The Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square, London
With details of the earlier Ranelagh Chapel / Belgravia Theatre / Court Theatre, Lower George Street, off Sloane Square
Above - The Royal Court Theatre, London, during the run of 'Jerusalem' in August 2009 - Photo M.L.
The Royal Court Theatre, which today stands on the East side of Sloane Square in London, was built to the designs of the respected Theatre Architect, Walter Emden, and opened on Monday the 24th of September 1888. The present Theatre replaced an earlier one which was built on Lower George Street, on the West side of Sloane Square, also designed by Walter Emden, which opened on Wednesday January the 25th 1871 and was demolished in August 1887. This first Royal Court Theatre was a reconstruction of an even earlier Theatre called the Belgravia, which was itself a reconstruction of a former chapel in 1870. There is more information on the present Royal Court Theatre further down on this page. There now follows details of the earlier ones.
Right - A programme for F. C. Burnand's 'Mrs. Ponderbury' at the present Royal Court Theatre during Arthur Chudleigh's Management of the Theatre. In the cast were Charles Hawtrey, Eric Lewis, Brandon Thomas, W. Wyes, Aubrey Fitzgerald, Willis Searle, E. W. Tarver, W. F. Hawtrey, Lottie Venne, Violet Lyster, Florence Haydon, Evelyn Harrison, and John Wood.
The Ranelagh Chapel
On Lower George Street, just off the West side of Sloane Square, since the early 19th century, had stood a Presbyterian chapel called the Ranelagh Chapel, which had been open for services since July the 2nd 1818. This Chapel, which also had a school connected to it, was built by Fuller Pocock, and although primarily a building for religious worship, it was also occasionally used for public concert performances. The Ranelagh Chapel was used for many years in this way but eventually it had a change of use when it was converted into a Theatre named the Belgravia Theatre which opened in 1870.
The Belgravia Theatre
The Belgravia Theatre, which was a conversion from the former Ranelagh Chapel on Lower George Street, just off the West side of Sloane Square, opened on Saturday the 25th of June 1870 under the Management of J. Russell and East.
The Theatre was not a great success however and the ERA, when they visited the Theatre on Tuesday the 5th of July that year, only a few weeks after the Theatre opened, found the place to be almost deserted.
Left - The Ranelagh Chapel, built in 1818, and later converted into the Belgravia Theatre, and later still the Royal Court Theatre - From the book 'An historical and topographical description of Chelsea, and its environs, Volume Two' by Thomas Faulkner 1829.
The ERA printed a report on the evening they visited the Belgravia in their 10th of July 1870 edition saying:- 'This Theatre was opened, under the Management of Messrs. J. Russell and East, on the 25th ult. The undertaking of these gentlemen is not securing that amount of public support which we should imagine is essential to its continuance. On Tuesday evening last, when at about half-past seven o'clock the curtain was raised, there was not a single person in the pit that we could see; there was but one row full of people in the box balcony, and there seemed to be a similar paucity of visitors in the gallery. The Managers and the majority of the performers are worthy of having more numerous patrons. We have frequently seen audiences consisting of more hundreds than there were tens of individuals present in this instance in Theatres where the performances were far inferior to those which we witnessed here, and we could not help feeling astonished that those who took part in the proceedings could throw so much heart into their efforts as they did, as well as sorry that persons of talent, such as the principal performers were should meet with such a little encouragement.' The ERA, 10th of July 1870.
This article seems to have been and accurate glimpse of things to come for the Belgravia Theatre as it never really came to very much afterwards and was not a successful enterprise for its owners. The Theatre was only open for a few months before closing down again.
By November the same year however, reports in the papers were talking of a new Theatre to be opened in Sloane Square, called the Royal Court, this was to be a conversion of the Belgravia Theatre by the respected architect Walter Emden.
Right - A newspaper cutting from the 20th of November 1870 reports on the building of the first Royal Court Theatre.
