The Georgian Theatre Royal is a theatre and historic Georgian playhouse in the market town of Richmond, North Yorkshire, England. The Georgian Theatre Royal, Britain’s oldest working theatre in its original form, is both a thriving community playhouse and a living theatre museum.
Built by actor-manager Samuel Butler in 1788, the Georgian Theatre Royal was managed by Butler along with his circuit of theatres at Beverley, Harrogate, Kendal, Northallerton, Ripon, Ulverston and Whitby.
The Georgian Theatre Royal is Britain’s most complete Georgian playhouse. Built by the actor-manager Samuel Butler in 1788, the theatre was in regular use until 1830 when performances became less frequent. In 1848 it was let as an auction room. Wine vaults were constructed in the pit at about the same time. In 1960 a non-profit trust was incorporated, a public appeal launched and a restoration began. The theatre reopened in 1963. It is Grade I Listed ‘as a building of special architectural or historical interest’. Behind the stage, a small theatre museum was expanded in 1996.
From 2002 a second extensive restoration was undertaken and the theatre reopened in September 2003 after this 1.6 million upgrade. The Georgian plays an important role as a focus for economic regeneration and renewal in its rural communities.
It was built in 1788 by the actor-manager Samuel Butler (died 1812 ) and was one of his circuit of theatres, the others being located in Beverley, Harrogate, Kendal, Northallerton, Ripon, Ulverston and Whitby, though none of these are now open. Regular performances at the theatre continued until 1830, when performances became less frequent and in 1848 it was let as an auction house. The Georgian Theatre Royal was reopened by a non-profit trust in 1963, it was expanded in 1996 and had major restoration works, including the addition of a museum, costing £1.6 million in 2002, reopening once again in 2003. August 2016 saw the opening of The Georgian Theatre Royal Experience, a small but perfectly formed museum, detailing the history of the theatre and displaying artifacts from the theatre’s collection, as well as The Woodland Scene, reported to be the oldest surviving stage scenery in the world. In addition, the Paul Iles Learning Centre was reopened following extensive renovation, and now houses The Georgian Theatre Royal Youth Theatre as well as many events including volunteer open days, book groups and costume making sessions.
The Theatre Royal is a typical eighteenth-century country playhouse, and keeps alive an important period of English theatre architecture. No other playhouse can offer such authenticity, and a few other theatres can offer such an intimacy. A capacity today of 214 places is arranged in rectangular form: sunken pit, boxes on three sides and a small gallery above. The furthest seat is only 10.7m from the stage, whose proscenium width is 4.72m with a depth of 6.4m to the back wall. Performers and theatregoers are in the closest proximity in this enchanting ‘courtyard’ theatre, the proportions of which have been emulated many times worldwide in the late twentieth century.
The 2003 refurbishments include a new, more authentic decorative colour scheme based on extensive research, reinstatement of stage machinery and simulated candle lustres combined with new stage technologies.
A new extension created a box office, a third dressing room, bars and foyers.
We are lucky enough to possess Britain’s oldest set of scenery, known as ‘The Woodland Scene’ which was probably painted between 1818 and 1836. Conserved in 2016, the scenery now takes centre stage in The Georgian Theatre Experience.
“A treasure. Quite remarkable. Beautiful in every degree… It should be listed as one of the wonders of the world, in my book.” Peter Davison, Actor
It is now fully restored and seats 214. The building is Grade I listed. and has hosted Georgian star Edmund Kean, and other figures such as Dame Sybil Thorndike, Joyce Grenfell and Alan Bennett. The venue also houses a 180-member youth theatre. The Theatre Royal possesses the oldest known set of theatrical scenery in existence. Known as ‘The Woodland Scene’, it was painted in a workshop in Royston, Hertfordshire and dates back to around 1820. Dame Judi Dench is the theatre’s president and Hamish Ogston and Sir Thomas Allen are vice-presidents.
Through the second half of the 19th century the theatre building was used for other purposes. It was not rediscovered and restored as a playhouse until the mid 20th century.
The theatre was used regularly by the Butler company until 1830, but then its use declined.
In 1848 the Theatre finally closes. The pit was covered over and made into a wine store, whilst the upper part of the theatre was used as an auction house. Over the next 100 years, the building served a variety of purposes. It was used as a store for grain, paper and furniture.
In 1939 pupils at Richmond School led by their history master, Edwin Bush, investigate the building and its history. David Brooks, Richmond’s town clerk encouraged the building to be re-used as a theatre as part of celebrations of one of the town’s charters in 1943. As part of celebrations in commemoration of a town charter, a curtained stage was set up and the building was used for performances during 1943. A curtained stage was set up for performances of three plays. A further performance took place on August 6th, after which the stage curtain was once more taken down.
After the war, the building and what remained of the 18th century playhouse began to be seriously investigated. The pit was rediscovered. When the lower part of the building was converted to a wine cellar, the pit had been covered up and brick vaults constructed below the new floor. The pit was uncovered and benches were added as part of the renovation of the theatre.
The restoration was completed In 1963 and the re-opening of the theatre was celebrated with a gala performance.
The Georgian Theatre Experience gives a unique insight into the past and reveals the secrets of this, the most complete working Georgian playhouse in Britain. Immerse yourself in a world of greasepaint, first nights, stage fright, props, scenery and showbiz from days gone by.
The Georgian Theatre exhibition area; finding out about the history of the theatre, built by actor-manager, Samuel Butler in 1788. You can try on costumes, learn about life as a Georgian actor and savour the sights, sounds and smells of 18th century England..
The Georgian Theatre’s fully restored Woodland Scene. It’s Britain’s oldest surviving stage scenery.
You’ll also get to see behind the scenes at the theatre itself. Stand on the stage, explore the pit and examine the scenery, enjoy the view from an exclusive box as well as the top tier cheap seats.