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Our story

1731 – 1800

1731 The White Swan Inn known as the White Swan Playhouse.

1734 William James becomes manager of the Norwich Company.

1736 Norwich Company of Comedians renamed, ‘The Norwich Company of Comedians, Servants to His Grace, the Duke of Grafton, Lord Chamberlain to His Majesty’s Household’.

1737 On the 21st June, Parliament passes the Licensing Act that meant any actors who performed without the King’s patent or the Chamberlain’s license, would be doing so illegally. These patents and licenses were only issued for Westminster or wherever the King happened to be.

1747 The White Swan Playhouse was refurbished.

1754 The Assembly Rooms was built by Thomas Ivory, a master builder.

1755 The Assembly Rooms opens.

1756 The Octagon Chapel in Colegate was built by Thomas Ivory

1757 The New Theatre near Chapel Field was built by Thomas Ivory who becomes the sole proprietor. The cost of building the theatre was £600, which was raised by a collective of 30 Norwich lawyers and businessmen who each gave £20, though through instalments.

1758 Richard Hurst manager. 31st January saw the Opening of The New Theatre. The site was to the right of the present building, away from Chapelfield. The Norwich Company of Comedians moved from The White Swan Playhouse to make The New Theatre their headquarters, touring from there to towns in the Eastern Counties. The opening main play was “The Way of the World” (by William Congreve).

1759 In an attempt to skirt around the Licensing Act, The New Theatre near Chapel Field (which did not possess a license) was renamed The Grand Concert Hall by Thomas Ivory in January.

1760 William Henry Crouse became joint manager with Richard Hurst.

1766 Richard Griffith actor/manager. In March, a new ticketing system is introduced whereby tickets had to be bought, in advance, for a specific number of seats within a box. This was to stop patrons booking an entire box, but then arriving with not enough people to fill it, thus preventing others who may have wished to come the opportunity of doing so.

1768 On 8th March: Act of Parliament for licensing the Theatre of Norwich received the Royal Assent. The theatre is now called Theatre Royal, Norwich from this date. (Licence granted to Thomas Ivory, the sole owner). The Norwich Company of Comedians began to be known as “His Majesty’s Servants”. Each of the new share holders was allocated a ‘silver ticket’. Thomas Ivory gives up his sole ownership. He values the theatre at £6000 and divides it into 30 shares, of which he keeps two for himself and offers the rest for sale.

1771 Theatre Royal is repaired and refurbished. Captain William Ivory assumes patentee role.

1772 Fund for decrepit actors founded in Norwich.

1779 Thomas Ivory dies.

1780 Richard Griffith retires through ill-health. Giles Linnett Barrett becomes manager/ lessee. Anne Brunton makes her stage debut. The first annual tickets were introduced in 1785.

1788 Sarah Siddons, nee Kemble, actress (1755-1831) in Norwich. As the country’s leading actress her arrival was a huge event. John Brunton manager/lessee.

1791 On 21st January, John Brunton sets up a new fund for decrepit and retired actors.

1801 – 1900

1801 Theatre Royal remodelled by William Wilkins, a local builder and architect. The theatre interior is entirely rebuilt, with only the outer walls remaining unchanged. Sophia Ann Goddard, an apparently charming lady and a most promising actress, dies aged 25. Her body is buried in the Bolingbroke tomb in the St. Peter Mancroft graveyard. At the time of her death she was betrothed to a relative of the Bolingbrokes – John Harrison Yallop. The inscription on the tomb reads:

“The former shone with superior lustre and effect in the Great School of Morals, the Theatre, while the latter inform’d the private circle of Life with Sentiment, Taste, and Manners that still live in the Memory of Friendship and Affection.”

On the 1st January,  the shareholders lease the theatre to William Wilkins. John Clayton Hindes actor/manager.

1813 William Wilkins renews the lease of the theatre for 30 years.

1814 Theatre Royal has interior refurbishment.

1815 William Wilkins dies. William Wilkins II inherits the lease.

1817 In August, Edmund Kean first performs at the theatre for eight nights. Richard the Third was the opening play. James Smith manager.

1818 Eliza O’Neil and Edmund Kean both perform at the theatre. Eliza’s arrival caused a bigger furore than when Mrs Siddons played here. Also in this year, an actor named Junius Brutus Booth performed. His more famous son was John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln’s assassin.

1820 The White Swan Inn ends as a playhouse.

1821 Mary Anne Goward’s debut (she is better known as Mrs Keeley)

1826 Second Theatre Royal built by William Wilkins II for £6,000 on the site of the present building. 27th March – The opening main play was “School for Scandal” (by R.B.Sheridan).