Work began on the conversion of the old Belgravia Theatre, formerly the Ranelagh Chapel, on November the 3rd 1870. The Theatre was built by Thomas Jackson to the designs of the architect Walter Emden, and was finished in a little over two months. The Theatre opened on Wednesday January the 25th 1871 as the Royal Court Theatre with a production of the farce, 'Turn Him Out', and then, after an opening speech, a production of a new three-act comedy called 'Randall's Thumb,' this was written expressly for the opening of the new Theatre by W. S. Gilbert, who would later go on to find fame and unrivaled success with his partner Arthur Sullivan. Following this was a production of the comedy 'Q.E.D'.
Right - A programme for 'New Men and Old Acres' at the first Royal Court Theatre on Thursday, September the 18th, 1884.
The ERA carried a review of the new Theatre, and its opening night production in their 29th of January 1871 edition saying:- 'On Wednesday evening, 25th, 1871, was opened, with the usual ceremony, the Royal Court Theatre. It may be whispered, no doubt, in after times that the walls of the newest of our playhouses echoed with the voice of eloquent divines, warning their sober congregations to avoid the contagion of the Theatre. But the whole world moves in a circle. What was a chapel is now a Theatre, and a very pretty Theatre into the bargain. The short life of the Belgravia Theatre, which stood here, needs only a passing word. The Court Theatre is, to all intents and purposes, a new place of amusement, and it bids to be as fashionable as any of its fellows. The Lessee and Manager, M. Litton no doubt had some very good reason for opening the new Theatre on a given date, or about a given time. One would not have been surprised if the chance playgoer, seeing the cheerless and unfinished appearance of the outside and the approaches, had suddenly darted off, determined not to risk rheumatic fever or a settled cold, by wandering through cold vault-like passages, and through corridors absolutely death-like, on account of damp mortar and perspiring walls. But it is not right to Judge by outside appearances. The interior of the house once gained, and the doors tightly closed, a very different state of things presented itself. The audience huddled together and kept itself warm, by the time the performances were over the Theatre was fairly aired by the warmth of such a large section of humanity. The Theatre, constructed from the plans and designs of Mr. Walter Emden, the clever renovator of the Globe, fairly deserves the title "elegant." Mr. Walter Emden, the architect, and Mr. Thomas Jackson, the builder, have certainly put their heads together with some effect. People may say what they like about our acting and our play writing; at any rate we can build Theatres and decorate them with rare taste.
Above - A programme for 'New Men and Old Acres' at the first Royal Court Theatre on Thursday, September the 18th, 1884.
The prevailing tone of the Court Theatre is a charming combination of mauve colour and silver, delicately relieved with gold. The curtains are in admirable taste, being mauve satin stamped with an artistic design in gold. There is no clashing of colour. The effect is soft and very pleasant. The rich and bold carton pierre work, which adds so much to the general effect and richness of the decoration, is from the famous establishment or Messrs. White, of Great Marylebone-street, who have worked under the supervision of the architect. The lover of bright colour and happy design should not omit to notice the frescos over the proscenium, representing incidents in the life of St. George of England, and painted representing by Mr. E. Gurden Dalziel. These frescos are admirably painted in the style of Mr. Marks, the harmony of warm and bold colour being particularly noticeable. With a bright act-drop, painted by Mr. Frederick Fenton, illustrating "Nell Gwynne in Cheyne-walk, Chelsea, soliciting of King Charles the Second the means to found a hospital for the aged and disabled soldiers of England," the tout ensemble of the Court Theatre is open to no question.
Left - A programme for 'The Denhams' at the first Royal Court Theatre on Saturday, February the 21st, 1885.
We may take this opportunity of praising the good sense of the Management, in rigorously abolishing all fees to attendants, and pause in astonishment at the refined appearance of the "gentlemen's gentlemen," who, in blue coats, brass buttons, velvet collar; knee-breeches, black silk stockings, and buckled pumps, actually alarm the visitors by their courtesy and their prepossessing looks. It is quite clear that the Management intends to do things well, and as far as possible, the visitors to the Court Theatre will be treated with the consideration and courtesy which are extended to guests in a private house.
Above - A programme for 'The Denhams' at the first Royal Court Theatre on Saturday, February the 21st, 1885.
