The Theatre Royal’s restoration sends you back to the 1900s

Walking into the Theatre Royal feels like you’ve gone back in time.

Look up from the stalls and there is a new arch that is a copy of the original made in 1901, the carpet is the same pattern from the early 1900s and the seats are made to look and feel like 20th century comfort. Even the tiles on the wall are a copy of the originals.

At the Franck Matcham Society seminar on Friday [November 9] the chief executive of the Theatre Royal and the conservation planner in charge of the work discussed what was done during the restoration process.

“We wanted somewhere where the people could feel more special,” chief executive of the Theatre Royal, Philip Bernays said.

He also said they wanted to restore the theatre to its former glory.

The Theatre Royal decided to restore the theatre because the auditorium was worn out and not comfortable, the building was historically inaccurate, and they wanted to encourage people to come.

They chose to restore the theatre to Frank Matcham’s design from 1901. He redesigned the theatre after the fire of 1899—that destroyed the auditorium, and was one of the greatest architects at the time.

Matcham designed over 100 British theatres and music halls, which included the London Hippodrome, Coliseum and Palladium.

The Theatre Royal planned the restoration for 2011 to coincide with the 175th birthday in 2012.

The first step was to raise the money.

According to Bernays they set the budget at £4.75m, because that’s what they thought they could raise.

The city council was not able to contribute significantly, but they did donate for the lift and repairs on the roof. The Olympics was coming up, so lottery money was going to the games.

The theatre received money from trusts, foundations and the Heritage Lottery fund, but that was still not enough.

The restoration ended up costing £5 million. One pound and seventy-five pence has been built into the ticket price to pay for the shortfall in funds for the restoration. Its official name is the Heritage Contribution.

According to Mr Bernays they borrowed money from the council and are paying them back over eight years with the Heritage Contribution.

The overall impression feels like you’re in a different era, although not everything is the same as the early 1900s.

The Theatre Royal not only wanted to restore the building to historically accuracy, they wanted to be able to support big shows technically, so they had to bring the equipment up to date.

They also wanted to change the cinema seats into proper theatre seats.

He also said that they wanted to make sure the restoration would last for a long time because they couldn’t afford to do it again for another 25 years.

Between the equipment, the seats and the historical detail, Mr Bernays said, “we got it right.”

The Theatre Royal commissioned David Wilmore, a historic theatre consultant, to create a conservation plan.

“You have to understand your building from day one and develop it from there,” Mr Wilmore said.

According to the president of the Frank Matcham Society, John Earl, in order to restore a theatre you must know who designed it, for who and what purpose, what the building has gone through, the history, the dimensions of the stage and if the building is listed.

The Theatre Royal is a listed building. It’s one of only nine Grade I listed theatres in England.

Being able to have a lot of knowledge about the building can make it easier to get plans approved when the building is listed.

A listed building does not mean the building can’t be changed, but the plans have to be appropriate for the building.

Old plans, catalogues and photos were use to restore the theatre to Matcham’s design.

The seats were restored to the original Matcham site line to allow the audience to see four or five feet further upstage.

The changes “reconnected the audience to the stage,” Mr Wilmore said.

The lions in the plasterwork are a signature of Matcham’s. All the plasterwork was done in gold leaf because it wouldn’t tarnish like gold paint. Thirty-seven leaves of gold were used.

There is also a Viking ship and castle keep in the plasterwork. These are not trademarks of Matcham, but he was known to put things in his buildings that represented the city.

The original tiles were found during the restoration and copies were made.

Not everything is from Matcham’s original design, because of cost, but there is a feeling of stepping back into the Victorian era as you walk in the door.

Now that the restoration is complete, the theatre will be opening a small display of the history of theatre that goes back to pre-history. This will be open in early 2013.

Assignment for master’s program in Portfolio I. 

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