1828 William Charles Macready in Norwich. A comedian Ching Lau Lauro, direct from Drury Lane, performs here in Harlequinade: The Man in the Moon. The Norfolk Chronicle describes his act thus:

“No viler tissue of nonsensical stuff could be foisted on the patience of an insulted audience.” Where one of his characters, “descended to the lowest vault of the Capulets amidst the universal hisses which such execrable trash deservedly called forth in spite of the fact that Ching Lau Lauro swallowed his own head.”

1831 30th July – Paganini plays the Theatre Royal.

1833 A production of Giovanni in London: or the Libertine Reclaimed performed at the theatre. The playbill called it a “comic extravaganza entertainment in 2 acts comprising a grand choral, satirical, tragical, comical, operatical, melodramatical, pantomimical, critical, infernal, terestrial, celestial, one word in all – gullymaufricalollapadrical burletta spectacle.”

1835 William Charles Macready plays the Theatre Royal.

1836 On August 1st, Gas lighting was installed. The theatre was previously lit using oil lamps or candles.

1838 Members of the Orange and Purple Club dine at the theatre to celebrate Queen Victoria’s coronation. They had floorboards placed from the 1838 stage over the pit for this purpose. (Ladies were seated in the Dress Circle)

1839 George Smith was named manager.

1842 Nightly performances were first introduced. 13th September – 8th October – Theatre re-named Theatre Royal and Grand Amphitheatre of Arts during the season by Ducrow’s Circus.

1843 Norwich Circuit curtailed. Theatres Act passed by Parliament. This meant that the Patent Act was dropped, leaving other theatres in the country free to present drama.

1844 Charles Kean plays the theatre in The Lady of Lyons.

1845 The Norwich Company of Comedians disbands. William James Achilles Abington manager

1846 Clarance Holt appears on stage at the Theatre Royal for the first time. T.D. Davenport manager

1848 Charles Dillion manager

1850 Joseph Clarance manager. More commonly known as Clarance Holt

1851  On May 19th, A grand masquerade and fancy dress ball was held on stage. The Pit (Now known as the Stalls) was covered and made level with the stage.

1853 Baynton Rolt manager.

1854 The theatre changes from having a stock company to bringing touring companies in. 26th December – during Sydney’s term of office, the stock companies disappeared and the provincial touring system was fully established. C. Gill and William Sydney joint managers.

1855 William Sydney sole manager who finished as a proprietor

1858 Mr Belton Manager

1866 Tom Thumb and his wife (Mr and Mrs Stratton) perform at the theatre brought here by the showman P.T.Barnum. 25th September – their daughter Minnie dies (in most probability this wasn’t their daughter but a rescued Norwich orphan) and is buried in Norwich Cemetery.

1869 The Great Blondin performs at the theatre. (Charles Blondin was the first man to cross the Niagra Falls by tightrope in 1859. He crossed several more times adding more danger with each crossing. For instance, he balanced a chair on it and stood on it, cooked a meal on a burner halfway across and ate it and once carried his manager on his back across it. He was 41 when he recreated his act in Norwich.)

1876/1877 Beauty and the Beast, the Christmas pantomime runs for 6 weeks.

1878 W.H. Pennington recites The Charge of the Light Brigade. He performs wearing his old uniform as he had when he rode in the Balaclava Charge.

1883 1st October – William Sidney formally applied for a licence at the Guildhall Police Court. It transpired that the patent granted to Thomas Ivory in 1768 had lapsed at his death. This meant that the theatre had existed without licence or permit of any kind for 104 years.

1885 Fred Morgan provides a variety of theatrical shows but not everything was put on the Norwich stage as it is known that he declined the offer of a boxing kangaroo. 24th June – theatre leased to Fred Morgan

1887 December – fireproof asbestos stage curtain installed. Gas lighting overhauled and all exits improved with additional exits where considered essential by the Norwich magistrates.

1894 24th September – electricity installed throughout the theatre including an electric arc lamp of 2,900 candle power. All inside gas burners and fittings were removed

1901 – 2000

1902 Theatre Royal put up for sale by auction.

1903 6th June – Fred Morgan departs to his new Grand Opera House in St. Giles Street (Opened on 3rd August). 31st August – theatre purchased by E.H. Bostock and F.W. Fitt. RenamedThe Norwich Hippodrome. Twice nightly variety. Bostock and Fitt manager/proprietor

1904 24th August Messrs Bostock & Fitt purchase The Grand Opera House, change the name to The New Hippodrome, and introduce variety there.Theatre Royal leased back to Fred Morgan, who reverts to the old policy of once-nightly plays, musical comedies, etc.

1913 May – September – theatre enlarged by addition of “orchestra stalls” (to replace the benches in the pit) and a new, larger stage.

1915 1st November – 18th December – theatre renamed Empire and Theatre Royal for twice-nightly variety and revue season. Frank Rubens manager for about three months until Fred Morgan returns.

1916 March – Fred Morgan retires and Messrs Bostock & Fitt take over management, on basis of the former policy of once-nightly plays, etc.

