Theatre Royal's safety curtain

A wander around Northampton’s Cultural Quarter offers glimpses of the optimism and confidence of the Victorian era. It’s worth exploring some of the fascinating history, and enjoying what the town has to offer us today. This month Laura Malpas visits an absolute gem, the stunningly pretty Royal Theatre, part of Royal & Derngate.

Outside Theatre Royal
Guildhall road entrance to Royal Theatre

An ancient town, with written records going back well over eleven hundred years, much of the  Northampton we see today was built in the Victorian era. Famous for its leather working industries, the town’s prosperity and its ‘high society’ grew significantly during the 1800s. The newly wealthy townsfolk wanted entertainment, somewhere to spend their money, and to see and to be seen. And there was no shortage of businessmen ready to provide opportunities for the newly rich to indulge. Hotelier Mr John Franklin-Campbell was keen to find a reason for the wealthy to patronise his nearby town centre hotel and bar, and his auctioneer friend, Isaac Tarry, had thespian ambitions of his own. Together they created a vision to bring a cultural heart to the town with a luxuriously decorative theatre and opera house to attract the affluent elite. It took twenty years to realise their dream, but in 1884 they celebrated their opening night.   

They had engaged the most celebrated theatre architect of the day, Charles J Phipps to design the building, and he made the most of the relatively small space to create a deliciously decorated and upholstered auditorium with great acoustics, gas lighting, and all the mod cons of the best Victorian theatre. With all the preparations for the grand opening, it wasn’t noticed until too late that the stonemasons had carved the wrong name on the front of the theatre, naming it the ‘Royal Theatre’ rather than ‘Theatre Royal’. The former title is only given to establishments directly under Royal patronage. A message was hastily despatched to Queen Victoria appealing to her to consent to the name already built into the façade of the theatre. Luckily, just before the grand opening, she graciously acquiesced. Perhaps she was amused…

Theatre Royal July 1926
Photograph taken on the 200th performance of the ‘Elephant Repertory Company’ at the opera house, Northampton, 29th July 1926. Image credit: Royal & Derngate

Visiting the theatre was an expensive treat. Sitting in the plush red velvet circle cost three shillings, a week’s wages for most families. Sitting in a box cost a guinea, perhaps seven weeks wages, but it was the very best place to be admired by those in the auditorium. The poor folks could sit in the Upper Circle on hard benches where their view was restricted, and it often became very hot and stuffy. To refresh themselves cheaply, those sitting above would often bring bottled beer. A newspaper report from 1884 describes the interminable noise of empty bottles rolling around the wooden floor, and the danger of bottles flying down onto the elegantly dressed gentry in the Dress Circle. Surprisingly, drinking beer was tolerated by the management. A safety net was put up to catch airborne bottles, along with a sign exhorting the audience to avoid smoking, swearing and cracking nuts. Interestingly today the Theatre is licensed to seat an audience of 480. The highest audience recorded was in 1884 and they counted 1700 people. One can only imagine the feelings of claustrophobia! 

The people of Northampton loved their theatre, and were dismayed when in February 1887 the three year old building caught fire. History was made that night, as it was the very first time a telephone was used to call the emergency services. The locals teamed together to create bucket chains to help dowse the flames, and did everything they could do to help with the rebuilding. The theatre reopened three months later, with a safety curtain to help slow down any future fire. Today the safety curtain, spectacularly painted by the world renowned Northampton artist Henry Bird, shows many hints of the history of the theatre, and its descent is always a ‘wow’ moment.  

The theatre enjoyed many years of success, both with its Repertory Company and subsequently with the development of the Derngate complex. Like many others I have loved attending performances in this charming chocolate box of a theatre, and will continue to do so. I recently explored backstage on a lighthearted tour where we learned stories of the past and present. We met many characters from the life of the theatre, and were visited by the ‘Grey Lady’, the obligatory theatre ghost. It was fascinating to see the workings and to learn how a performance is staged. I particularly enjoyed visiting the paint shop, where all the scenery over the past 140 years has been created. The floor bears traces of every production, and in places the paint is layered inches thick. This tour is highly recommended. 

2020 sees Northamptonshire celebrating a year of Arts and Culture with a vibrant programme of happenings, performances and exhibitions all over the county. Royal and Derngate have a fabulously varied ‘What’s On’, there’s comedy, music, wonderful drama, and activities for families. Make the most of what this great County has to offer and enrich your life with some of these engaging events. There truly is something for everyone, and seeing things live is so much better than switching on the telly!

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