It’s said that behind every great man is a great woman, and this was certainly true for Samuel Butler.
A pioneering impresario, Butler built eight theatres across the north of England during his lifetime, including Richmond’s wonderful Georgian Theatre Royal. But while he was the showman who built the theatre, it was a woman, the splendidly named Tryphosa Brockell, who effectively ran the place.
The daughter of a clergyman, Tryphosa had a colourful and, at times, hard life. Orphaned as a child, she was married twice and widowed twice. Her third husband was Butler, 23 years her junior, and together they ran the theatre until her death in 1797. “She was well educated and was running a theatre company by the middle of the 18th century, which was very rare for a woman back then,” says Guy Wilman, a volunteer tour guide at the theatre. “Together they were a great partnership – she was the face of respectability and able to attract patronage and funding, and Samuel was the businessman. We talk about Samuel Butler being the founder of the theatre, but Tryphosa was every bit as important.”
It’s just one of the many stories attached to the building which lays claim to being the UK’s oldest working theatre still in its original form.
As Wilman points out, its story is wrapped up in the nation’s history. “It opened in 1788 and this was the year when local magistrates were allowed for the first time to license theatres. Before then it had been illegal to perform drama for profit.”
Despite undergoing a major refurbishment and extension in 2003, the building’s character remains intact and walking into the gallery for the first time takes your breath away.
There is none of the ornate grandeur of somewhere like Leeds Grand or one of Frank Matcham’s masterpieces, such as the Royal Hall in Harrogate or Buxton Opera House, but it is no less impressive.
As Wilman points out, the structure and shape has changed little over the past 230 years. “The structure is original and the woodwork, and we now know it’s painted exactly the same colour as it was originally. When we built the extension we were able to use modern technology to analyse some original paint and copy the colour.”
The first performance was a play called Inkle and Yarico, a comic opera by George Colman the Younger, and it would have set you back a shilling for a seat in the gallery, two shillings in the stalls or “the pit”, and three shillings for a seat in a box.
Today, the theatre’s capacity is just under 200, but in Samuel Butler’s day double the number were squeezed in, and the atmosphere would have been both claustrophobic and raucous. “Life was pretty raw in those days and the behaviour during the course of the evening would have been interesting, to say the least. A lot of beer would have been drunk and the standard of behaviour would have worsened as the performance went on,” says Wilman. And Georgian audiences weren’t shy in letting the actors on stage know what they thought of their performances. “They would throw things and shout and whistle,” he adds.
Hygiene wasn’t high on the agenda either. “There were no toilets in the building back then so the men would have been going out into the alley.”
Many of the women, on the other hand, reportedly brought their own containers (some theatres at the time were even said to have a communal pot for female members of the audience).
Richmond was a prosperous garrison town but its economic decline during the first half of the 19th century hit the theatre, which closed in 1848. Over the course of the ensuing century it was used as everything from an auction house to a paper salvage depot.
During the Second World War it was occasionally used by schools which sowed the seed for the subsequent campaign to return the building to its original use.
This finally came to fruition in 1963 when the theatre reopened with a gala evening featuring Dame Sybil Thorndike and Dame Edith Evans, two of the most renowned stage actresses of the day. “The story is that these two didn’t get on terribly well so it was quite a scoop to get them to come along to the same event,” says Wilman. “And it tells us something about this little theatre in the far reaches of North Yorkshire, that these two luminaries of the London stage came up here to celebrate its reopening.”
It’s one chapter in the story of a building that he never tires of talking to people about. “This is such a milepost in English theatrical history, it really is. And I love the look on people’s faces when I show them through the door and into the gallery and they see it for the first time.
“It’s part of our heritage and a very important part of our heritage. It’s easy to lose sight of how people used to live their lives and here we see it all coming together.”
The theatre has no shortage of fans. Dame Judi Dench is its president and Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall are joint patrons, while the likes of Joyce Grenfell, Alan Bennett, John Cleese and Robert Hardy have all appeared on stage
Even so, like many cultural institutions, finding the money to ensure it stays afloat is a constant challenge, which is why a campaign was launched last summer to raise £150,000 a year over the next four years to help preserve the venue for generations to come.
Sir Ian McKellen gave his considerable clout to the cause and it’s hoped that other people will follow suit.
At present, the theatre doesn’t receive any funding from the Arts Council and, despite increasing the money it generates itself over the past decade, it isn’t enough to cover its costs.
It receives vital funding from the likes of the Sylvia Crathorne Memorial Trust and the Liz and Terry Bramall Foundation, but this cannot bankroll the theatre and the desire is to make it financially sustainable, as chief executive Clare Allen explains. “We can’t increase the theatre capacity, which is just under 200 seats, and despite doing everything day in and day out with programming, such as the pantomime, heritage tours and weddings, we can only ever produce 65 per cent of the income that’s needed to keep the place going.”
The theatre has a staff of eight full and part-time employees, as well as a team of dedicated volunteers, some of whom were working 20 hours a week during the recent panto run.
In addition to its wide-ranging programme, everything from stand-up and tribute acts to opera and ballet, it runs an innovative youth theatre that has over a hundred members.
“There’s not really another theatre like this and the hope is that even after four years people will continue giving money because they will understand that the theatre still needs support,” says Allen.
Which is why this campaign is crucial to the theatre’s future. “It’s immensely important because the theatre is a charity, and people don’t see it as a charity. People come here and see that it’s vibrant and relevant and they see we have sell-out shows and they think ‘how can it possibly need money?’ But we need people to understand why we need the income and just how much it costs to maintain and preserve a Grade I-listed, 18th century building.”
We often hear of actors being called a “national treasure”, well here’s a theatre that genuinely is.
To contribute to A Living Theatre Campaign visit www.georgiantheatreroyal.co.uk or call 01748 823710. The theatre runs daily tours, Monday to Saturday, between February and mid-November.