Saturday, 31 July 2021

Theatre Royal, Belfast


THE THEATRE ROYAL, at the corner of Arthur Street and Castle Lane, Belfast, had three incarnations.

It is known to have been running as early as 1793, when the first theatre on the site was built for Michael Atkins.

This first theatre was eventually rebuilt, with construction starting at the close of the season in March, 1870.

It was said to be "a mere red brick enclosure", with various unsavoury smells emanating from its interior.

During construction of the original theatre, a roadway was discovered that was thought to have been a former entrance to the Jacobean Belfast Castle.

The second theatre was opened in 1871, and played host to many well known actors of the time.

Second Theatre Royal, 1871-81

The General Manager remained J F Warden, who also operated the Grand Opera House, which opened in 1895.

The second theatre suffered a catastsophic fire in June, 1881.

Despite the fire a new theatre, the third on the site, was soon under construction and was completed just six months later, for its opening in December, 1881.

The designer of the third Theatre Royal in Belfast was the well known and respected theatre architect, C J Phipps.

Construction was carried out by H & J Martin, who would later go on to construct the Grand Opera House in 1895.

The Era newspaper printed a report on the Theatre Royal in their 1881 edition saying:
...The new theatre, although built within the same space as the late structure, is different in almost every particular ... the elevation facing Arthur-square still retains the five entrance doorways, but their designations have been changed.

The dress circle and the upper circle both enter by the three centre doorways into a large vestibule; thence the audience to the former turn to the left hand, and the latter to the right hand, up the respective staircases.

There will be no confusion or mingling of the audience to these two parts of the house, as the vestibule will be divided by a low barrier, and when the performance is over the additional doorway to the extreme right of the façade will serve as the exit from the upper circle staircase exclusively;

the corresponding doorway on the left, next to Mr Forrester's premises, being the entrance to the pit, which is entered up a few steps from the street. The gallery is entered in Castle-lane - first doorway from the angle of the façade.

Farther along Castle-lane is another wide doorway which opens directly into the refreshment saloon, underneath the pit, and will be opened at every performance as an additional exit for the pit. The stage entrance is in the old position in Castle-lane.

Along the whole of the façade in Arthur-square a covered veranda or porch has been erected of iron and glass; so that the audience waiting for the opening of the doors will be protected when the weather is wet, and those coming in carriages will not have to cross a damp pavement previous to entering the theatre.

The vestibule before referred to is level with the street, and in the wall opposite the entrances are the offices for booking seats and pay places for the dress and upper circles. A corridor in the centre leads to the acting manager's and Mr Warden's offices, and to lavatories for gentlemen.

The floors of this vestibule and the corridor are laid with marble mosaic, from Mr Burke's manufactory, at Venice. Ascending the staircase, to the left of the vestibule are the dress circle and balcony stalls, with a cloak-room on the top of the landing. The balcony stalls have six rows of seats all fitted with the architect's patent arm-chairs, with lifting seats.

This part of the theatre is arranged somewhat after the model of the Gaiety, at Dublin (also designed by Mr Phipps), with small private boxes on either side, behind the second row of seats.

The back of the circle is enclosed from the corridor by a series of elliptical arches, filled with plate-glass sashes, which can be either opened or kept closed, thereby keeping the circle warm and snug, when not entirely fall, and affording means for those standing in the corridor on a full night to both bear and see the performance.

Behind the corridor is a refreshment saloon, adjoining the cloak-room. There are two private boxes in the proscenium, also, on this level, and on the pit tier, the upper circle and the gallery tier. The front of the upper circle tier recedes about two rows of seats behind the dress circle, the front rows of which form a balcony.

The gallery tier also recedes again from the upper circle. The mode of construction is good for sound, and also prevents the well-like appearance which small theatres present when all the fronts of the various tiers are on one perpendicular plane.

The upper-circle has six rows of seats, and a spacious corridor behind for standing - and the same arrangement of refreshment saloon and cloak-room as on the tier below. The gallery, or top tier, has ten rows of seats.

It has two means of access from the two staircases above those of the dress and upper-circle, with a communicating corridor arranged between the two, so that each side of the gallery has a good entrance and exit. All the entrance staircases are made of cement concrete, and are supported at either end by brick or concrete walls, with handrails.

The stage is also separated from the auditory by a solid brick wall, carried by an arch over the proscenium, and entirely through the roof, thereby rendering the stage and audience portions of the house entirely distinct from each other; in fact, forming two separate buildings, the only communication between them being two iron doors.

Water is laid on from the high-pressure mains to several parts of the theatre, both before and behind the curtain. The gas meter and supplies are entirely distinct for the stage and auditory, so that the failure of one supply will not affect the other.

In fact, every possible means have been taken, that experience could devise, to insure both the safety and comfort of the audience.