The 1871 Royal Court Theatre was demolished in August 1887 and a new Theatre was built to replace it, this time on the East side of Sloane Square. The Theatre opened on the 24th of September 1888 and is still in business today. An article in the ERA on the 13th of August 1887 reported on the demolition of the old Theatre and the building of the new one saying:-
'It may interest theatre-going people to know that the Court Theatre, now being demolished, was erected in the shortest space of time on record for such an undertaking. It was commenced November 3d, 1870, and was ready for opening on January 25th, 1871. This was accomplished by working day and night, and as no builder could be found to execute the work in the time, Mr Wybrow Robertson became his own builder, his architect, Mr Walter Emden, taking the entire superintendence. The new Court Theatre will be erected on the other side of the road, next the railway station, so that visitors will be under cover from the station to the theatre doors. The plans for the new theatre have been deposited by Mr Walter Emden, the architect, with the Board of Works. The construction is to be entirely fireproof. It is intended to open early in January next.'
Formerly - The Court Theatre
Above - A Sketch of the New Court Theatre, Sloane Square - From the Pall Mall Gazette 28 Feb 1888
The Royal Court Theatre which stands on the East side of Sloane Square in London today was built to the designs of the respected Theatre Architect, Walter Emden, and opened as the Court Theatre on Monday the 24th of September 1888 with a production of Charles Thomas's new play 'Hermine' followed by Sydney Grundy's 'Mamma'. The Theatre replaced an earlier Theatre on the West side of Sloane Square which was demolished the previous year.
The Theatre was originally commissioned by the actor John Clayton, who was co lessee of the earlier Court Theatre along with Arthur Cecil. Unfortunately Clayton died on the 27th of February 1888 whilst his new Theatre was still being built. The Pall Mall Gazette printed a report, with illustrations, on the building of the new Theatre the day after Clayton died saying:-
'We give to-day a sketch of the new Court Theatre, which Mr. Emden is building for the late Mr. Clayton. By the kindness of Mr. Emden we are able to give a drawing of the exterior of the theatre (Shown Above) and plans of the interior. The whole of the construction will be fireproof, similar to that adopted in Terry's Theatre, with some improvements which have been made on the system since the erection of that building. There will be no columns at all in the auditorium to impede the view of the audience.
The front in Sloane-square is in a free, simple style, and the interior will be in a treatment of the French Renaissance. The theatre will accommodate about 800 people. It will be provided with a fireproof curtain made of asbestos cloth on an entirely new principle. The proscenium opening is 22 ft. 6 in. in width. The stage will be dominated by sprinklers and hydrants, the sprinklers being on the non-automatic principle. The lighting will be by electricity, supplemented by gas in case of accident. The ventilation of the auditorium is by openings in the dome and a system of exhausts; the heated air from the stage will also be drawn off by large exhausts in the roof. The theatre will be heated by hot water.
The building is arranged in three tiers; on the first tier the stalls and pit, on the second the dress circle and balcony, and on the third the upper boxes and gallery. This theatre will have exit accommodation beyond any that has been built, There are ten exits and entrances to the front of house, being two every seperate portion.
All the dressing rooms are in a seperate building, and are to be of fireproof construction; the roof over the whole of the building is summarily constructed.'
The above text in quotes is from the Pall Mall Gazette, 28th of
On the 5th of November 1887, whilst the new Theatre was still being built, the ERA carried a small report on the new building saying:- 'The new Court Theatre is to be erected on the new fireproof principle, and with all the most modern appliances.
The theatre will have the advantage of being open on three sides, and most of the fourth side is unattached. It will also have two extra exits, there being altogether ten for the auditorium alone.
The theatre will be next to the railway, but divided from it by an open space. Mr Clayton is negotiating for a subway from the railway direct into the theatre. The size of the house will be about that of the old Court Theatre, but it will have more stage room, and the dressing-rooms will be in a fire-proof building at the side. Mr Walter Emden is the architect.' The ERA, 5th November 1887.
THE NEW COURT THEATRE
'The exterior of Mrs John Wood and Mr Arthur Chudleigh's new theatre in Sloane-square, which will open on Monday with Mr Sydney Grundy's adaptation of Les, Surprises du Divorce, entitled Mamma, is plain and unpretentious. The general effect of the auditorium is produced by a tasteful admixture of crimson, cream, and golden hues, and the result is peculiarly bright and pleasing. The curtain will be of green plush of a dainty shade, and the act-drop, which has been painted by Messrs W. Harford and A. Glendenning, represents a court scene in the last century.
