The Theatre Royal, 32 Thames Street, Windsor
Above - The Theatre Royal, Windsor in its centenary year and during the run of the pantomime 'Cinderella' in December 2010 - Photo M.L.
The Theatre Royal that stands on Thames Street, Windsor today is actually the third Theatre to be built in the town since 1793. The present Theatre opened on Tuesday the 13th of December 1910 and was built for Sir Wiliam Shipley and Captain Reginald Shipley as a replacement for their previous Theatre on the same site, which had burnt down two years earlier in 1908. The present Theatre was designed by Frank Verity, son of the well known Theatre Architect Thomas Verity, who died in 1891. Frank Verity was also responsible for several London Theatres including the Carlton, Haymarket, the Embassy, High Holborn, the Plaza, Lower Regent Street, the Scala, Charlotte Street, all now either demolished or in other use.
Frank Verity was also responsible for the alterations to the Empire Theatre, Leicester Square in 1893 and the rebuild of the People's Palace, Bristol in 1928. (Please note that the present Theatre is widely reported as having opened on the 17th of December 1910 but having trawled through contemporary archive newspaper reports it is clear that the actual opening date was the 13th of December 1910.) There now follows a history of the Theatres Royal, Windsor in chronological order.
The history of the Theatre Royal, Windsor stretches back several hundred years as there has been a Theatre here since 1793. The first Theatre, which was on the High Street and was said to have been 'elegant and splendidly ornamented' by the press of the time, opened on the 12th of August that year with a performance of Mrs. Inchbald's Comedy 'Every One has his Fault' and the Musical Facrce 'Rosina,' and was attended by the Royal family who resided in Windsor Castle, a short walk from the Theatre. Performers in the two productions were a very distinguished ensemble including the manager of the Theatre himself, Mr. Thornton, Mr. Taylor of the York Theatre Royal, Mr. Williamson who had played the original part of the Woodman in 'Boy of the Mill' at the Covent Garden Theatre, now the Royal Opera House, Mr Haymes from Drury Lane, Mrs. Simpson from the Dublin Theatre Royal, Mrs. Thornton and Miss Herbert from the Theatre Royal, Bath, and Mrs. S. Kemble.
After the performance the cast were invited for a Supper given by their Majesty's King George III and Queen Charlotte in grand style. They were accompanied at this Supper by a very distinguished group including The Duchess of York, Mr. and Mrs. Stanhope, Prince William, Lord and Lady Stopford, Princess Sophia of Gloucester, Miss Jeby, Two Miss Fageans, Lord and Lady Courtoun, Mrs. Egerton, Lord and Lady Chesterfield, Sir George Howard, The Countess of Effingham, Lady Francis Howard, Lord and Lady Chatham, General Stewart, Lord and Lady Bulkley, Lord Beaulieu, Lord and Lady Grenvillem, Colonel Richardson, Lord and Lady Boston, Colonel Rooke, Lord and Lady Wallingh, Two Ladies Hewes, and Mr. Henfield. Was a Theatrical Company ever entertained in such style one wonders? Although sadly the party had to end by midnight because of the Royals having to travel to Kew the following day. An easy journey nowadays but back then quite a trip in their horse drawn carriages.
Although this 1793 Theatre Royal on the High Street was the first purpose built Theatre in Windsor there was in fact an even earlier Theatre on Peascod Street, which by all accounts was not much more than a Barn in a muddy field nearly a mile outside town. A Mr. Baker ran this Theatre on a Lease originally granted for 21 years from 1787. This Theatre was altered and said to be 'much improved' when it reopened two years later with a production of the Opera 'Crusade' on December the 14th 1789. Then in 1791 a new manager took the Theatre, Mr. Thornton, who had previously been running the Reading and Guilford Theatres. And it was Thornton who would go on to manage the newly built Theatre on the High Street two years later in 1793.
The new Theatre opened in 1793 but was generally only used for six weeks in the summer and by 1805 it was sold to a dissenting sect who then converted the Theatre into a chapel. However, the residents of Windsor were enraged by this and set about raising the funds to build a new Theatre, something they managed in short measure, considering the £6,000 it would eventually cost to build.
