A (brief) history of the New Theatre Royal
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Henry Rutley, a circus proprietor brought the Swan Tavern and the adjoining Landport Hall. The licence to turn the hall into a theatre was granted providing all communication doors to the tavern were bricked up.
On 29 September the refurbished hall, now called the Theatre Royal, opened with a comedy called ‘A New Way to Pay Old Debts’.
Henry Rutley died
John Waters Boughton became the manager and a little later the owner (he also built the Prince’s Theatre and the Kings Theatre, the latter was opened in September 1907 and is still a working theatre).
Boughton commissioned C J Phipps to design a new, bigger theatre. C J Phipps was the architect of Her Majesty’s Theatre in London. The New Theatre Royal opened on 4 August with Princess Ida. The stage was 40ft deep with a proscenium of 30ft! Ellen Terry, Sarah Bernhardt and Henry Irving graced the stage.
Boughton decided to enlarge the stage. He engaged Frank Matcham to redesign the theatre. It re-opened on 6 August with a 65ft stage. Opera seasons lasted a month and at the spectacular annual pantomime a “stage roller” enabled horses to gallop across the stage.
Due to the increased costs of the war and the development of cinema and radio, theatres all over the country were closing. The Prince’s Theatre and The Kings were screening films whilst The Denville Players, a repertory company, moved in until 1932 when the Theatre Royal too became a cinema.
Films continued until 1948 when the Theatre Royal became a variety theatre but tottered to closure in October 1955.
The theatre re-opened as a repertory theatre under Kim Peacock and Hector Ross.
The theatre was used for wrestling and bingo.
The Portsmouth Theatres Company – the owners of the theatre – asked the council to demolish the now listed building. They gave permission for the destruction as it was “an eyesore in the centre of our fine city.”
Squatters camped in the theatre; thieves walked in and stole all the valuable brass fittings and roof lead.
The Theatre Royal Society was founded and opposed the destruction of the theatre.
Ken russell filmed his critically acclaimed musical film, The Boy Friend, here at the New Theatre Royal starring Twiggy, Christopher Gable, Barbara Windsor, Murray Melvin and Georgina Hale with music by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies.
Children entered the building and played with fireworks on the stage which started a fire that caused the destruction of the stage, fly tower and technical block. The safety curtain fell protecting the main auditorium from the fire.
Volunteers were allowed to enter the building and attempt to prevent further damage. The Theatre Royal Society set up a Trust Company to protect the theatre.
The Trust purchased the theatre from Portsmouth Theatres Company when it went into liquidation.
A temporary thrust stage was erected and performances were presented over the orchestra pit.
The theatre was refurbished, re-opening with the capacity of 525; the rear stalls removed and a false wall built creating a ground floor bar and increased foyer space. The re-furbished upper circle re-opened and the front of the building restored to its former Victorian glory.
2008 & Onwards
Fundraising began to restore the stage house and to build a creative learning space based on that designed by C J Phipps in 1884. In collaboration with the University of Portsmouth it is hoped to restore the New Theatre Royal to its creative role in the heart of the city of Portsmouth.