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Happy 40th to Theatre Royal Plymouth

2022 marks the 40th anniversary of the Theatre Royal, Plymouth (TRP) which is enjoying a month of celebrations until mid-October – but did you know that today’s building is the fourth of that name in Plymouth?

The first Theatre Royal opened in 1758. Mr Arthur of the Bath Players leased three partly-built houses in Frankfort Street, close to the Frankfort Gate, and turned them into a theatre. (Frankfort Street was almost completely destroyed in the Second World War and the area is now covered by Frankfort Gate shopping centre and the Pannier Market). The Theatre was visited by His Majesty King George III in 1765, which is how it gained its name. In the archives at The Box we hold various playbills for this institution, including this one.

Old Theatre Royal Plymouth playbill

The second Theatre Royal, in what became George Street, was designed by famous architect John Foulston. The image below is of a beautiful watercolour showing his grand design, and is held in The Box’s art collections (1914.154.1). We also have the contract for its construction, dated 1811, and related correspondence in the Borough archives, as well as later plans and playbills. The foundation stone for the building was laid on 10 September 1811 by then Mayor, Edmund Lockyer. The Theatre opened on 23 August 1813.

John Foulston's Theatre Royal in Plymouth

Sadly this theatre suffered several major fires, in 1862, 1863 and 1878, all of which required major renovation afterwards. The building was eventually demolished in 1937 to make way for the Royal Cinema. This building was used for stage productions and acted as the Theatre Royal from 1954-1958, although this was shortlived and it was succeeded by the ABC Cinema (afterwards the Reel Cinema.) In this c1993 aerial photograph (ref 3488/166) you can see the building in the top right hand corner.

Aerial photo showing Plymouth's theatre

The fourth, and current, Theatre Royal in Royal Parade, Plymouth (known as TRP) can also be seen in the photo above, towards the top centre. It was designed by Peter Moro and built by Messrs Richard Costain Ltd, with work starting in April 1979. The Box holds several photographs showing its construction, such as the 1979 image below (ref 3488/11455) and the July 1980 image right at the top of this article (ref 3488/6896).

1979 construction image of Theatre Royal Plymouth © C Sanger. Courtesy of Plymouth City Council Libraries.

TRP was completed on 16 April 1982. This photograph shows it slighly earlier that year (ref 3488/6894).

1982 aerial image of Theatre Royal Plymouth nearing completion © Mirrorpix

HRH Princess Margaret opened the new premises on 5 May 1982 and you can watch this for free on the BFI Player. The first major visiting company to perform was the Royal Ballet with ‘Manon’ in May 1982. As well as hosting productions, TRP had its own theatre company whose first performance was ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in June-July 1982. A programme of the time (ref 2709/3) states:

A unique experiment is taking place here in Plymouth. For the first time in English theatre history a new building has been designed and built expressly to serve as a major touring venue and at the same time house a major resident producing company.

TRP was designed from the outset to provide variety – with two contrasting theatre spaces and a moveable ceiling, making it ‘capable of staging everything from the largest ballets to the most intimate one man show…’ (ref 2709/3). The Lyric, the main auditorium, seats 1,300 people while The Drum, which specialises in new plays, innovation and collaboration seats 160 people.

Elephant Man programme cover

A separate production and learning centre named TR2 opened in 2003. It contains set, costume, prop-making and rehearsal facilities, and provides one of the biggest education and outreach programmes of a regional venue. A £7 million regeneration project took place in 2013, resulting in the creation of The Lab – a community theatre space for exploration and experimentation.

Cinderella poster

At The Box we hold a large number of theatre programmes, which not only record productions but also show the development and evolution of TRP into what it is today. They can also be useful for social history, including advertisements for local businesses and photographs showing changing hairstyles and fashions! Several of these are on loan to TRP until mid-October and are displayed alongside props and objects that celebrate the many and varied music, dance and theatre productions it’s staged over the last 40 years. Happy Birthday Theatre Royal Plymouth. Here’s to another 40 years!

Claire Skinner, Archivist

Originally published for The Box Plymouth here.

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