Right - A programme for 'A Royal Family' at the Royal Court Theatre under the management of Arthur Chudleigh and Dion Boucicault in October 1888.
The dress-circle seats are particularly commodious, plenty of room being allowed between each row; and to an exit door from this part of the house an ingenious patent bolt has been affixed, which, effectually barring ingress, yields at once to pressure in case of a panic. The Prince's room, which is on this floor, and on a level with the street, so that Royalty can drive up to the very door of the apartment in its own carriage, is decorated in the Arabic style, and is one of the prettiest bits of fitting and furnishing, in the building.
The dressing-rooms, of which there are nine, are remarkably large and commodious, and are furnished with gas and the electric light. The whole of the construction is fireproof. There are no columns in the auditorium to impede the view of the audience. The theatre will accommodate about 800 people. It is provided with a fire-proof curtain made of asbestos cloth on an entirely new principle.
The proscenium opening is 22ft. 6in. in width. The stage will be dominated by sprinklers and hydrants, the sprinklers being on the non-automatic principle. The lighting will be by electricity supplied by engines in the cellars of the building, supplemented by gas in case of accident. The ventilation of the auditorium is by openings in the dome and a system of exhausts; the heated air from the stage will also be drawn of by large exhausts in the roof. The house will be heated by hot water.
Left - The Cast of 'A Royal Family' at the Royal Court Theatre under the management of Arthur Chudleigh and Dion Boucicault in October 1888.
The building is arranged in three tiers; on the first tier the stalls and pit, on the second the dress circle and balcony, and on the third the upper boxes and gallery. There are ten exits and entrances to the front of the house, two to every separate portion. The roof is fireproof.
The whole does great credit to the architect, Mr Walter Emden; to the contractors, Messrs Holiday and Greenwood; and to Messrs Marshall and Snellgrove, who have supplied the luxurious tapestry hangings and upholstery with great taste, this part of the decorations being particularly well executed.
A praiseworthy item is the provision, for which Mr Chudleigh deserves the credit, of candle-lights in case of fire or panic. Pretty Badoura lamps, specially designed for the purpose, are hung in various parts of the building, and, so far from being eyesores, as the ordinary oil lamps would have been, are additions to the aspect of the interior. Altogether the new Court Theatre is one of the brightest and prettiest of our London playhouses.'
The above text in quotes is from the Era, 22 Sep 1888.
On the Theatre's opening night, on Monday the 24th of September 1888, there was a near riot when patrons of the Pit complained of their treatment on entering the Theatre, and their subsequent lack of space when they had found their seats. The ERA reported on the incident, and the opening of the Theatre in their 29th of September edition saying:-
'When the pretty little house that Mr Walter Emden has built for Mrs John Wood and Mr Arthur Chudleigh threw open its doors for the first time at half-past seven last Monday evening, the easternmost end of that usually quiet nook Sloane-square was the scene of extraordinary bustle and excitement. A dense crowd thronged the roadway, eager to see the fun, if only from the outside, while indoors, long before the musicians appeared in their places to strike up the National Anthem, a palpitating mass of humanity not only filled every nook and corner, but packed the passages and choked the exit doorways of the building. It was, in part, not only a palpitating, but an exceedingly angry, mass. For some time the pit was a veritable pandemonium. It seems that, by a curious blunder, the pay-box had been placed at the bottom, instead of at the top, of the pit staircase, and the stream of pittites, gathering momentum in their descent, had found themselves hurled with embarrassing velocity against a wooden barrier at the bottom of the steps, with consequences that, had it not been for the timely breakage of the obstruction, might have been serious.
