The Grade I-listed building is the only working theatre in the National Trust's buildings portfolio and suffered various fortunes since its 1819 opening, among them being used as a barrel store by Suffolk brewers Green King (the owners of the freehold). There have been two previous restoration projects, in 1906 and 1965.
Its builder William Wilkins knew what he was about with his original design. His father had run a flourishing touring circuit, based in Norwich, and the theatres his companies played in followed much the same pattern. William inherited the circuit on his father's death and combined running it with a flourishing architectural career. Among his most notable commissions were the National Gallery in London and Downing College in Cambridge. He was also a pioneer of research into classical Greek architecture. It’s fitting that a modern version of his bust from the Fitzwilliam Museum now graces the theatre's new Green Room bar and restaurant facility.
Today's audience has to come to terms with a seating arrangement more familiar to European theatregoers than to British ones. All the boxes in the dress and upper circles have been reinstated and the pit (stalls) is a benched area reached through its own passageways.
Much research has gone into this recreation. But it wears its learning lightly. The seats are comfortable, there's ample promenading space and the proscenium arch and circle friezes (painted by the husband and wife team of Kit and Meg Surrey) lilt around to an authentic Regency trompe d'oeil measure.
And what is the audience going to see? A healthy mixture of the old and the new. This includes visiting opera and dance companies as well as contemporary drama from Hull Truck and Northern Broadsides, the Salisbury Playhouse production of Northanger Abbey and three rehearsed readings in the Restoring the Repertoire sequence.
The opening production (running to 22 September) is Douglas Jerrold's nautical melodrama of 1829 Black Ey'd Susan in a version by the theatre's former writer in residence Carl Miller. Kit Surrey has designed the painted perspective backcloths and wing flats to make artistic director's Colin Blumenau's staging a lively part of this purpose.
Judging by the reactions at the first night, the audience enjoyed themselves just as much as did their predecessors watching Macready as Macbeth or the first night of Charley's Aunt. Heroes were cheered, villains hissed and the dances awarded a clapping accompaniment.
Sir Peter Hall and Prunella Scales were amongst those in the audience, and there was a special prologue recited by Timothy West, paraphrasing Garrick's wry comments on the different expectations of pit, box and gallery occupants. The epilogue very properly thanked all the local enthusiasts who had made the restoration possible.
- by Anne Morley-Priestman