The tradition of theatre has played an important role in British culture since as far back as Roman occupation. British theatre became a popular form of entertainment from the 18th century which saw a huge rise in new theatres being built and not least in the size of the theatres themselves.
When the century began, theatre was seen mainly as a metropolitan pastime; by the time it ended, theatre had become a popular form of entertainment across the country with a playhouse of some kind opening in larger British towns. We’ve selected 9 of the most historic theatres in the country to explore the history around the performing arts in Britain.
1. The Bristol Old Vic
The Bristol Old Vic first opened on 30 May 1766 with a capacity for more than 1,600, which is 1,000 more than the theatre holds today. It is the oldest continuously working theatre in the English-speaking world. The Georgian structure includes the original horseshoe-shaped auditorium and an additional foyer, The Coopers Hall, both of which are Grade I listed buildings.
The theatre is closely associated with the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School which boasts a number of famous British alumni. Opened by Laurence Olivier some of its past students include Brian Blessed, Naomi Harris, Olivia Coleman, Daniel Day Lewis, Jeremy Irons, Miranda Richardson, and Gene Wilder.
2. Theatre Royal Dumfries
The Theatre Royal Dumfries opened in 1792 and is the oldest working theatre in Scotland. It has strong associations with Scottish poet Robert Burns, who wrote several pieces specifically for the theatre and helped raise finances for it to be built. Local architect Thomas Boyd took inspiration from the Theatres Royal in Bristol and Edinburgh and it was completed at a cost of £800 with an auditorium that could hold up to 600 people.
The theatre was bought by the Guild of Players in 1959 at a time when demolition seemed a likely prospect. In addition to the Guild’s own annual programme of plays and the Christmas pantomime, it hosts productions by professional touring companies such as Scottish Opera and Scottish Ballet.
3. The Georgian Theatre Royal
Built in 1788, The Georgian Theatre Royal in Richmond, North Yorkshire, is the oldest working theatre in Britain which is still in its original form. As a result, it is Britain’s most complete Georgian playhouse.
Built by actor Samuel Butler in 1788, the theatre is a typical 18th century country playhouse and an important example of English theatre architecture. It is a Grade I listed building due to it being ‘a building of special architectural or historical interest’, and is an important existing work of English theatre architecture.
4. Lancaster Grand Theatre
The Grand Theatre in Lancaster is one of the oldest theatres in England and the third oldest in Britain, having been in near continuous use since 1782. It was one of the first permanent theatres in Britain and been a major part of the cultural life of Lancaster since it was opened by Joseph Austin and Charles Edward Whitlock, who managed a circuit of theatres across the north of England.
In 1908 a major fire gutted the interior of the Grand, after which it was reconstructed in an Edwardian design in which it remains to the present day. The theatre is a key venue in the North West of England for amateur and professional touring companies, and the public can also take part in guided tours to explore the theatre’s history.
5. Shakespeare’s Globe
Shakespeare’s Globe is a 20th century reincarnation of the original 16th century Globe Theatre which was built by Shakespeare’s playing company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, in 1599. It is located in Southwark, on the banks of the River Thames.
Grab a £5 groundling ticket if you can face a marathon 3 hours standing to watch a play during the summer season, enjoy a drink at the bar on a summer’s evening or go on a tour of the theatre in the winter months – it’s fascinating and a great glimpse behind the scenes you would never otherwise get.
6. Theatre Royal, Drury Lane
The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane is the fourth incarnation of this theatre on the same spot, making it the oldest theatre site in London still in use. It remains a thriving cultural hub, staging productions of major musicals in more recent years.
Performances still take place almost nightly at the Theatre Royal – cheap on the day tickets can normally be found from booths around central London, or look online in advance if you want to plan a trip.
7. Royal Opera House
Home of the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet, Covent Garden’s Royal Opera House is one of England’s most iconic performing arts venues, and has an illustrious history.
The first theatre on this site was the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, which was awarded letters patent by King Charles II in 1662: however, it was only actually built in the 18th century, following the financial success of The Beggars’ Opera. The new Theatre Royal opened in 1732 with a production entitled The Way of the World. The ROH remains very much in operation, and tickets are still sought after in many cases.
8. Sadler’s Wells Theatre
Sadler’s Wells was first opened by Richard Sadler in 1683 – London’s second public theatre to open following the restoration of King Charles II in 1660. It was originally a ‘musick house’, and the name stemmed from a spring found near by. Sadler claimed its iron-rich water could cure all manner of ills and as such, Sadler’s Wells began drawing a variety of clientele who wanted both the healing water and the music that the theatre offered.
The now sixth incarnation of the theatre remains an extremely popular venue, and hosts a wide variety of dance shows regularly – from contemporary fusion to traditional ballet. Tickets are sought after so it’s worth booking ahead if you’d like to catch a performance.
9. The Old Vic
The Old Vic was originally founded in 1818 by James King and Daniel Dunn. With the patronage of Princess Charlotte and Prince Leopold, it was named the Royal Coburg Theatre although without letters patent, it was technically forbidden to show serious drama but in 1824, legendary actor Edmund Kean performed six Shakespeare plays in six nights, bringing high art to the masses.
The Old Vic has regular performances – tickets often sell out far in advance so it’s worth being organised. There are normally a handful of cheap tickets for every performance, some of which are released on the day.