Prior to its opening next to the White Swan, in what was then Commercial Road, the Theatre Royal had a different life in the High Street, Old Portsmouth. The original theatre was built by John Arthur of the Bath Company in 1761, bought by Thomas Ellis Owen in 1830, mentioned in Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, and sold to the War Office in 1854. It was variously known as Portsmouth Theatre, Portsmouth and Portsea Theatre and finally as the Theatre Royal. The last Actor Manager, William Shalders, moved to the new site of the Theatre Royal when it opened under the management of Henry Rutley in 1856.
But our story starts in 1854, when ex travelling circus owner Henry Rutley became licensee of the White Swan and leased the Landport Hall next to it, hoping to create “a place of entertainment to which the middle classes of the borough might resort”. Landport Hall was converted into a theatre, a theatre license was granted on the condition that the doorways between the theatre and the White Swan be permanently bricked up, and the Theatre Royal was secured.
29 September 1856: Theatre Royal opened with the performance of Massinger’s 1621 comedy A New Way to Pay Old Debts. The leading actor was William Shalders who had been the Actor Manager in the old High Street theatre. The Portsmouth Times reported on 4th October 1856 that the theatre was “crowded to excess” and some patrons had to be turned away. The writer seemed very impressed with the theatre conversion, stating that the decorations were “very good, and are, indeed, far above the average.”
1874: Following the death of Henry Rutley, his ‘wife’ (they had never married but were known to all as Mr and Mrs Rutley) sold much of the effects of the theatre at auction.
1876: John Waters Boughton became manager, and a little later the owner of the theatre. As well as rebuilding the Theatre Royal and the Prince’s Theatre in Lake Road, Boughton also later built the King’s Theatre in Albert Road, Southsea. All of these theatres came under the control of a new company, Portsmouth Theatres Ltd, and the Theatre Royal remained the flagship theatre and the major theatre in the south of England.
1884: Boughton realised the converted hall would never become a major theatrical venue and decided to build a new theatre and commissioned C.J. Phipps to design it. The final production in the old theatre was Les Manteaux Noirs, a comic opera by Yorke.
19 May 1884: Demolition of the old structure begins.
4 August 1884: The new theatre opened with a performance of Princess Ida with principles from D’Oyly Carte Opera Company. Officers from the Garrison sang other roles supported by an amateur chorus of 100 and the Royal Marine Artillery Band. The theatre was renamed New Theatre Royal, although the ‘New’ has not always been used since then.
The Portsmouth Times reported that “A more brilliant scene than the opening of the New Theatre Royal has not occurred in the annals of Portsmouth for some time” and that the Dress circle had armchairs “to allow for the increasing amplitude of the ladies’ dresses.”
Ellen Terry, Sarah Bernhardt and Henry Irving were prominent performers at Phipps’ ‘new’ theatre.
1900: Boughton engaged Frank Matcham to redesign and enlarge the theatre. Phipps’ building was retained, except for the boxes and proscenium arch; these made way for the present double tiered boxes and new proscenium arch. The new 62 foot stage, the largest in the province, was extended across Spring Gardens Lane and into the properties beyond, which Boughton had acquired over the years. The old portico was removed and the present cast iron and glass balcony erected over the original pillared arcading of the retained 1884 façade. New entrances were made, dressing rooms and scene docks were added backstage – there was even a blacksmith’s forge! The theatre was sumptuously decorated with magnificent polished granite and surmounted by very fine sgraffito panels, military and naval symbols.
6 August 1900: The theatre reopened with a performance of Magda by Sudermann starring Mrs. Patrick Campbell (who also gave the opening address), George Arliss and Gerald du Maurier. The curtain raiser was ‘Mrs. Jordan – Actress”, and the opening line of the play, spoken by the maid as she entered the room was “La, what a lovely place”; very appropriate for the grand opening of the new theatre.
The dressing rooms were named, not numbered; No.1 Victory, No.2 Nelson, whilst the others were named after theatrical people: Rutley, Irving, Marie Lloyd, Dan Leno etc.
Early posters requested gentlemen to instruct their coachmen to set then down with the horses’ heads facing the recreation ground and for the less wealthy, cycles were stored free during performances.
Opera seasons lasted a month and at the spectacular annual pantomime a “stage roller” enabled horses to gallop across the stage. ‘Flying Matinees’ were frequent and very popular; principle performers would travel down from London in the morning, do the matinee, and return to town for the evening performance (the steam train journey took 1 hour 50 minutes), and often minor roles were taken by local people.
