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Born in 1768, Norwich theatre that’s still going strong

PUBLISHED: 08:23 28 April 2018

The original Theatre Royal building.

The original Theatre Royal building.

Archant

All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players... and today we highlight one particular stage which has been at the heart of Norwich and Norfolk life, on and off, for 250 years. Derek James reports.

The second Theatre Royal.The second Theatre Royal.

From fisticuffs to films and from high drama to comedy and music, Norwich Theatre Royal has given us so much since it was “christened” way back in 1768.

And somehow, as buildings have come tumbling down around it, it has survived and transformed into one of the leading provincial theatres in the land offering something for everyone.

Over the years it was thought that the cinema, bingo and then television would finish off live theatre - but it’s still here.

The Theatre Royal has seen good times and bad... it was gutted by a savage fire in June of 1934 but rose from the ashes and the new theatre, the third to be built on the site, opened its doors in 1936.

Still shining brightly: Norwich's much-loved Theatre Royal.Still shining brightly: Norwich's much-loved Theatre Royal.

The theatre survived air raids during the Second World War when two incendiary bombs dropped on the roof and the city council came to its rescue when the money ran out.

To have survived is an extraordinary achievement and in the 21st century has been expanding involving more local and young people which is so important.

In more recent times that is down to the likes of inspirational general managers and chief executives such as Dick Condon and Peter Wilson and a team of dedicated men and women who have worked so hard to keep the theatre at the top of the tree.

In 1757 architect Thomas Ivory built a theatre on land next to the present Theatre Royal to house The Norwich Company of Comedians. It opened the following year but it wasn’t until 1768 when a licence was granted and the theatre was christened.

By 1825 the building was in a poor old way and the second Theatre Royal was opened in 1826. It cost £6,000 and could seat 1,000 people. Paganini played his violin to packed houses there in 1831 and five years later the first Italian opera company to come to Norwich arrived.

And during Assize Week, a time of great celebration - for some that is – it was announced: “In compliance with the public wish the manager introduces upon a most complete and splendid scale the ‘Gas.’” Before that it was lit by candles and oil lamps.

At the time Norwich was a great manufacturing city with thousands of men and women working in the factories... and they wanted to be entertained and musical comedies were very popular with the people but not necessarily the critics with one writing: ‘A total absence of plot is no bar at all, but rather a recommendation. A visit to the theatre is made now to indulge in what is widely known as “a good laugh”.’

I’m not sure what that critic would have thought of Barnum’s circus with the likes of General Tom Thumb, or a “realistic bull-fight” staged by the Ducrow Circus in 1838. In fact the ‘bulls’ were trained horses encased in a bull’s hide.

In 1903 variety acts took over and the theatre was sold to Bostock and Fitt and re-named the Norwich Hippodrome at a time when the other Hippodrome opened as the Grand Opera House in St Giles.

All rather confusing but to cut a long story short the Theatre Royal changed its name back to the original one while the Grand Opera House became the Hippodrome.

And they sat, on either side of the market, reaching out to customers of all ages and of all interests, from music hall to classical music.

In 1913 the theatre was improved and a new stage was built. During the First World War the comedy shows were popular. Not surprisingly, people wanted a temporary escape from a grim life.

Then on a hot June day in 1934 disaster struck. A cashier noticed flames coming from underneath the safety curtain. With two hours the theatre was destroyed. Heartbreaking for so many but especially for owner Jack Gladwin who pledged to re-built it. And he did just that with the opening of a new theatre in September 1935.

During the rest of the 1930s the biggest names in showbiz arrived, including Gracie Fields at the peak of her career in the summer of 1936.

Hitler failed to destroy the theatre in the Second World War when it was packed with service men and women – how the GIs loved it. Future Hollywood favourite Walter Matthau said it was the first time he walked on a stage.

Come the 1950s and the live theatre was struggling. Many predicted the end. The Theatre Royal became an Essoldo cinema. For a time the only live action came from the showmen wrestlers.

By the 1960s the biggest pop acts of the day were arriving.

When Cliff Richard came he had to make his escape from the stage door - and an Evening News reporter ended up giving him a lift to a pub in Thorpe where the Shadows were waiting.

But by 1967 it looked as if the theatre would go the way of the Hippodrome and probably become a car park.

Norwich City Council came to the rescue. It became a civic theatre.

Major changes were made and it re-opened under the Theatre Royal Trust and in the summer of 1972 a flamboyant Irishman by the name of Dick Condon arrived. It was as if the lights were suddenly switched on full beam.

Who remembers him standing by the box office before the start of a show, shaking hands and greeting most of the patrons by their first names? He was more famous than some of the stars!

Dick was at the helm for 20 years, more changes and improvements were made, and then along came Peter Wilson - another theatre giant - and today chief executive Stephen Crocker is backed and supported by a great team of men and women.

And they all have one thing in common. They love the Theatre Royal and all that is has to offer. And so do we.

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