Even when safely settled in their places, the people who had paid their half-crowns were far from content. They complained of want of space. Certainly, the portion of the floor alloted to them was the reverse of excessive. The ground area at the new Court is none too ample, and of this the greater part has had to be absorbed by the stalls, which are no less than one hundred and seventy in number. The chairs in this part of the house, and in the dress-circle, have been supplied by H. Lazaras and Son, are of an improved make, and are particularly comfortable. But that, of course, was the management's business, not the public's. If Mrs John Wood and Mr Chudleigh think they can get more people to occupy their floor at half-a-guinea a head than at half-a-crown - and, taking into consideration not only the West-end situation of their theatre, but the kind of entertainment they propose to supply, there is really no reason why they should not - they have, of course, every right to map out their ground-plan as they choose. But the patrons of the pit on Monday evening apparently overlooked this commonsense aspect of the matter. Indignant shouts of "manager!" architect!" "Chudleigh!" rent the air, and were not stilled until the unfortunate actors in the curtain-raiser had gone through a good deal of their performance in dumb-show.
Left - The Royal Court Theatre, London, during the run of 'Jerusalem' in August 2009 - Photo M.L.
When order was at length restored, and the luckless dramatic critics were able to concentrate their attention on the stage, it was found that the new first piece - everything was new on Monday night - was already well under weigh. This was Mr Charles Thomas's original play, in one act, entitled:
Marquis D'Aurigny - Mr R. CATHCART
The story of this slight comedietta, which the author locates at Courville, near Chartres - any French town would have done as well - in 1798, is one of engaging simplicity. Pierre Brunnier, a young son of the people, loves Hermine, the granddaughter of the Marquis d'Aurigny; but, sensible of the humbleness of his birth, fears to declare his love. He determines to take himself out of temptation by joining the army as a conscript, and, with this purpose, writes a letter to the mayor of the town, explaining that he is not, as has, for reasons that are neither here nor there, hitherto been supposed, above the conscription age. The discovery, however, that Hermine returns his love, and the entry of the Marquis, who not only forces him to confess the true state of his affections, but insists on having him for a son-in-law, induce him to change his mind, and he tears up the letter he has just written. The next moment the fragments are discovered by Henri d'Aurigny, Hermine's cousin and Pierre's jealous rival, who pieces them together, and despatches forthwith a copy of the letter to the Mayor. When Pierre finds himself suddenly ordered off to join the army, and discovers how he has been betrayed, there is, of course a pretty quarrel between the two young men. At the last moment, however, just as Pierre returns to take a last leave of Hermine, a notification arrives that he is not to be enrolled after all. A volunteer has insisted on taking his place. It is Henri - Henri brought to a better mind, and determined to atone for his treachery by leaving Hermine in undisturbed happiness with the man she loves.
Right - A programme for J. H. Leigh's production of 'The Tempest' at the present Royal Court Theatre in October 1903.
The still angry pit on Monday jeered at Mr Eric Lewis's accurate "Incroyable " costume, but this did not prevent the actor making a very creditable success of a by no means agreeable part. Mr Sydney Brough, who, despite the stormy state of the barometer at the back of the house, received a warm welcome on his return to the stage after his prolonged illness, was sufficiently frank and sympathetic as Pierre Brunnier; and Miss Florence Wood played Hermine with admirable sincerity and tact. Miss Marianne Caldwell was the most vivacious of French bonnes, while Mr R. Cathcart and Mr W. H. Quinton rendered useful service in mirror parts.
The author of this neat little piece having been duly called before the curtain, no time was lost in getting to the main event of the evening, the production of Mr Sydney Grundy's adaptation of Les Surprise. du Divorce, entitled:
Jack Pontiff - Mr JOHN HARE
So closely does Mr Grundy follow the lines of his French original - in this respect his choice, an unusual bit of frankness in an English programme, of the word "translation" is amply justified that we need not here dwell too minutely upon the details of a plot that has already, in connection with the first production of Les Surprisei du Divorce at the Paris Vaudeville last spring and, subsequently, with its performance by M Coquelin at the Royalty, been fully described in these columns...'