9 July 1902: Sarah Bernhardt signed the wall of Boughton’s office on one such visit on 9 July 1902, “Merci, au plus charmant Directeur Sarah Bernhardt 9 Juillet 1902”. The plaster was saved before the demolition of the Dressing Room block in the 1980s.
16th July 1907: Smoke was seen coming from the roof of the Theatre Royal’s auditorium, and the fire brigade was called. They found the timber work alight over, thankfully, a small area, which was supposedly caused by the fierce heat of the sun on the skylight. If the fire had remained undiscovered for much longer it could have been a very different story for Brandon Thomas’s company which was rehearsing at the time. The evening performance took place as usual.
September 1920: The Trades Union Congress Meeting was held at the Theatre Royal to discuss the nationalization of coal mines and the imminent miners’ strike.
1923: Herbert Ralph, acting manager of the Theatre Royal, committed suicide by shooting himself in the head after is was found that there was about £360 shortage in the insurance money going back to 1921, for which he was responsible.
By the late 1920’s the position for all theatres was desperate; vastly increased costs after the 1914-18 war, and the advent of the talkies and, to some extent, the radio caused theatres to close throughout the country. There were fewer companies on the road; The Prince’s Theatre was already rented out as a cinema and the Kings had shown films in the afternoons since the mid-twenties, and eventually went over to films entirely.
5 March 1932: The decision was made to convert the Theatre Royal into a cinema. The 5th March 1932 was its last night as a live theatre. A young boy, K. Edmunds Gately, was so distressed at the closure he protested loudly and harangued the departing audience who also joined the protest, but to no avail.
The theatre was reopened the following week as a cinema; a small projection room was built at the rear of the stage and films were back projected onto a screen stretched across the proscenium opening. The theatre operated as a cinema until 1948.
27 September 1948: The theatre reopened as a live venue with a performance by Clarkson Rose and his variety company Twinkle. Performers over the next ten years included legendary acts such as Laurel and Hardy and Morecambe & Wise.
13 February 1950: Hughie Green presented Opportunity Knocks from the theatre in which Bobbie Collins “Portsmouth’s own vocalist” performed.
1951: The first ever live cookery performance in England was on stage at the New Theatre Royal in 1951. Unfortunately, as it was raining, the house wasn’t very good!
June 1956: It is possible that the first ever performance of a British rock ‘n’ roll band was on our stage too – Tony Crombie and His Rockets performed in June 1956 and played their hit single “Teach you to Rock” which is considered to be the first British rock and roll record.
22 October 1956: Although the theatre did good business initially, it tottered to closure in October 1956. Mr. K. Edmunds Gately, the school boy of 1932, again protested about the closure, this time in a letter to The News appealing to the city to purchase the theatre and make it a civic theatre. As before, his protests weren’t successful and the theatre closed its doors for what was thought to be the last time.
22 June 1957: The theatre was reopened as a repertory theatre under Kim Peacock and Hector Ross. Hector Ross, and his wife, June Sylvaine, ran their own repertory company from the theatre, presenting a regular cast and a weekly selection of a variety of different plays. A number of well know performers would also perform in some of these productions, including Sarah Churchill, Edward Woodward, Jill Gascoine and Dame Peggy Ashcroft who later became a patron of the theatre.
1959: Commander Cooper decided to amalgamate the Kings and the Royal Theatres to ensure that at least one of them would remain open continuously, and Hector Ross’ company moved to the Kings in September 1959.
9 January 1960: The theatre was reopened as Portsmouth Royal Arena; a wrestling and boxing venue run by Portsmouth sports promoter Jim Smith, and regularly presented the leading British wrestlers of the early 1960’s such as Giant Haystacks and Jackie Pallance. As well as in the auditorium, seats were also installed on the stage. Some of the matches were televised by Granada TV as “Wrestling at the Royal”. During these years, 1960 – 1966, the theatre was also used for bingo.
1966: Portsmouth Theatres Company, the owners of the theatre, asked the council to demolish the building and they readily gave permission as it was “an eyesore in the centre of our fine city”. There was much debate as to the future of the theatre. Some wanted it demolished to make way for a small theatre with a ballroom in the basement and a ten storey block of flats above, or a 214 bedroom hotel; some suggested that the Corporation buy the theatre and renovate it for the ‘four city colleges’ and amateur groups.
