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Image © New Theatre Royal via Facebook

The Restoration of New Theatre Royal Portsmouth

London Calling

The New Theatre Royal in the city of Portsmouth has recently re-opened after a 4.5million refurbishment. Culture Calling spoke to recently appointed Marketing Manager Andrea Sheppard to find out more about the history of the theatre and this extraordinary refurbishment.

The theatre has gone through many changes over the years says Andrea. “We were originally built in 1854 by the gentleman who owned the public store at the time. There was a sports hall on the site and he decided to change the use of the venue and build a theatre.” The Grade II listed building subsequently opened in 1856 under the management of Henry Rutley and has since had many names including Portsmouth Theatre, Portsmouth and Portsea Theatre, and finally the Theatre Royal, as it is known today.

John Waters Boughton took over ownership of the theatre from Henry Rutley and later built the King’s Theatre in Southsea too. Andrea told us, “After a few years of the theatre not working too well, John decided to get C.J. Phipps in to have a look at it and try to make it into a more popular theatre which worked for a while.” Boughton then enlisted theatre architect, Frank Matcham, whose name is widely known for the design of many early 20th Century listed theatres you see today. Matcham redesigned and enlarged the theatre creating a bigger stage, one of the largest of its time. “That’s what makes us fairly unique – being a Phipps and Matcham theatre.”

Matcham Sign in Matcham bar - Credit Anthony Wright
Image credit: Anthony Wright

In 1972 the theatre suffered severe damage as a result of a fire, and then subsequent vandal damage. “Everything [was lost] from the eye-curtain backwards. The eye-curtain, which hadn’t worked for a while, decided with a little wisdom to burn through the ropes when the fire was happening”, Andy titters, “It actually dropped and saved the auditorium but unfortunately we lost a lot of the backstage area.”

The refurbishment project has restored the theatre back to its former glory and brought it into the 21st Century. Having been closed for three years, the theatre re-opened to the public on the 15th October with a new stage adaptation of The Great Gatsby. “The grand unveiling was originally meant to be slightly earlier in the year but there were delays where bits of work hadn’t been completed.” The public re-opening coincided with the BBC One documentary On Stage: A Tale of Two Theatres, which followed Sheila Hancock reminiscing on her fond memories of both New Theatre Royal and The Kings Theatre where she began her career.

NTR auditorium interior Pam Johns
Image credit: Pam Johns

The new theatre now has a capacity of 700 and extensive restoration has taken place to renovate the stage, fly-tower and backstage area. As well as work on the auditorium, this monumental project brings a new café and bar as well as a brand new studio – a legacy to the great filmmaker Antony Minghella CBE.

Caroline Sharman, artistic director and chief executive, has said the revival of the New Theatre Royal is about “much more than the restoration of the beloved historic building.”
The New Theatre Royal is expected to have a grand re-opening in March 2016 to celebrate its 150th anniversary. “Plans are still under way at the moment but we have fanfare being commissioned from Sir Peter Maxwell Davies,” says Andy.

With a new theatre comes a new programme. “It [the theatre] will have a slightly different offering to everything else that the city already has. Portsmouth is incredibly blessed to have two venues of the stature and quality that they are, with the Kings and ourselves,” Andy comments. The Kings Theatre can seat up to 1600 and often houses large productions with longer runs. The New Theatre Royal’s focus will be on plays, music and comedy rather than large-scale commercial productions. Over the next year, the programme sees comedy geniuses Ed Byrne and Rich Hall performing, the exceptional Globe Theatre doing what they do best and music by award-winning singer songwriter Hazel O’Connor.

Filling up the Auditorium NTR - Credit Anthony Wright
Image credit: Anthony Wright

Andy joined the theatre around the time of the re-opening and she has hit the ground running. She is very much looking forward to seeing what this new role and next year has in store. “The whole building is just amazing! My office is located at the back of the Upper Circle, it’s inspiring to walk through the auditorium everyday… the art atmosphere is just wonderful here.”

To find out more about what's on at the New Theatre Royal Portsmouth visit the website.

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