1926 20th March – Messrs Bostock & Fitt relinquish their connection with the theatre. New seating, full central heating and lighting is introduced. Blue plush stage curtains replace the old green curtains and a new bar and foyer is created. Twice-nightly policy with few exceptions and the introduction of a quota of variety and revues. Collins and Gladwin reinstate the Christmas Pantomime. 5th April – theatre leased to Joe Collins and Jack Gladwin.

1928 1st May – Messrs Collins & Gladwin buy the theatre.

1931 Joe Collins dies and Jack Gladwin acquires his share of the theatre.

1934 22nd June – (second) Theatre Royal destroyed by fire.

1935 30th September – (third – present building) Theatre Royal opened with the play “White Horse Inn”. It was able to be rebuilt so quickly because Gladwin was able to use a replicable design used by Odeon cinemas.

1939 3rd September – theatre closed for three weeks at outset of the Second World War. 10th April – Jack Gladwin, due to illness, leases the theatre to Prince Littler – the theatre impresario.

1940 19th September – unexploded bomb in Theatre Street. One matinee cancelled (Arts Theatre Ballet). 26th April – Jack Gladwin takes back the lease from Prince Littler.

1942 27th April Two heavy air raids on Norwich this week. “Dangerous Alibi” played only three nights. 27th June air raid. Adjoining building and the Presbyterian church on the other side of Theatre Street both gutted by fire. Two incendiary bombs on the theatre roof were dealt with and extinguished.

1954 6th December – Harry Cody’s Empire Circus plays at the theatre.

1956 Kemp and Collins begin with five weeks of variety and then introduce films to the theatre. 17th September – Jack Gladwin leases the theatre to R.L. Kemp and J. Will Collins (father to Joan Collins, the actress). December – Kemp and Collins concede they can not make a success of the theatre and Gladwin leases the theatre to Essoldo cinemas, who eventually buy the building.

1960 27th April – The Hippodrome closes for good after the owner declares bankruptcy. June – The Hippodrome sold for development and the site is eventually destined to become a car-park.

1961 White Swan Inn demolished.

1965 Essoldo announces that they will not be renewing its live theatre license. November – Essoldo management apply to the council to allow the theatre to be used for Bingo. This application was refused.

1966 Norwich Hippodrome demolished. 26th October – Government Enquiry to examine the appeal of Essoldo against the refusal of Norwich Town Planning Committee to grant a licence to conduct the theatre as a Bingo Hall.

1967 6th April – Norwich City Council purchase the theatre from Essoldo for £90,000 hoping to turn it into a multi-purpose civic theatre. Lawrence Hill (honorary) manager. S. Fuller Manager

1968 The Bolshoi Ballet appears at the theatre followed in May by a successful run of Not Now, Darling, starring Donald Sinden and Bernard Cribbens. Not Now, Darling plays to 75% capacity. Parliament repeals the 1843 Theatres Act abolishing the Lord Chamberlain’s censorship powers.

1969 November – All of the original plans for a civic theatre are dropped. 9th December – Jack Gladwin “actor & impresario” dies.

1970 30th March – theatre closes for renovation and reconstruction.

1971 Lawrence Hill’s ill health forces him to retire.

1972 17th December – Gala re-opening. London Festival Ballet in “The Nutcracker” (One night only) July – Dick Condon manager

1977 The former Victorian church Sunday School building opposite the Stage Door, a former rehearsal room, is adapted into a 200-seater theatre.

1984 Theatre Arts Course created by Dick Condon.

1987 1st January – Deputy General Manager Anna Claire Martin appointed by Dick Condon.

1989 There were 377 adults and 899 children enrolled on the Theatre Arts Course this year. 4th April – An appeal to raise the funds needed for the renovation of the theatre began.

1990 31st March – The Theatre Royal closes. A summer season of plays goes ahead, in a circus marquee in Earlham Park – known as Theatrerama. 6th March – Dick Condon hands in his resignation but it is refused by the Theatre Trust. April – Dick Condon resigns again, accepted by the Trust. It is publicly announced in July and becomes affective on 30th September. 22nd October – Sir James Cleminson named as the new chairman of the Trust Board.

1991 By January all eighteen previous Board members had resigned and a new Trust Board of eleven members had been created. December – Building work on the Theatre Royal began. The refurbishment saw the addition of the fly-tower, an extension to the wing space on stage, and an extension for offices and a function room. Some refurbishment took place Front of House with a new, blue and gold colour scheme introduced into the auditorium. The first computerised Box Office and Marketing system was installed and administration staff were also transferred to computers for the first time. The architect was Jim Meering of Norwich City Council. October – Dick Condon dies.

1992 February – Peter Wilson Chief Executive. 5th November – The Theatre Royal renovations complete and the Box Office opened.16th November – The theatre re-opens with a concert by the Syd Lawrence Orchestra.