The new Theatre Royal, Windsor was built on Thames Street and opened on Tuesday the 22nd of August 1815 with a production of 'The School for Scandal,' and the Farce 'The Sleep Walker.' However, the Theatre had a private viewing by Her Majesty Queen Charlotte and several of the Prince and Princesses before it opened, conducted by Messrs Knight, Jonas, and Penley, who showed them round the new Theatre on the morning of the opening and were said to have been 'Highly Delighted' by what they saw before setting off for an 'airing through Slough, on the Bath Road, in their carriages.'
Some years later, in 1845, a bizarre accident happened at this Theatre which the Bradford Observer reported in their 2nd of January edition saying: 'A most lamentable and fatal accident occurred at the Windsor Theatre on Monday evening, to `Mrs. Sarah Hume, 63 years of age, the wife of a journeyman cutler, residing at Eton, met with her death by accidentally falling over the gallery into the pit. Her back was broken by the body falling across the benches in the pit, and she died almost immediately. Notwithstanding the catastrophe, the curtain drew up (but almost to empty benches) within a few minutes after it had occurred; and the performances took place as usual, including the diverting exhibition of the German dwarfs, a comic song, and the laughable farce of 'The Young Scamp, or My Grandmother's Pet.' Bradford Observer 2nd, January 1845. One has to wonder what kind of state the audience was in at this production that something like this could have occurred in the first place, and marvel at the fact that the performance went on despite such an accident having happened only moments before.
In March 1869 the Theatre, which had been closed for some time and had become a 'Filthy and Dilapidated Place' as stated in the ERA, was renovated and altered by Mr. J. Fremantle, who was a member of the local amateur group called 'The Windsor Strollers.' Freemantle bought the Theatre and one of the cottages which had formerly been the entrance to the Pit and Gallery, and set about having the building remodeled by the architect Mr. G. Somers Clarke of London. Somers demolished the old Pit and Gallery entrance and built a new one in its place, and provided stone staircases outside the main fabric of the building for exits in case of fire. He also added water services to the flies and stage in case of fire, and renovated the original box entrances into a 'handsome corridor, paved with encaustic tiles.' Somers also added a Royal Box in the hope that the Royal Family would attend the Theatre as they had done on many occasions in its earlier years.
The Theatre reopened on Wednesday the 31st of March 1869 and the following Friday, with a productions of 'The Wolf in Sheep's Clothing', To Paris and Back for Five Pounds,' and ' Tit for Tat,' all performed by the Windsor Strollers Company. The seats sold well prior to its opening and the Company hoped to be able to continue there until July. Indeed by September the ERA were enthusing about the newly renovated Windsor Theatre saying: 'Her Majesty's subjects in the Royal town of Windsor may congratulate themselves upon having at their command one of the prettiest and most commodious little Theatres the Provinces can show. It is situated almost at the foot of the Castle Hill, and no one could guess from the plain and slightly ecclesiastical looking entrances that a well-appointed, newly decorated, and comfortable Temple of the Drama is to be found at the end of the passages (fire proof) leading from the street.
Immediately on entering the visitor will be struck with the extremely uncommon character of the decoration and the prevalence of red and black in the general arrangement of the colour. The style of decoration is, in fact, Pompeian, and the elaborate ornamentation, the borderings, and the panels (some of them having allegorical subjects painted in) are in extreme good taste. At first the effect appears somewhat heavy and sombre, but this impression quickly disappears as the harmony of the whole design becomes apparent. The interior is at once classical and elegant, and the arrangements for the seating of the audience are all that could be desired. With this tone of colour pervading the Theatre extra care would naturally be taken with the lighting. This is effected by a sun-light of requisite power, and nothing is needed in this particular.
The act-drop has a local subject, and represents a view of the Long Walk, taken from the statue, and showing the Castle in the distance. In the front is a group of figures, and winding round the right hand road is a regiment of Life Guards. Now that the townspeople have such a charming Theatre it will be a reproach upon them if the Drama is not patronised as it should be in Windsor. The Royal family of England have always been staunch patrons of the Drama, George the Third's unostentatious visits to the little Theatre at Weymouth, and again to the building on Richmond-green (so conveniently near to the old Kew Palace), are matters of history. Though the 'English people no longer have the privilege of seeing her Majesty the Queen surrounded by her family at the London Theatres, the Prince of Wales is a constant attendant, and there can be no doubt that a very great stimulus has always been given to theatricals by the personal attendance of Royalty.' - The ERA, 26th September 1869.
