Thursday, 12 April 2012

Tour of the Theatre Royal Nottingham

BFTF had the chance to tag along on a fascinating tour of the Theatre Royal(official website here), Nottingham recently. With David Longford and Caroline Pope from the theatre’s education department as guides, the tour literally “went behind the scenes” of the theatre, gave a glimpse into its history and delved deep into its innermost workings.

David began the tour by explaining that, back in 1865 when the theatre was built, the view from it down towards Market Street would have been very different. The houses would have been dilapidated, almost slums and Market Street was a narrow, badly surfaced lane known as “Blood Alley” because of the risk of a slipping or sliding cart running over a pedestrian.

The theatre was built by John and William Lambert, local lace merchants who loved drama and wanted to give something back to the city. It cost £15,000 (equivalent to over £1.5million today) and was completed in the astonishingly short time of 6months.

The architect was Charles J Phipps and the Theatre Royal was only his second commission. However, it was very well received and resulted in Phipps gaining a number of further commissions elsewhere in the country. Theatres at that time were lit by gas, and contained numerous gas pipes serving all the lamps in the building. This was something on a fire hazard and it was only a matter of time before tragedy would strike. . .


The Theatre Royal

The inevitable happened in the Theatre Royal in Exeter, also designed by Phipps, which was built in 1886. Only a few months after opening, a naked gas flame ignited some drapes and fire spread quickly. Many people, especially those in the upper gallery, could not escape, while others were crushed in the stampede for the exits. In total, some 186 people lost their lives.

It provoked Parliament into introducing more stringent safety precautions in all British theatres. Nottingham responded to the disaster and legislation by hiring the well known theatrical designer Frank Matcham in 1897. Matcham introduced electrical lighting to the Theatre Royal, raised the stage and generally refurbished the theatre. He also designed the Empire Palace which was built on the site where the Royal Concert Hall now stands.

Whilst in the foyer, David pointed out that it would have looked very different on the opening night in 1865 - each of the doors was for a different “class” of ticket and a series of interconnecting staircases ensured that the classes did not have to suffer the indignity of having to interact with each other.

Foyer area

The common people, with the cheapest tickets, didn’t come through the front doors, instead, they had to come in through an entrance at the side of the building, then under the theatre to their places in the stalls, which were standing only and packed pretty tightly (the theatre held some 2,500 people when opened as opposed to the 1100 that it can accommodate in its current all-seater configuration.

The Theatre Royals dead posh auditorium

Moving inside to the theatre itself, and then onto the actual stage (which was set up for the “Doctor in the House” production that was running at the time), David showed how the stage had a slight incline (called a “rake”), dipping towards the front, to improve the sightlines for the audience.

Detail of decorative panels


The beautiful ceiling design, hopefully the show
is so interesting that you won't look up here.
The set was a beautiful recreation of a 1950s “front room”, with fireplace, electric bar heater and wallpaper from an age when there wallcoverings were a taste-free zone.

Corner of the set from the front


The set viewed from the back

Apparently, it was quite small, as sets go, and could be packed up by eight people in a mere 3-4hrs. In contrast, a big set, as had been required for the “Sister Act” production, took about 10hrs to take down and filled 7 lorries!

David and Caroline then took the group down to the part of the building that only actors normally get to see, as they passed by the wardrobe area, which was fully equipped with a washing machine and steam iron (a full-on steam generator iron, no messing about here!)

The wardrobe area

And the dressing rooms, which had lights around the mirrors just like on the telly. David explained that this was a chorus changing room, where large groups of actors could get changed. There were also, of course, individual changing rooms. One surprising feature was that, as well as showers, there were also two baths which were often used by dancers to relax their muscles in between shows.

The, very tidy, Chorus dressing room

That was pretty much it for the theatre, but the tour wasn’t over as David and Caroline now took the group to the Royal Concert Hall next door for a brief visit.

Royal Concert Hall exterior, a bit of a glass fest

A much newer building, which took two years to build and was completed in 1982, with the architects being the “Arts Team” from RHWL. It has a striking glass exterior whilst the auditorium is pure 1980’s, with its angular lines and beige colour reminding BFTF, slightly bizarrely, of the Aston Martin Lagonda of the same era.

Concert Hall Auditorium. .  .

. .  .seemingly inspired by the interior of the AM Lagonda

So there you go ! Hope you found something of interest in this post.

Image Credits: AM Lagonda

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