1997 As the highlight of ‘The Year of Opera and Musical Theatre’, hosted by the East of England, Theatre Royal presents Wagner’s Ring Cycle, in a version by Norwegian National Opera. This sell-out event was a major cultural first for Norwich, Norfolk and East Anglia, attracting worldwide interest and media coverage.

1998 Jonathan Barclay succeeded Sir James Cleminson as Chair of the Board of Trustees.

2001 >

2001 April – The 13-hour, nine-play, Trojan War epic Tantalus, directed by Sir Peter Hall, is performed across three evenings. The Theatre Royal is only one of four tour venues to show it before it moved to the Barbican.

2003 The Theatre Royal management merged with that of Norwich Playhouse.

2004 Theatre Royal Norwich awarded TMA ‘Most Welcoming Theatre’ Award.The Garage opened.  In partnership with NELM (North Earlham, Larkman and Marlpit) Trust, the theatre’s set and costume stores were transformed into a small theatre space and training studios.  The Garage became home to the Theatre Arts Courses who, along with other local organisations, offered socially inclusive arts activities.

2006 September – the Administration, Marketing and Box Office departments move from within the theatre itself to offices in Dencora House, set adjacent to the theatre. The online booking system was launched allowing customers to select and pay for their own tickets via the internet.

2007 30th March – Northern Ballet Theatre presents The Three Musketeers for the last performance at the Theatre Royal before it closes for modernisation. The modernisation joined the building to the neighbouring Dencora House on the ground and first floor. This extended the Front of House facility and reshaped the whole of the existing floor space and frontage. The work allowed space for a restaurant, improved bars and sales areas, increased the number of toilets and added lifts. The glass frontage with its balconies made for a modern and inviting appearance. The whole theatre became fully accessible for the first time. The Carmen Electronic Architecture system was installed in the auditorium which transformed the acoustics to concert hall standard. The ventilation system was renewed and the seating changed from blue to red. The architect was Tim Foster of Tim Foster Associates. 13th November – Glyndebourne on Tour re-opens the Theatre Royal, now known as Norwich Theatre Royal, with productions of L’elisir d’amore (by G Donizetti), Macbeth and Albert Herring.

2008 On the 31st January, Norwich Theatre Royal celebrates its 250th birthday. In December, David Merrick succeeded Jonathan Barclay as Chair of the Board of Trustees.

2010 Cameron Mackintosh’s Les Misérables completed a five-week run selling just under 48,000 tickets, a record for a musical production. The theatre appointed an Environmental Champion to support its commitment to reduce our impact on the environment and in our first year we achieved our Julie’s Bicycle Industry Green Award.

2013 The stage floor was stripped down and refurbished for the first time since the 1970s. The theatre box office and press teams supported a major six month exhibition called Houghton Revisited, which saw a renowned art collection transported from Russia’s St Petersburg Hermitage to Houghton Hall. The theatre appointed an Access Manager to support its commitment to accessible theatre.

2014 The southern German opera house Theater Freiburg toured to the theatre bringing two epic Wagner operas – Parsifal and Tannhäuser. It was the biggest company ever to visit the theatre, with 200 cast and crew which included 33 singers, 26 ensemble, 73 musicians and a 50-strong children’s choir. In December, the theatre extended its accessible performances to include its first relaxed performance of the pantomime.

2015 In March, Michael Newey succeeded David Merrick as Chair of the Board of Trustees. The theatre announced a £3.8million project to create a new learning and participation centre on the site of the semi-derelict Victorian church Sunday School at the rear of the theatre, with the demolition of the old building and construction of the new starting in Summer 2015. In December, it created The Umbrella Trust with two Norwich schools to boost educational opportunities and increase the aspirations of their pupils aged from 4 to 18. As part of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, the theatre presented a two-day run of the ground-breaking The James Plays, three Scottish history plays by the National Theatre of Scotland, performed consecutively over one day; and it also provided support for another summer-long exhibition at Houghton Hall, this time by modern-day American lightscape artist James Turrell.

2016 In late Summer, Stage Two opened its doors, providing a home for the theatre’s own Youth Theatre Company, Theatre Arts Courses and education team, and offering space for new self-funded training programmes and vocational training courses in partnership with the HE/FE sector and other organisations, and a range of theatre-related classes and activities for young and old. The new facilities provided a flexible performing space with seating for up to 100 people, workshop rooms, rehearsal spaces, dressing rooms and a workshop. The annual in-house Christmas pantomime was the most successful panto to-date, Jack and the Beanstalk was seen by over 60,000 people. On December 23, Peter Wilson stepped down as Chief Executive after 25 years at the helm, leaving to pursue other artistic projects.

2017 On January 4, new Chief Executive Stephen Crocker took up his post.