Theatre Royal

The last remaining theatre with its design intact by architect Jethro Thomas Robinson, employer and father-in-law of celebrated Victorian theatre architect Frank Matcham.

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Address
Addington Street, Margate, Kent, CT9 1PW, England
Risk Rating
8 (Community Value: 3 Star Rating: 3, Risk Factor: 2 )
Architect
Remodelled by Jethro Thomas Robinson
Date of Construction
1787, remodelled in 1874
Listing
Grade II*
Capacity
465 (current)

Significance

The Theatre Royal is a Grade II* listed theatre of major significance located on a prominent site in Margate. The theatre was built in 1787 and remained in theatre use until 1963, with periods for chapel use during the 1840s and cinema between the wars. It was substantially remodelled in 1874 by Jethro Thomas Robinson. It fully reopened as a theatre again in 1988. The structure of the earlier building partially remains, but Robinson drastically modified the theatre by removing the old auditorium and stage, increasing the width by demolishing one sidewall, and extending the span of the old roof trusses. The auditorium has been compared to a smaller version of his earlier London Old Vic auditorium of 1871. It is a delightful space with two horseshoe balconies supported by slender iron columns along the line of their fronts, which are decorated with swags.

Robinson was surveyor to the Lord Chamberlain. Only two auditoria designed by him remain, this theatre and The Old Vic. With the extensive remodelling of the proscenium arch at The Old Vic, the Theatre Royal Margate is the last remaining theatre with the architect’s design intact. Robinson was also the employer of, and later father-in-law to, Frank Matcham, who is considered by many to be the greatest theatre architect, which makes this a unique piece of theatrical heritage.

Why is this theatre at risk? 

Theatre Royal Margate has been on the Theatres at Risk Register since 2018.

Thanet District Council acquired the theatre as 'owner of last resort' in 2007, paying the debts left by the previous owners Margate Theatre Royal Trust and Castle Trust. The building was then leased back to the Margate Theatre Royal Trust on a peppercorn rent until 2012 when it went into administration. At this point, we added the theatre to the Theatres at Risk Register, but removed it again in 2013 when the council indicated its staunch desire to see the venue remain in active theatre use, appointing Thanet Leisureforce (subsequently Your Leisure Kent Ltd) as temporary operator and commissioning arts consultancy Bonnar Keenleyside to undertake a viability appraisal.  

The Theatre Royal is still managed by Your Leisure Kent Ltd. However, this is a temporary arrangement and the theatre was, until recently, subsidised by Thanet District Council and Kent County Council.

The council remains supportive of the theatre and has been proactive in looking at ways to make the theatre operation self-sustaining, including acquiring the former Theatre Hotel at 19 Hawley Square (sited opposite the theatre) as a means of providing much-needed auxiliary space for the theatre. However, there is a requirement for major capital investment in the building to realise the ambition and to carry out essential maintenance and repair work, and for a partnering cross-subsidising operation to provide future sustainability. Until these plans come to fruition, the operation remains in a fragile state. Without investment in the venue, the building fabric will deteriorate.

Theatre Royal Margate interior, 2016

Theatre potential

Theatre Royal Margate has always been well supported by its local community.

Thanet District Council is very supportive of the theatre, which has been in its ownership since 2007. In 2014 it undertook a viability appraisal, which looked at ways of making the theatre financially sustainable in the long term. It identified a scheme to re-orientate the entrance of the theatre towards Hawley Square, creating much-needed front of house facilities, bar space and disabled access. The proposals also included using the former Theatre Hotel at adjacent 19 Hawley Square, a Grade II listed building with potential for bar and restaurant facilities, as a means of helping cross-subsidise the theatre operation. This scheme would remove the need for ongoing revenue support from both councils.

Thanet District Council had identified a preferred partner to develop proposals for the refurbishment of the theatre and 19 Hawley Square, and then to operate the theatre. Unfortunately, a 2017 Heritage Lottery Fund bid to part finance the capital works essential to this ambition was unsuccessful. The council does not have either the capital nor the capacity to carry out the project itself and has been looking at different options to take the works forward. Theatres Trust has been advising the council in this process.

Current situation

In 2019 the Theatre Royal caught the attention of the University of Kent’s School of Architecture, which ran a design module about the building. The project focused on exploring the potential of enhancing the theatre’s facilities and helping breathe new life into the building. The project also considered the wider social and urban context of the theatre. Overall this was seen as a positive move in raising awareness of historic buildings amongst the student population and in generating new enthusiasm and support for the theatre. Both the council and the Theatres Trust attended the student reviews for the project.

The area around the theatre has changed in the last few years, with the historic Gazette and Thanet Press printing works buildings both being converted into cultural uses. It is hoped that this will be the start of further investment in and regeneration of the area, all of which will have a positive impact on the theatre.

In 2020 Margate was identified as one of the town centres invited by the government to bid for the £3.6bn Towns Fund. Thanet District Council has since submitted its 10-year ‘Town Investment Plan’ for Margate which identifies £29m of investment to transform the town and attract future investment. The plan earmarks £2m for improvements to the Theatre Royal and associated Hawley Square property.

Theatres Trust will continue to support the council in its search for a partner operator to help develop the new proposals for the Theatre Royal and 19 Hawley Square and which will deliver a viable and sustainable future operation for this important historic theatre.

Main photo of Theatre Royal Margate by Theatres Trust. Interior photo by Ian Grundy.