The ERA then went on to describe the piece in detail however, but finished with the following paragraphs:
'Where could one find a prettier, more coquettish pair of young wives than the Diana of Miss Filippi and the Winifred of Miss Annie Hughes? Where a neater pair of soubrettes than Miss Caldwell and Miss Margaret Brough? We have left till last the two chief features of the cast, which are, of course, the Pontifex of Mr Hare and the Mrs Jannaway of Mrs John Wood. In following actors like M. Jolly, who played the original in Paris, and M. Coquelin, who played it in Soho, Mr Hare, of course, is travelling a little outside his usual histrionic domain, His success, however, on Monday night was instant and complete. His quiet, sarcastic skirmishes with the mother-in-law at the outset, his breathless and heated wrath when the skirmishes develop into a pitched battle, above all, his wild, his tragic despair when the almost-forgotten mother-in-law, the incubus of the old household, makes her irruption into the new, these details and many more were thought out and skilfully presented with the sure touch of an artist. As to Mrs John Wood's Mrs Jannaway, the irresistible ludicrousness of this terrible mother-in-law, tripping on to the stage to be photographed in the costume she wore twenty years before on the boards of "the Wells," is a thing to be enjoyed, not described.
At the close of the performance, after Mr Grundy had made his bow and both Mrs John Wood and Mr Hare had been favoured with a double "call," the manageress again came forward, and in a neat, discreetly-delivered speech, thanked the audience for their reception of the piece, and her company and staff for their exertions, concluding with a promise of a new play by Mr Pinero, to be produced as soon as the popularity of Mamma! should be exhausted. This, we think, will prove to be no very early date.'
The above text in quotes is from the ERA, 29th Sep 1888.
Since it's opening in 1888 the Royal Court Theatre has undergone a number of changes to the building's fabric, some of them quite major, but has managed to still retain the feel of it's original Victorian Theatre design.
In 1897 there were minor changes to the Theatre's gallery carried out by J. Kingwell Cole, and in 1904 the building gained a third floor so that a rehearsal room could be included, this was carried out by C. E. Lancaster Parkinson.
Right - A Stage Society Programme introduces their fifth season at the Royal Court Theatre in November 1903.
In 1920 a forestage was added and both of the Theatre's circles were altered into the shape they still carry today by Burdwood and Dunt, but the swagged fruit and flowers which adorned them at this time were later removed in 2000.
In 1934 the Theatre was converted for use as a Cinema and the original columns which supported the balcony were removed. Cinema use continued until the Theatre suffered bomb damage in 1940.
The Theatre then remained derelict until it was restored in 1952 by Robert Cromie for use as a live Theatre again, with a lower seating capacity of 500.
George Devine became artistic director of the Royal Court in 1956, and formed the English Stage Company at the Theatre, a Company who have remained in the building ever since.
In 1955 the original apron stage was restored. In 1964 the Theatre was redecorated by Jocelyn Herbert.
In 1969 a new 60 seat Theatre Space, called the Theatre Upstairs, was constructed in the former 1904 rehearsal room by Roderick Ham, who, in 1990 added a new rehearsal room to the Theatre.
Above - A 1970s Seating Plan for the Royal Court Theatre
The most radical reconstruction of the Royal Court Theatre however, was carried out by Haworth Tompkins in 1998. The Theatre closed in 1997 and the company relocated to the Duke of York's Theatre and the Ambassadors Theatre whilst the works to their own home were carried out.
The works to the Royal Court in 1998 included extending the building to the rear to enlarge the backstage accommodation, and extending under Sloane Square itself to provide a restaurant for the Theatre. The Theatre Upstairs, now called the Jerwood Theatre, was also improved at this time. During the reconstruction of the main Theatre the early wooden stage machinery was removed to allow for modernisation and improvement of the main stage. However, before removal, the wooden machinery was recorded and the stage traps are now installed and in working order at the Harrogate Royal Hall.
The newly improved and extended Royal Court Theatre reopened in February 2000, 112 years after the it was first opened in 1888. The English Stage Company says of it's achievements since first opening at the Royal Court in 1956: "After 50 years, writers, directors, actors and audiences still look to the Royal Court for the classics of the future. Plays that were once considered subversive, immoral or blasphemous are now studied in schools and performed all over the world. George Devine wanted to create 'a vital, modern theatre of experiment'. 50 years later, that theatre stands at the centre of a vigorous, renewed culture of playwriting."
The Royal Court is a Grade II Listed building and currently has a capacity of 380 in the main house and 85 in the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs.
You may like to visit the Theatre's own website here.
Archive newspaper reports on this page were collated and kindly sent in for inclusion by B.F.