The Theatres Trust

New Theatre Royal (Portsmouth)

  • Theatre ID
    983
  • Built / Converted
    1882
  • Dates of use
    • 1856: continuing (break for cinema use 1933-48)
  • Current state
    Extant
  • Current use
    Theatre (occasional theatre events during restoration)
  • Address
    20-24 Guildhall Walk, Portsmouth, Hampshire, PO1 2DD, England
  • Websites

Details

In the 1840s a building called the Landport Hall was converted from a racquets court attached to the Swan Tavern. In 1854, Henry Rutley, a circus proprietor, took over the tavern and applied for a licence to convert the hall into a theatre, which opened in Sept 1856. Rutley died in 1874, and Boughton, who acquired the theatre in 1882, purchased adjoining land, commissioning C J Phipps to build a larger theatre. This had three balconies, and three boxes, one at each level, on either side as well as two boxes at the rear of the first tier. Continuing to buy up land, Boughton decided to enlarge the auditorium and improve the stage facilities, engaging Frank Matcham, with whom he had worked at the Princes Theatre. Phipps' restrained but handsome pedimented classical façe of 1884 survived this reconstruction. Matcham did, however, make an addition which completely tranformed the appearance of the theatre - a projecting enclosed balcony of enriched iron and glass, supported by an arcade of slender coupled colonnettes. Matcham built a new stage 19.8m (65ft) deep and enlarged Phipps' auditorium by absorbing part of the old stage 10.66m (35ft) deep within it, and building a range of four bow-fronted boxes on each side between the the ends of the balconies and the new proscenium, which was 9.14m (30ft) wide. He also partly reconstructed the balconies themselves, although making use of Phipps' supporting iron columns. The lyre-shaped first balcony of six rows is pure Matcham and is cantilevered out from a line of columns which rise up to support the fronts of the two Phippsian horseshoe balconies above. The sides of the upper balconies were altered to improve sightlines. The overall decorations (by De Jong) are of an incredible richness. The boxes are framed by giant polygonal columns and each upper box has an arched canopy which bellies forward with a scrolled top above an oval panel. Linking the capitals of the columns on each side is a wide semi-circular arch, originally framing a bust. The proscenium is flanked by niches, originally with statues. Surmounting the opening is a large flared painted panel with trumpeting Tritons in plasterwork at its base. The whole is held together by a scheme of extremely detailed plasterwork with a predominently nautical theme. The first tier panels are decorated with naval symbols - mermaids, dolphins, anchors and shells. The second tier honours the army; laurel wreathed lions spouting forth electric globes while between are draped guidons and colours. The third has continuous deeply moulded Rococo acanthus motifs which gently emphasise its earlier form. Most of the panel painting was lost in a thoroughly insensitive 1948 redecoration, although there does survive the excellent large panel over the proscenium showing Thespis and boys at play. In 1959 the theatre became a bingo hall. In 1971 an application for listed building consent to demolish was refused. The stage was destroyed by fire in 1972 (children playing with fireworks; fortunately the fire brigade lowered the iron curtain) and the building was closed. Further vandalism of the interior followed. Following this, members of the Theatre Royal Society worked at weekends to protect the building from decay and vandalism. The New Theatre Royal Trustees (Portsmouth) Ltd was formed and in 1980 sufficient funds were raised to buy the freehold. Despite the Trust's worthy efforts, the recovery of this superb theatre proceeded at an agonizingly slow pace. A phased scheme by Rod Ham led to the restoration of the façe, improvements to front of house spaces, major repairs in the auditorium and the laying of the foundations for a completely new dressing room and administration wing, but the rebuilding of the stage house is still awaited. The sightlines from the balconies are very good and allowed a forestage to be built forward of the proscenium, enabling the splendid auditorium to function as a most exciting setting for drama. The comparatively large volume, which does not detract at all from the intimacy of the theatre, and the unusual sloping angle of the ceiling, suggests a superb acoustic for opera and musical theatre, as well as for speech. Even in its incomplete form, the public face of the theatre was in excellent condition and the building used for occasional performances (and regularly as a shoppers' cafe rendezvous!), bringing confidence back to a part of the City which had formerly seemed doomed to decay. Forty years since the fire, plans for the new stage house are finally underway, with reopening anticipated in 2013/14. With a potential capacity of 1,500 and an ability to arrange programming to complement that of the King's, Southsea, the complete re-opening of this theatre is greatly anticipated across the City, region and beyond.


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  • Other names
    Theatre Royal, Variously Theatre Royal and New Theatre Royal since 1884
  • Events
    • Owner/Management: Later: Portsmouth Theatres Company, founded by Boughton, owners
    • 1854 Owner/Management: Henry Rutly, succeeded on his death in 1874 by his wife
    • 1856 Use: continuing (break for cinema use 1933-48)
    • 1856 Design/Construction: Landport Hall converted to theatre
    • 1875 Owner/Management: The Portsmouth & Southsea Assembly Rooms & Theatres Ltd
    • 1882 Owner/Management: Boughton
    • 1882 Design/Construction: theatre rebuilt.
      • C J Phipps - Architect
    • 1884 Alteration:
      • Ballard - Consultant: Mural
    • 1900 Alteration: auditorium enlarged.
      • Frank Matcham - Architect
      • de Jong - Consultant: Plasterwork
      • Whiteheads - Consultant: Marble
    • 1930 Owner/Management: Denville Players, lessees
    • 1932 Owner/Management: Various, lessees
    • 1932 Alteration: projection equipment installed
    • 1948 Alteration: redecorated; paintings removed
    • 1950 - 1959 Design/Construction:
      • Ambrose Scott Moncreiff - Consultant: Restoration Of Canvas Crown (Ex Proscenium Crown) With Reclining Muses
    • 1980 Owner/Management: New Theatre Royal Trust, owners
    • 1994 Alteration: renovated and reconstructed
      • Roderick Ham - Architect
  • Capacities
    • Later: 1884: 2000 1900: 2300
    • Current: currently limited to 320
  • Listings
    • Grade II*
  • Dimensions
    • Stage dimensions: Depth 1884: 40ft 1900: 65ft Width 1900 SL: 35ft SR: 35ft
    • Proscenium width: 1884: 30ft 1900: 31ft
    • Height to grid: None at present
    • Orchestra pit: 1884: c.20 1900: 35

Of the period

Façade of the Alhambra Theatre
Alhambra Theatre (London)
London

Have you seen?

Streetscape showing the New Cross Empire, London, circa 1905
New Cross Empire
London

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