On the same day that the above article was published, however, the ERA also carried a notice that the Theatre would be up for auction on Thursday October the 14th by the auctioneers Messrs E. and H. Lumley at the Guildhall Tavern in Gresham Street, London.
The Theatre had furthur renovations under the lesseeship of Mr. John Restall, in 1900 and was by then being called the Theatre Royal and Opera House. Enhancements at this time included an enlarged pit capable of accommodating an additional 200 people in 'long tip seats.' This was accomplished by removing the thrust stage which projected beyond the proscenium, which was repainted in green and gold, and surmounted by the Royal Arms, decorated with heraldic colours. The Dress Circle was also enlarged at this time by removing the previous private partitions and adding new 'plush' seats for 100 people. In the Upper Circle the partitions and old uncomfortable seats were also removed and replaced by tip up seats. A new refreshment bar was constructed from one of the former dressing rooms near the dress circle, and another bar was added at the back of the pit. Extra dressing rooms were then added under the stage. The whole auditorium was also redecorated and the dress and upper circles fitted with new carpet. Cork Linoleum was fitted to the floors of the rest of the house. New heating was also installed and the whole Theatre was wired for electric light. The Theatre reopened on Wednesday the 31st of October 1900 with a performance of 'Florodora.'
Sadly this newly renovated Theatre Royal was not to last long as on the 18th of February 1908 the building was destroyed by fire, with only a small part of the auditorium surviving.
Above - The Theatre Royal, Windsor and Windsor Castle, in the Theatre's centenary year and during the run of the pantomime 'Cinderella' at the Theatre in December 2010 - Photo M.L.
In 1910 however, Sir Wiliam Shipley and Captain Reginald Shipley had a new Theatre built on the site of the destroyed one, this time by J. Allen and Sons to the designs of Frank Verity, the son of the well known Theatre Architect Thomas Verity. The Theatre, which still stands today, opened on Tuesday night the 13th of December 1910 with a performance by the Windsor Strollers of 'Under the Red Robe.' This was followed the next day with the same production in the afternoon with Princess Christian in attendance. Then 'The Marriage of Kitty,' and 'The Sentence,' were performed on the Friday afternoon. Profits from these productions were pledged to be given to the King Edward VIII Hospital for Windsor and Eaton, and District.
Above Right - The auditorium of the Theatre Royal, Windsor in November 2010 - Courtesy Charlie Gracie.
The Theatre's facade was designed by Verity in the early English Renaissance style and the auditorium, which could seat 850 people; 164 in the stalls; 110 in the dress circle; 130 in the upper circle; and 380 in the gallery, was reported in the Stage of the 15th of December 1910 as having been decorated in a 'purely architectural treatment as distinguished from the merely decorative.' the Stage went on to say: ' The motif is classical in style, with a Georgian feeling throughout. The colour scheme is obtained by a broad treatment in greys on the walls, the caps and bases of the columns on both sides of the classical proscenium opening on bronze, the whole being relieved by means of the bronze-brown colour of the carpets, seating and draperies. The electroliers from the ceiling are in gilded brass in keeping with the entire scheme.'
Left - The auditorium boxes of the Theatre Royal, Windsor in November 2010 - Courtesy Charlie Gracie.
The Stage then went on to report on the Theatre's FOH facilities and entrances etc., saying: 'Entering from Thames Street, the visitor passes into a spacious crush hall, with cloak-rooms, box-office, and staircases right and left, leading down to the stalls and saloon, also communicating with the main corridor, which encircles and gives access to the box tier, placed at the back of the auditorium. This level includes the dress circle, and is the best part of the house. It is raised a few feet above the level of the stalls and enclosed by the private boxes, the fronts of which are treated with a simple order carried round, thus forming a circular auditorium. Directly above this is a continuous tier. It divided into balcony and gallery, each with its own saloon and separate entrances.' The Stage, 15th of December 1910.
