happy and Prosperous New Year, and of hoping that we will be able to share many pleasant evenings together during the months to come.
Cyril Wheeler and Geoffrey Salisbury.
Text above from a 'Cinderella' programme during the management of Wheeler and Salisbury in 1949 - Courtesy Michelle Bowen.
Above - The Royal Artillery Barracks in 2007. The white colonnaded link between the two sections of the building's frontage was originally the site of the Royal Artillery Theatre. The colonnaded link was rebuilt as an exact copy of one which is further west, and out of shot, in the late 1950s and returned the building to its original 1802 appearance. - Photo M.L.07.
THE ROYAL ARTILLERY THEATRE WOOLWICH
It all began for me as an actor at the Royal Artillery Theatre. I was 16 way back in 1953 and I started to go regularly every week to the RA to see a play. It was in those days that we know as weekly rep. I then made an application to work at the RA as an assistant stage manager. I was very lucky to get an unpaid job there. I also appeared in little bits of parts. I have to this day a still of me as a "gentleman" in "The Young Elizabeth". Only a couple of years ago I met up with an actor, namely Michael Harding, who was a leading man in that production. Michael must now be well into his 80's. I then joined the The Arcadian Operatic Society (Amateur) to perform in a production of the musical"Goodnight Vienna".
Right - A Programme for 'By Pigeon Post' at the Royal
Artillery Theatre on the 29th of November 1919 - Courtesy Leonie Williams.
It was a different era. The RA was always well attended in those days because one must remember TV was in it's infancy. Some of the productions I can just about remember were "A Soldier For Xmas" starring Anthony Newley, "The Barrettes of Wimpole St" starring Wilfrid Lawson, "Harvey" with Bill Kerr, "Who Goes There" starring Derek Bond, "The Sport of Kings" starring Wally Patch, and many more. The annual pantos were excellent. I remember seeing one with Tony Hancock. Other actors who went on to work in other parts of the business were James Sharkey, he became a very successful agent as did Julia McDermott. Others, Ann Ridler, Elizabeth Ashley (not the American actress), Vere Lorrimer, a successful TV producer / director, and Ian Whittaker who finished up being very successful and well known in the film business as a top film set designer and dresser.
The RA itself was very small but compact. It had a wonderful
Edwardian atmosphere, with Stalls, dress circle, and an excellent
balcony which is where I sat for 1 shilling every Saturday night.
Backstage was also very small, but again they managed to do musicals
and even opera.
Above Text kindly written for this site by Alan Rebbeck.
Above - Details from a Programme for 'By Pigeon Post' at the Royal
Artillery Theatre on the 29th of November 1919 - Courtesy Leonie Williams.
A visitor to the site recently sent in some of his memories of the Royal Artillery Theatre which may also be of interest to anyone interested in Agatha Christies 'The Mousetrap.
The result of a conversation with my daughter, who has an interest in family history, resulted in us finding your site. This was due to the fact that we got onto the subject of what I had done and who I had met, and the Royal Artillery Theatre came up as I was a regular visitor, season ticket holder in fact.
Here I learnt of the formation of a play study group that they were forming so I joined. We called the group The Royal Artillery Theatre Club (pronounced RATS). We were not an amateur drama group we just read plays with members taking appropriate parts, the object being to more readily appreciate plays and acting, budding theatre critics I suppose you could say.
Right - Programme for the Arcadian Operatic Society's production of 'The Count Of Luxenbourg' at the Royal Artillery Theatre - Courtesy Helen O'Brien whose Grandfather, Charles Spicer, Played the lead. Date approx. 1940 - 1945.
We also went on trips to other London Theatres. The name Salisbury rings a bell but I am sure that I never met him. However, we did meet Peter Saunders (later Sir Peter) who must obviously have had an interest in the theatre but certainly our group. One evening Peter Saunders came in and invited us, as his guests, to the first night of a play that he was presenting in London at The Fortune Theatre. It was "The Mousetrap". I say Fortune Theatre but another site quotes The Ambassadors but racking my brain I think that there was a problem and the venue had to be changed.
Left - Forthcoming Attractions at the Royal Artillery Theatre from a Programme for 'By Pigeon Post' at the Theatre on the 29th of November 1919 - Courtesy Leonie Williams.
However as a result of my connections with the Royal Artillery Theatre I was present at the opening night of The Mousetrap in the presence of the author Agatha Christie who we saw in her private box but who declined the invitation to appear on stage after the final curtain. I hope this is of interest but I just had to record that my connections with the Royal Artillery Theatre resulted in my being a member of the audience that witnessed the start of a play that was to become the longest-running play in theatre history and probably the start of the illustrious career of Lord Attenborough. Tony Murphy.
Nb. As far as I am aware, the Mousetrap was never performed at The Fortune Theatre. This, the world's longest running play, by Agatha Christie, started its run at the Ambassadors on the 25 November 1952, with Richard Attenborough and his wife Sheila Sim, but if you know any different please Contact Me... M.L.
I would like to thank Michelle Bowen for very kindly sending in so many interesting items relating to the Royal Artillery Theatre, which were originally collected by her Great Aunt who was a frequent visitor to the Theatre.