Re-entering the stage
Patrick Kelly reports on the reopening of one of the UK’s most venerable theatres
The title of Britain’s oldest theatre is a contested one – but there’s no doubt that the Theatre Royal in York, which has been around since 1744, occupies a special place in the city’s heart. How else could you explain the way in which regular bulletins on the the- atre’s year-long refurbishment were awaited by theatregoers like anxious relatives at a hospital bedside? Will it reopen in time for the Christmas panto? What will be discovered un- derneath the Georgian façade or the Victorian stage? Will the £6m resto- ration project do justice to this iconic part of the city’s historical landscape?
In the end, the saga carried on for 406 days, reported the local paper, which was keeping count, and on April 22, York’s much loved theatre reopened officially with a clever adaptation of Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. And the building looks fabulous.
The redevelopment, paid for by grants from Arts Council England, York City Council and a host of other donors, stemmed from an urgent need for repairs to a building which had largely been untouched for 50 years. Major changes were needed to the roof, to the auditorium and to the backstage facilities. But there was also a need, says YTR chair Ann Green, to create a building which helps boost the commercial income of the theatre at a time when public finances were constrained. This required a refur- bishment which would match the “audacity and ambition” of the playhouses which had occupied the site for nearly 300 years.
Help came in the form of the York Conservation Trust (see box) which negotiated a £1 handover of the building from a cash-strapped city council and provided the £2m needed for the completely new roof, and a third of the £6m budget.
Access throughout has been im- proved, with a spacious open plan foyer replacing the cramped box office, a new modular stage, better sightlines in the auditorium and much improved disabled facilities, from toilets to seats, throughout the building. A brand new roof makes the best use of the lightwells that had been constructed in 1967 when the theatre added a new entrance area. That concrete and glass extension, award-winning and now Grade II* listed like the Victorian audito- rium, now has a new lift giving full disabled access, a new restaurant, doubled cafe and bar space, many new toilets, restored rooflights and a colour changing lighting scheme. Much of the extra space has come from enclosing the Victorian gothic colonnade with glass, and creating an intimate café/bistro layout.
Inevitably, in a city where his- tory pokes through on every street corner, on a site which originally housed a medieval hospital, archae- ology was going to be built into the timetable. But the discovery of an ancient cobbled street and medieval well beneath the main stage meant that even the best laid plans were upended.
As a team from York Archaeo- logical Trust dug in for the long haul, the money-spinning Christmas panto had to be hastily rescheduled in the National Railway Museum. In York, this is no easy matter as traditional audiences, not to mention panto producer and veteran dame, Berwick Kaler, believe their antics are as embedded in the proscenium stage as the plasterwork in the boxes. But like the hardened profession- als they are, Wilson, artistic director Damian Cruden and Kaler moved Dick Whittington and his Meerkat to the 1,000 seater temporary theatre originally built for a touring production of The Railway Children, a move which prompted a handful of people to cancel, but ended up selling more seats than ever.
“When you shut a theatre that hasn’t been closed in 270 years you know that there is a lot at stake” said lead architect Angus Morrogh-Ryan, from De Matos Ryan Architects. “When you’re dealing with a building which is part medieval, part Georgian, part Victorian and part 1960s there is even more that could go wrong.
Theatre Royal chief executive Liz Wilson admits that the discovery of an original floor surface which had sur- vived for more than 800 years was not the best news for a theatre executive attempting to ensure a programme got started on time, but it demonstrated just how much the theatre’s story was part of York’s. “The Theatre Royal is much more than a theatre” she said. “It’s a place where people meet, learn and explore.”
Changes to the stage to a modular form will improve flexibility, enabling traps and level changes to be provided with ease. It will also allow YTR to attract dance companies which were turned off by the previous raked stage. “This season will see a performance from Birmingham Royal Ballet and, in future, will give us more options for the programme”.
The medieval well remains intact and parts of the street have been incor- porated into the terrazzo floor of the café, while the stone arch and tower built into the back wall of the stage, the remains of a Georgian garden folly, will feature in backstage tours. But for £25 tickets theatregoers can get a seat- ing either in the wings or from high above the stage on the fly floor – easily the best vantage point to see not only the show, but the remarkable building in which it’s taking place.
THE YORK CONSERVATION TRUST
The York Conservation Trust is a charity dedicated to preserving the built heritage of the city. It was formed by former city mayor Dr John Bowes Morrell and his brother Cuthbert in 1945. The trust buys and restores significant historical buildings in the city and then makes them available to rent. it now owns and runs over 85 buildings, consisting of 79 residential and 66 commercial lets. “Restoration and conservation has to be balanced with the need to put the building to its best use, both from the point of view of its tenants and in the life of the city” says the trust’s chair Philip Thake.