The auditory is thus arranged:— The stage opening, which is 28ft. wide, by 31ft. high, is surrounded by a frame, richly moulded and gilded; above this an arch is formed, in the tympanum of which is painted an allegorical subject, by Ballard, representing "Apollo end the Muses."

On either side of the proscenium are private boxes, one on each of the four levels of the auditory, enclosed between Corinthian columns, richly ornamented and fluted. The three tiers rise one above the other, and the whole is surmounted by a circular ceiling, enclosed in a circular moulded cornice - very richly modelled and gilded.

The flat part of the ceiling is painted in Italian Renaissance ornament, in colours, on a pale creamy white ground. Each of the fronts of the several tiers are richly modelled in ornament of the Renaissance period, and are painted and gilded - the general tone of the ornamentation being cream white and gold.

The effect of this is enhanced by the rich colour of the wall-paper, of a warm Venetian red tone - while the hangings to the private boxes are of silk tapestry, a deep turquoise blue colour, embroidered with sprigs of flowers in colour. The whole scheme of colour has been very carefully arranged by the architect, and the paper and curtains have been specially manufactured for this theatre.

Although the holding capacity of the theatre has been only enlarged by a trifling number, yet it will look much larger and more open than the late theatre, and will be decidedly more ornamental and convenient. A very charming act-drop, painted by Mr Harford, of the St. James's and Haymarket Theatres, London, represents a classical landscape, with satin draperies enclosing it.

The whole of the new and beautiful scenery has been executed by Mr Swift, Mr Beilair, and assistants. The stage occupies its old position, and the roof over it is carried up sufficiently high to admit of the large drop scenes being taken up in one piece, without any rolling or doubling.

At the back of the stage, high up even above the second tier of flies, is the painting gallery, with two frames.

The theatre is illuminated with a powerful sunlight, with a ventilating shaft round it. Subsidiary lights are also placed at the backs of the several tiers, all under the control of the gas man at the prompter's box, and capable of being turned down simultaneously when the exigencies of the scene requires a subdued light.

The various contractors who have been engaged upon the works are as follow:— Messrs H. and J. Martin, of Belfast, for the whole of the builders' work, including stage (under the direction of Mr Owen); Messrs George Jackson and Sons, of London, for the patent fibrous plaster work of box fronts, proscenium, and ceiling; Messrs Strode and Co., for the sunlight and the special gas work for stage;

Messrs Riddel of Belfast, for the general gas-fitting; Messrs Dale have erected the limelight apparatus; Mr E. Bell has executed the whole of the decorative painting and gilding; Messrs George Smith and Co., of Glasgow, have erected the iron and glass veranda porch; Burke and Co., of London, Paris, and Venice, have laid the marble mosaic to vestibule;

Wadmen, of Bath, has manufactured the patent chairs for the dress circle; Messrs N A Campbell, of Belfast, have executed the curtains and upholstery generally in and about the theatre. Mr William Browne has been clerk of works.
Arthur Lloyd is known to have performed at the theatre in 1890, and his father in law, the Drury Lane Tragedian, T C King, appeared in the earlier one in 1858; and again in 1863, in Othello.

The third incarnation of the Theatre Royal ran as a live Theatre for just 34 years before it was demolished and replaced with a new cinema building.

The Building News carried a short piece on its demise in their August 1915 edition, saying:-
Operations have been commenced in connection with the demolition of the Theatre Royal, the site of which is to be utilised for the erection of a picture house on a large scale.

Messrs. Warden, Ltd., the owners of the Theatre Royal, intend to erect a building which will bear comparison with any other structure of the kind in the United Kingdom. The plans have been prepared by Mr Crewe, who designed the Royal Hippodrome, and the contract has been let to Messrs. H. and J. Martin, Ltd., of Belfast.

The whole of the ground floor will be devoted to stalls, with upholstered chairs, and there will be a large and well equipped circle. Accommodation will be provided for an audience of about 1,500.

It is expected that the building will be ready about Christmas.
Construction continued into the following year and the Building News carried another short article in their 1916 edition saying:-
A picture house is being built in Arthur Square, Belfast, from plans by Mr Bertie Crewe, of London. The contractors are Messrs H & J Martin, Ltd, of Ormeau Road, Belfast.
The new building opened as the Royal Cinema in the spring of 1916.

Designed by Bertie Crewe, the building is said to have resembled his Prince's Theatre in London, built some 5 years earlier, and was somewhat smaller than originally advertised, with 900 seats in its stalls and circle levels, and a café for refreshments.

The Royal Cinema continued for many years but is said to have become very run down in its later years and was eventually demolished and replaced with shops in 1961.

Today the site is occupied by Starbuck's café.

First published in July, 2013.

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