Support for saving the theatre was received from Lord Esher (Consultant Co-ordination Architect for the Guildhall area redevelopment) and it was then zoned for retention on the City Development Map, as it had been provisionally scheduled as a building of architectural or historic interest.
1968: Squatters camped in the theatre; thieves walked in and stole all the valuable brass fittings and roof lead. A limited preservation order on the theatre was approved for 1 year.
1970: A demolition plan for the theatre was approved by the Council, which led to the formation of the Theatre Royal Society which wanted to save the theatre.
1971: Ken Russell filmed his critically acclaimed musical film, The Boy Friend, at the Theatre Royal, starring Twiggy, Glenda Jackson, and Barbara Windsor. Whilst filming in the dressing room, Russell noticed the message left by Sarah Bernhardt in 1902 on the wall, and wrote over it so it could be seen more clearly when filmed.
2 July 1972: A ‘Save the Royal’ Garden Party was held on Southsea Common. Attendees included Sir John and Lady Clements, Richard Chamberlain, John Neville, Doris Hare, Anna Calder-Marshall, Angela Richards. Telegrams of support were received from Barbara Windsor and Ralph Richardson.
1972: The theatre suffered huge damage, the result of fire caused, we think, by children setting off fireworks on the stage. The fire destroyed the stage, fly tower and technical block. The safety curtain, which had been left up after the performance, either fell or was lowered by a fireman, thankfully protecting the main auditorium from the fire.
1973: Young vandals caused ‘mammoth destruction’; great holes in the ceiling, plaster decorations, statues, busts, stained glass windows were smashed. Although the building was listed, neither the owners nor the Council took any steps to protect or maintain the building.
1975: 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 just in time to take the leading role in opposing the destruction of the theatre at a Government enquiry. The application for demolition was refused. It was due to their effort that the theatre survived those dark years.
1980: Portsmouth Theatres Ltd went into liquidation. In April the purchase offer by TR Trust was accepted and K. Edmunds Gateley (the little boy who protested its closure in 1932) became Chairman. The building was in a perilous state; the roof was about to collapse and the iron balcony unsafe. Some £1,000,000 was spent on repairs at this time; the auditorium and foyer were made structurally sound and the plaster work restored.
September 1982: Filming at NTR for BBC’s All the World’s a Stage which was transmitted on 25th March 1984.
1983/1984: Renovations to façade were completed and the café opened for the very first time. Work began on restoring the ornate plaster work on the balcony fronts in November and a temporary thrust stage was erected over the orchestra pit for performances to be presented again.
4 June 1986: The first live performance for twenty years is held at the theatre; a jazz concert as part of the Portsmouth Festival.
1987: A small thrust stage was built into the auditorium and dressing rooms, along with a sound & lighting room installed on the Upper Circle balcony. Also during this period the Dress Circle bar and Conservatory Café were fully restored. These improvements allowed not only professional productions to be staged at the theatre, but also for the theatre to be open during the day and in the evenings.
August 1994: The Dressing Room block was demolished and ‘temporary’ dressing rooms were installed at rear of the theatre.
January 2004: The theatre was closed for 6 months for refurbishments to enable the theatre to increase the audience size from 370 to 525. A large number of improvements were made in the auditorium including installing heating, lighting grid rigged over the stage, thrust stage raised and extended to 13m by 7m, the Stalls were remodeled and re-seated, the floor was raised, with a new Stalls bar built. New bench seating was added to the upper circle balcony, the Pit Bar area redecorated, a full height get in was constructed, sound & lighting desks moved from the Upper Circle to the Gods, and the front of the building was restored to its former Victorian glory, following a grant from the Onyx Environmental Trust. The theatre re-opened on 10th September and a re-opening party celebrated the removal of the scaffolding from the front of the building in 15 November.
March 2014: NTR attempted to break two world records to complete its Lets Make it Great fundraising campaign; the largest number of people playing air guitar and the longest ever comedy stand up gig.
2014 / 2015: The Theatre was returned to its former glory with a brand new 21st century Full Fly Tower over a new 10 meters deep stage. The auditorium has increased in size from 500 to 700 seats. At the rear of the new stage are new offices, dressing rooms and the Minghella Studio Space. The re-emergence of the Theatre has been achieved in partnership with the University of Portsmouth who have re-located their performing arts teaching facilities into the White Swan building to the side of our site creating wonderful synergies for both of our organisations.
15 October 2015: New Theatre Royal re-opened its doors with the first performance on the new stage, and with the restored auditorium.