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The UK’s Oldest Theatres

25 May 2018 | Emily May

The tradition of theatre dates back to the Ancient Greeks, and whilst we Brits might not be able to compete with a 5th Century BC amphitheatre, the UK boasts some pretty historic theatres dating back to the Reformation that are still in use today. Check out our round up of five of the oldest theatres across the country.

Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London
Originally built in 1663, the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane is London’s oldest theatre, having hosted performances for three and a half centuries. The original building was visited by the likes of Samuel Peyps and Charles II, who first saw his infamous mistress Nel Gwyn treading the boards of this very theatre. The first building was unfortunately destroyed by fire in 1672 and the theatre has since undergone a number of restorations. During its long history it’s presented various masterpieces and theatrical legends; from Charles Macklin, who murdered a fellow actor in the green room, to the public premieres of the National Anthem and Rule Britannia; from the premiere of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s seminal play The School for Scandal, to Noel Coward’s major success with Calvacade in 1931. It is also famous for being visited by every British monarch since the Restoration. Now owned by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, the theatre mainly presents top musicals including Shrek and 42nd Street – a far cry from what the audiences would have been watching during the Restoration period.

Image Credit: Renato Pizzutti via Flickr
The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane is located at Catherine Street, London, WC2B 5JF
Bristol Old Vic, Bristol
The oldest continuously working theatre in the English-speaking world, Bristol Old Vic was built in 1766. It is closely associated with the Bristol Old Vic Theatre school, which has turned out famous British actors including Oliva Colman and Daniel Day-Lewis. After receiving a recent funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Old Vic - in collaboration with the Bristol Archives and University of Bristol Theatre Collection - have curated various exhibitions, interactive sound experiences and creative displays around the building to showcase their rich history. Artefacts on display include the document from 1764 showing the original proposal to build a theatre, scraps of old tickets through the ages, and there is even a section telling the story of how they once managed to fit a live African elephant on stage!

Image Credit: Jeremy Fennell via Flickr
Bristol Old Vic is located at The Rackhay, Queen Charlotte Street BS1 4HJ
Grand Theatre, Lancaster
Opened in 1782, the Grand Theatre, Lancaster is another playhouse that has undergone various restorations. The first was in 1897 by the renowned theatre architect Frank Matcham, who along with his two protégés, is responsible for over 200 theatres before 1915. However, this building was gutted by fire and the theatre reopened in 1908 in the Edwardian style it remains in to date. It is currently owned by the amateur theatre group the Lancaster Footlights, who produce five plays a year as well as running and maintaining the historic building. To learn more about the theatre’s past, they offer the public guided theatre tours, but best to steer clear if you’re afraid of ghosts and ghouls – legend has it the theatre is haunted!

Image Credit: FotoFling Scotland via Flickr

The Lancaster Grand Theatre is located at St. Leonardgate, Lancaster, LA1 1NL   
Theatre Royal, Margate
Along with the Assembly Rooms, Cecil Square, and the Circulating Library, Hawley Square (both now destroyed), the Theatre Royal, Margate was built as part of an initiative to expand the port of Margate in the Georgian period, yet it was converted into a Victorian style theatre in 1874. Although not the oldest theatre in the country (dating back to 1787), it is home to the first acting school in the UK – Sarah Thorne’s School of Acting, which was attended by Edward Gordon Craig, prolific modernist theatre practitioner.

Image Credit: Brian Evans via Flickr

The Theatre Royal, Margate is located at Addington Street, Margate, Kent CT9 1PW
The Georgian Theatre Royal, Yorkshire
Being built in 1788, The Georgian Theatre Royal in Yorkshire is technically the youngest theatre in our round up, but is in fact the UK’s oldest working theatre in its original state, and Britain’s most complete Georgian playhouse. The theatre owns Britain’s oldest set of scenery “The Woodland Scene”, which was probably painted between 1818 and 1836, and  is now displayed as the main attraction of the theatre’s Georgian Theatre Experience, an immersive tour where you can discover the theatre’s history, explore back stage, learn about the life of a Georgian actor and even try on costumes.

Image Credit: Steve Halliday via Flickr

The Georgian Theatre Royal is located at Victoria Road, Richmond, North Yorkshire, DL10 4DW

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