Theatre Royal

The last remaining theatre with its design intact by architect J.T. Robinson, employer and father-in-law to Frank Matcham.

200707 mp margatetr 162 detail
Address
Addington Street, Margate, Kent, CT9 1PW, England
Risk Rating
8 (Community Value: 3 Star Rating: 3, Risk Factor: 2 )
Architect
Remodelled by J.T. 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 J.T. 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 side wall, and extending the span of the old roof trusses. Robinson's 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.

J.T. 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. J.T. Robinson was 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?

Thanet 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 the trust went into administration. It has subsequently been managed by Your Leisure Kent Ltd. However, this is only a temporary arrangement and was, until recently, subsidised by Thanet Council and Kent County Council. The building appeared briefly on the Theatres at Risk Register in 2012 when the future of the theatre was uncertain. 

There is support within the council for the theatre and it has been proactive in looking at ways to make the theatre operation self-sustaining, including acquiring the former Theatre Hotel at 19 Hawley Square thinking that this might provide much-needed auxiliary space for the theatre. However, this is not possible without capital investment in the building and a partnering cross-subsidising operation. Until these plans come to fruition, operation remains in a fragile state. Without investment in the venue, the building fabric is also starting to deteriorate.

Theatre Royal Margate interior, 2017Theatre 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.

Subsequently Thanet District Council entered into a tender process to identify a new operator for both the theatre and Hawley Square who would develop proposals for their refurbishment and redevelopment. Theatres Trust assisted in the process.

The area around the theatre has changed in the last year, with the Gazette and Thanet Press printing works historic buildings both being converted into cultural uses.

Current situation

A preferred partner was identified in 2016. Substantial capital funding was required to deliver the capital works project by the preferred operator. Unfortunately, a Heritage Lottery Fund bid submitted in 2017 was unsuccessful and the preferred operator has since withdrawn from the project.

The council does not have either the capital or the capacity to carry out the project itself and has been looking at different options to take the works forward. There is no preferred solution at present. Theatres Trust has been advising the council in this process.

Although the theatre is currently open – operated by Your Leisure – any further withdrawal of subsidy would affect its ability to remain open.

In the autumn term of 2019 the University of Kent’s School of Architecture ran a module about the Theatre Royal. The project was to explore the potential of a new intervention to the theatre which would enhance the facilities and help breathe new life into the building. The project also considered the wider social and urban context of the theatre. It is hoped that the student’s work will be able to be displayed to the wider public, potentially at the theatre itself. The project is seen as positive in raising awareness of historic buildings amongst the student population and in generating new enthusiasm and support for the theatre. Both Margate Council and the Theatres Trust attended the student reviews for the project.

Main photo of Theatre Royal Margate by Theatres Trust

Interior photo by Ian Grundy