How the theatre building evolved

Photo:Theatre Royal Brighton

Theatre Royal Brighton

200 years of the Theatre Royal, Part 7 of 7


A Regency theatre

The Theatre Royal is a Regency theatre, which was transformed and enlarged in the Victorian age, then modernised and extended in the Edwardian era, and finally with some modifications in the early Twentieth Century. This historic building, which therefore incorporates features from the past 200 years and beyond, has had a continuous performance history.

One of the oldest working theatres

Theatre Royal Brighton is one of the top ten oldest working theatres in the UK and predates the remodelled Royal Pavilion. The Theatre, fronting onto New Road and backing onto Bond Street, was built on land purchased from the Prince Regent, George IV. George personally approved plans for the theatre and gave it his royal assent. The building was completed in 1807 after just 10 months.  There is no record of the architect of the early theatre, but it bears resemblances to Theatre Royal Worthing, built by Messrs Hides, at the same date. Although most of the original architectural features have disappeared in later rebuilding, we know from early drawings and a photograph that Theatre Royal Brighton was a three-storey, classical style building, with a colonnade along the front. There were five doorways behind the colonnade, of which the central one led into the boxes, those on the right into the stalls, and on the left into the gallery. To the right of the building was a twitten, leading to the Manager's cottage.

It used gas lighting

Scenic artists assisted in the flamboyant décor at the nearby Royal Pavilion and it is thought that some of the same painters may have been employed at the Theatre. Theatre Royal Brighton was one of the first theatres in the country to use gas lighting (very modern technology, utilised at the Pavilion) and remnants of the Theatre's gas light fittings still exist.

Made up of several buildings

Theatre Royal Brighton, which has grown organically over the years, is made up of several buildings and the various stages of the development of the public areas are documented. Backstage, behind the well-known façade and familiar auditorium, the building history is something of a conundrum, begging to be solved. When the Theatre was extended and remodelled during the 19th century, architects were not required to lodge planning applications!

Nearby buildings incorporated

Nearby buildings were modified in the redevelopments and Theatre Royal Brighton now incorporates cottages, a courtyard and even a twitten. Some of the cottage rooms are still intact and a façade can be seen within the backstage area. A stream ran beneath the stage and, before the days of electric pumps, a young person was employed to pump the water away! Other reminders of the early theatre which remain are: the frame for painting elaborate backdrops, vestiges of stage machinery for pantomime transformation scenes, and traps for expelling carbon monoxide.

Charles James Phipps, theatre architect

In 1866 the new proprietor, HENRY NYE CHART, employed a young CHARLES JAMES PHIPPS (later a celebrated theatre architect) to transform Theatre Royal Brighton. Phipps designed a 1900 capacity house, achieved by increasing its height to accommodate a new gallery, and by bench seating. He updated the auditorium into his trademark horseshoe shape, with three closely spaced, steep balconies, supported by iron columns. Phipps also added an extension to the first floor, which may have been the first Royal Circle bar. The shape of Phipps' auditorium remains today, but few of his decorative features are left apart from the stage boxes and the magnificent two metre tall chandelier, which weighs one tonne and is still cleaned as it was then - by lowering it down to floor level.

Layout considerably changed

The main entrance to the Theatre (now a subsidiary entrance at the back of the stalls bar) led up a curved staircase (probably from the original theatre) to the dress circle. The Manager's cottage (dating from 1807), at the back of the Theatre, was converted into dressing rooms. The stage door was approached through a twitten, which still exists within the building.

Further modernisation

In 1894 the Theatre was further modernised by local architect C E CLAYTON in line with new safety regulations. The Nye Charts had moved to No 9 New Road (an 1820s building), adjacent to the Theatre, and ELLEN NYE CHART, who became manager after her husband's death, left their home to Theatre Royal Brighton when she died in 1892.

The house became part of the theatre

In 1894 the house was incorporated into the Theatre itself and a number of its original features remain. The ground floor became the main entrance and box office (still used today), and retains the open fireplace which characterised the Victorian residence. The gracious staircase to the Royal Circle had also been in the house. Mrs Nye Chart's first floor drawing room is now the Royal Circle bar and, above this, the two storeys of bedrooms were converted into offices for Theatre staff. The Theatre's former main entrance was turned into a second entrance at the back of the stalls, now with its own bar. The width of the theatre was extended and it was redecorated throughout. The old gas lighting system was converted to electricity and Nos 35-38 Bond Street, at the back of the theatre, were purchased. No 35 was converted into the stage door and still remains the entry route for all the scenery for every show. Dressing rooms were replanned and improved and the ground floor colonnade at the front of the Theatre was rebuilt.

Dressing rooms redesigned

In 1911-12, after a fire, dressing rooms were redesigned. In one of the ground floor dressing rooms is a simple Regency-style chimneypiece - possibly from the Manager's former cottage, reset here after the fire. From the roof of an inner courtyard adjoining is part of the north elevation of the old building, giving an indication of what the 1807 cottage looked like.  Nine new dressing rooms were built behind the stage in what were virtually the back gardens of Nos 35-38 Bond Street!

Tip-up seats installed

In the auditorium benches were substituted by tip-up seats in the stalls and the gallery and amphitheatre were also given individual seats. This reduced the Theatre's capacity. In 1913 the Theatre's directors claimed that the renovations "brought the House thoroughly up-to-date" and that the public and visiting companies "have expressed great satisfaction with the improved arrangements for their comfort".

Further substantial improvements

In 1920 the financial buoyancy of the Theatre enabled the directors to buy adjacent properties and make substantial improvements to the building. In 1923 the Theatre purchased the Colonnade Hotel, now the Colonnade bar, a favourite with theatre-goers. In 1927, under the guidance of the architect R.C. SPRAGUE, the last major structural changes were made to the auditorium when the seating capacity was slightly increased by removing columns and the back and side walls of the dress and upper circles, and adding rows of seats in their place. The auditorium was also redecorated in a rather austere manner, with rose and silver replacing blue and gold as the overriding colours.

A working 'hemp house'

The Theatre, which is Grade II listed throughout, is one of the few fully working 'hemp houses', which uses the original framework in the flies above stage for manually raising and lowering scenery. In the early days of the theatre fishermen were the most skilled rope handlers and, when not at sea, a number were employed by Theatre Royal Brighton to work the flies. Some of the reclaimed timbers used in the construction of the flies may have been from ships. These timbers can still be seen today.

Current owners, 2007

It is good to know that the current owners of the Theatre Royal Brighton (Ambassadors Theatre Group) have retained its unique historic qualities and are able to operate it successfully in the 21st century!

[Previously published in the 'North Laine Runner', No 190, Jan/Feb 2008]

This page was added on 21/02/2008.

My father, Aubrey Nye Chart, was I believe stage manager of the theatre in the 1920-1930 period. I believe his father, John Nye Chart II, took over the management of the theatre after his mother Ellen (Nelly) died. I know little about his life during this period or indeed about his side of the family. He did tell me that when he was very young he was allowed to stay up very late one night to see the arrival of the Prince of Wales (later King Edward) and Lily Langtry when they came to dinner. If anyone has any information about him or other family members I would be very pleased to hear from them.

By Peter Chart
On 08/03/2011

If you're already a registered user of this site, please login using the form on the left-hand side of this page.