One of the oldest theatres in the country, Brighton’s Theatre Royal has a history that began over two hundreds years ago in 1806 when The Prince of Wales, George Augustus Frederick who later became Prince Regent and then King (George IV), approved the building of the theatre. It opened the following year on 27th June 1807. The opening performance for was Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
This is an important grade II listed building with an exquisite example of a regency auditorium and with a collection of historic buildings that surround the stage house. Often showcasing shows pre-West End, the programming is varied and offers something for everyone.
For it’s first fifty years the theatre struggled until it was bought and redeveloped by the actor Henry John Nye Chart in 1854. He hired the famous architect Charles James Phipps and soon the theatre became more financially successful and gained a respected reputation. When Henry died in 1876, his wife Ellen Elizabeth Nye Chart (also a thespian) took over and was one of the first female theatre managers. Ellen further built upon the success and reputation of the theatre.
The theatre opened in June 1807, after the Prince of Wales transformed a leaky country farmhouse into the rollicking eccentricity of the Brighton Pavilion, and the modest fishing village exploded into one of the most fashionable sea bathing resorts in Georgian Britain. Prinny once owned the land on which the theatre was built, beside the new road constructed straight through the heart of the higgledy-piggledy settlement to his absurd and magnificent home.
The stars were there from the start: the theatre always benefited from being so close to London, and Brighton was the chosen home or weekend retreat of many actors from the Georgian era to the present day. The opening performance, on June 27 1807, featured Charles Kemble as Hamlet. However the theatre’s first half century, when smart society abandoned the coast for the London “season”, bankrupted a succession of owners, and no manager lasted longer than 18 months. Its glory days would come with the railways.
The colonnaded front façade is jolly and conventional late Victorian swagger – just what you’d expect from a theatre in one of the grander provincial towns. The stage door is the clue to the theatre’s rackety and slightly ramshackle origins. It is unique, an instant secret passage to the earliest days of theatre, when the touring fit-up companies played in pubs, taverns and guildhalls, with their clothes, sets, cooking pots and costumes packed into hampers.
It’s on such a narrow street that two bicycles constitute a traffic jam, and the stage-door sign is often mistaken as a curio from one of the myriad antique and junk shops nearby. The entrance comes in two parts: wide things go through a stable door, tall narrow things through a door which originally closed off one of the alleyways between the houses. A cobbled lane still runs right through the backstage area, and the star dressing rooms are quite recognizably the modest front parlours of the little cottages which were gradually absorbed into the theatre.
The railway era brought new crowds of commuters and tourists, and the theatre’s most formidable manager, Mrs Nye Chart. It was originally her husband, an actor called Henry, who leased it and eventually made enough money to buy the whole building. When he died in 1876, she took over, and it is her handsome terracotta portrait bust which gazes down the staircase, and her own home which became the theatre’s grander front entrance and dress circle bar. According to many theatre staff, she is still in residence as “the grey lady”, one of four benevolent ghosts regularly encountered in the building.
In recent years the theatre has hosted popular shows such as Priscilla Queen of the Desert, The Rocky Horror Show and Spamalot in order to appeal to a wider audience. The theatre was bought by the Ambassador Theatre Group in 1999 who have developed the infrastructure of the theatre, as well as investing in new productions and creating alliances with arts organizations.
In 2007 the theatre celebrated it’s 200th anniversary with a year of special events including a visit by Queen Elizabeth II when Her Majesty renamed a box in the theater The Queen Elizabeth II Box.
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