Benefactor saves Britain’s oldest original theatre, Richmond’s Georgian gem

Sandwiched between two pubs and just across the road from the 15th century tower in Friary Gardens, the Grade I listed theatre in Richmond is the oldest in the country to survive in its original form – and, with fewer than 200 seats, one of the smallest.

The Georgian Theatre Royal, Richmond. Picture By Simon Hulme
The Georgian Theatre Royal, Richmond. Picture By Simon Hulme

That accommodation – mostly comprised of benches with rudimentary cushions and many without even a backrest – has been a source of audience discomfort since it was last updated around 50 years ago. Patrons in the side galleries have had to crane their necks by 90 degrees in order to see the stage.

But while many bigger playhouses fret for their future, the Georgian Theatre Royal in the heart of the Dales can look forward to a comfortable next act, and not just financially.

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A gift from one of the county’s leading philanthropists is allowing it to use its enforced closure to replace all the seating before the lights go on next March. Hamish Ogston, the businessman who founded the CPP insurance group in York and who contributed £2m to York Minster’s restoration fund, has given the theatre £375,000 to bring the auditorium up to modern standards.

Chief executive Clare Allen in the dressing rooms below the stage in The Georgian Theatre Royal in the North Yorkshire market town of Richmond. Picture by Tony Johnson

The money had come at an opportune time, said Clare Allen, its chief executive.

“It’s likely that we would have been closed anyway until spring. So the dark months can be used to constructive effect,” she said.

“It will turn what could have been a bleak and worrying time into something with a very positive outcome.”

The three-tiered theatre will emerge from the reconstruction with fewer seats still – 178 – but all will be angled, with sightlines and comfort greatly improved, Ms Allen said. The familiar green cushions, fastened to the wooden seats with Velco, would be consigned to history.

The pathway at the side of the Georgian Theatre Royal in Richmond.

“At the moment, we can technically put about 195 seats on sale, but a lot of those have completely restricted views,” she said. “You’ve got to stand up to get a view. There are 80 seats in the gallery without a backrest and in the boxes, there’s just a bench up against the wall, which is really uncomfortable.”

The theatre had been planning a refurbishment for some time and had commissioned architects to produce a feasibility study two years ago. As a result, work can now begin within a few weeks. In the meantime, the planned programme – including 60 performances of an in-house pantomime and the Richmond Operatic Society’s production of The Sound of Music, will be deferred to next year.

The theatre, whose staff are augmented by a band of around 100 volunteers, is not one of the 828 “national portfolio organisations” funded by Arts Council England, though it did receive an emergency grant of £35,000 when the country’s stages went dark.

“That was the maximum you could apply for and we were very lucky to get it,” Ms Allen told The Yorkshire Post.

“We earn our income from ticket sales and from the bar. That’s 65 per cent of our annual turnover, and when we went dark, people in the town were incredibly generous, donating the money they would have spent on tickets and supporting our long-term fundraising campaign.

“I don’t think Hamish would have had the confidence to commit so much money to the seating project if it wasn’t underpinned by the financial stability of the theatre on a day-to-day basis.”

Mr Ogston, whose foundation has donated £8.5m over the last decade, said he hoped his contribution would be a catalyst for other benefactors. “It is essential to preserve historic buildings like this, particularly when they house some of our most enduring traditions. By developing and enhancing them in creative ways we can ensure that future generations will continue to enjoy them,” he said.

Mac Bryant, chair of the theatre’s board of trustees, said: “Hopefully, with this immense collective effort, we will be able to survive the current period of closure and emerge with an even better offering to our audience.”

The Georgian Theatre Royal was built in 1788 by the actor-manager Samuel Butler, as one of a chain that extended across Beverley, Harrogate, Ripon, Northallerton and Whitby. None of the others remain, and the Richmond building was turned into an auction house for part of its history.

It reopened as a theatre in 1963 and a small museum added in 1996, with a £1.6m upgrade completed in 2002.

With the front row of the stalls less than 33ft from the stage, the layout is unusually intimate, and the auditorium retains many original features – including the wooden kicking boards on which audiences could stamp their disapproval.

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