The new Theatre Royal's stage was 36 foot deep by 48 foot wide with a height of 53 foot from stage to grid, and the proscenium opening was 28 foot by 23 foot. The Theatre's dressing room block, which consisted of 13 rooms was accessed from the stage right side of the stage via a spacious lobby.
Above - The Theatre Royal, Windsor and the walls of Windsor Castle, in the Theatre's centenary year and during the run of the pantomime 'Cinderella' in December 2010 - Photo M.L.
In 1930 the Theatre was converted for Cinema use but was rescued from this fate by John Counsell in 1933 when he attempted to establish a repertory company at the Theatre, something which took several attempts to achieve successfully, but was finally established properly in March 1938. Shortly after this a Royal visit by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth to a production of 'The Rose Without A Thorn' really put the Theatre back on the theatrical map, and so it has continued. John Counsell also acted in and directed many of his early productions at the Theatre. John Counsell's Company would go on, and remarkably without being sunbsidised, at the Theatre Royal for nearly 50 years. He stepped down as managing director in June 1986 but continued as founder and president until his death on the 23rd of February 1987, aged 80. In 1988 the Company found themselves celebrating 50 years at the Theatre in the presence of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.
Above Right - A corridor at the Theatre Royal, Windsor in November 2010 displaying framed photographs of the stars who have performed at the Theatre over the years - Courtesy Charlie Gracie.
Above - The side elevation of The Theatre Royal, Windsor in December 2010.
In 1965 the Theatre was subject to major refurbishment and redecoration by Carl Toms assisted by Sir Anthony Denny, who was a member of Frank Verity's company, the original architect of the Theatre in 1910. Remarkably Carl Toms hit on the same colour scheme for the redecoration of the Theatre in 1965 that the Queen Mother had suggested earlier without his knowledge, that of crimson, white, and gold. Toms created a new look for the auditorium in these colours, with crimson tabs which swept up to hang in swags while the performances were showing, revealing a smoothly curved white proscenium arch.
Right - The rear elevation and dressing room block of The Theatre Royal, Windsor in December 2010.
Adam style vases embellished with gold would now adorn the walls of the auditorium and crimson carpet and seat upholstery were fitted in place of the old. The new design also included a crystal chandelier from Paris, designed specially for the Theatre, and a complete rewiring of the electrical installation. The old stalls bar was also enlarged and redecorated, and the foyer was decorated in crimson and white to match the auditorium. Altogether the refurbishment cost upwards of £75,000 but did not include any backstage alterations apart from a coat of paint in the dressing rooms.
In the John Counsell period of course the Theatre was on a weekly repertory basis and in 1964 was doing three week productions regularly. John Counsell's daughters, Jenny and Elizabeth, were occasionally in the cast, also, infrequently, his wife Mary Kerridge. However, nowadays the Theatre is often home to touring roductions but also produces its own plays with individual casts, usually running for around three weeks. The Theatre also houses a pantomime each year, done in the traditional style and to some acclaim.
The Theatre Royal, Windsor is a Grade II Listed building and at the time of writing is currently run by Bill Kenwright, who performed at the Theatre himself when a young actor in the 1960s and 70s.
Many of the shows at the Theatre today end up transferring to the West End. The Theatre Royal is also home to concerts on occasions, indeed, the legendary 50s rocker Charlie Gracie, still going strong today, performed at the Theatre in November 2010 and has been kind enough to send in many of the internal photographs of the Theatre that can be seen on this page.
Left - Charlie Gracie performing at the Theatre Royal, Windsor in November 2010 - Courtesy Charlie Gracie.
The Raked Stage of the Theatre Royal, Windsor is currently 9.14 metres deep and the Theatre has a proscenium opening of 8.53 metres with a grid height of 15.85 metres. The Theatre also has its own, now enlarged, orchestra pit, and its auditorium has a seating capacity of 633.
Right - Charlie Gracie, Brian Poole of the Tremeloes, Jess Conrad, and Mike Sarne pose for a photograph on stage at the Theatre Royal, Windsor in November 2010 - Courtesy Charlie Gracie.
The information on this page was gleaned from research through contemporary newspaper articles, the Theatre's own website, the Theatres Trust, and various other sources, and was produced with the help of BF, Charlie Gracie, and Charlie Gracie Junior.
If you have any more information or Images for this Theatre that you are willing to share please Contact me.