A rich history
Several still-working British theatres have Georgian origins, but none has been restored close to those Georgian origins, except in Richmond. (Restoration of the 1818 Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, is under consideration. ) Richmond was, and is, a provincial working theatre, not a grand palace. It was built by actor and promoter Samuel Butler as part of his northern circuit of nine theatres stretching from Whitby in the east to the Lake District. Though only Richmond remains, they would have been of similar simple shoebox form and similar size, capable of taking the same production.
The original stone-built theatre is virtually a black box, originally with a side entrance and little foyer space. Interval refreshments were often taken in the pub next door, until quite recently, slowing the start of the second half. Auditorium capacity was originally around 400, packed into a pit, stalls with side boxes and a gallery level. The raked stage is nearly cubic. The front-most boxes overlap the forestage, which can be laid over the orchestra pit, adding to the intimate contact between performers and audience. It is an intimacy much enjoyed by actors today.
The pit itself had wall-to-wall benches, making entry and exit a steeplechase.
Butler's licence to operate a theatre was granted on 12 May 1788. The theatre opened on 2 September. It ran until the 1840s, a period when many theatres closed.
It was converted to a wine store among other uses, with the pit boarded over, supported on new brick arches. Surviving surprisingly intact, it was reopened by local enthusiasts in 1963 following a modestly funded and researched restoration.
Allen Tod Architecture's involvement dates from 1993, initially with the museum to the rear of the theatre (well worth a visit; it also runs tours of the theatre). Persisting front of house limitations and the 'invisibilty' of the black box on the street as a public building were addressed by an extension (the smaller 1963 extension was demolished). This new extension is stone-built, of similar massing to the theatre but with extensive fenestration, its separateness from the original building emphasised by a full-height strip of glazing between the two, which continues the new fenestration pattern. They provide a day and night presence on the street. These moves were not without controversy, attracting the various opinions of English Heritage, the Georgian Society, the Theatres Trust, the local authority and local people.
Extension was one half of the project, restoration was the other. A conservation plan was drawn up with Theatre Projects Consultants and Theatresearch, primarily focused on the auditorium. There was no primary evidence found, and little secondary, for the decorative scheme of 1788, despite paint analysis and historical research.
The decision was made to develop a decorative scheme dated to around 1816, when the theatre was at its height and secondary evidence for such theatres was much stronger (while still upstaging potential contenders in the earliest Georgian theatre stakes).
Modern standards have reduced seating capacity from Butler's 400 to 214. Generally this works well. The shallow, two-row side boxes and galleries still give the sense of an intimate room. Least successful is the pit, where benches are shortened for ease of access and so the sense of a thronged pit is diminished. Lighting by candles (there might also have been oil lamps) could not, of course, be replicated either. Some sense of this is given by candelabra with electric flickering 'candles'.
These candelabra are on pulleys passing through reinstated grilles in the ceiling, which are also now used for heating and ventilation. Originally hot air was introduced at ceiling level so that by the time the warm layer reached the pit those in the gallery were expiring. Unpowered extract was via the stage area (for the new system, see the 'Air Movement' box).
The floor plan shows how tight the theatre was as a single building. Its extension enlarges the entrance and circulation, providing WCs on the ground floor and bars/breakout spaces on the first and second floors, plus an accessible performers' changing room and WC. The handling of this interior is generally plain and simple. The architect has, though, emphasised the separateness of new and old in the interior too, by exposing part of the theatre's masonry flank wall and by the positioning of the stair between the theatre and the bars.
Today the theatre has a regular programme of performances and the support of many volunteers, though with only 214 seats it is not big business. We can only hope that this recent renewal promotes its survival as both theatre and an architectural treasure, a unique venue for theatrical and architectural pilgrims.