The History of the Theatre Royal
Home of Workington Playgoers
The original 700 seat theatre originally known as The Lyceum was built by George John Smith, a Londoner who came to Cumbria to work as a cutter to a local tailor in Whitehaven. He made his fortune by marrying into the pawn-broking business.
In those days Washington Street was the main trade centre of Workington and where better to build a theatre but on this busy thoroughfare. The market square was just around the corner so that Washington Street was thronged with the overflow from the busy market place. The theatre proved to be very popular with the production of Gilbert and Sullivan Operettas, Pantomimes, Old Time Music Hall with the presence of past melodrama by strolling players.
The theatre was renamed The Theatre Royal.
The Jubilee Hall which became the Opera House was built on the site of the present Opera House in Pow Street. The first Opera House having burned down. The building of the Opera House resulted in competition and falling audiences for the Theatre Royal resulting in it’s closure after the turn of the century.
In 1907 Mac’s Variety and Cinematograph Shows had a short season playing once nightly and then twice nightly, for 1/- and 6d, but without success.
In 1908 Pictures and Vaudeville were offered to the public but that didn’t satisfy them, so pictures alone were offered during the winters of 1909 – 1912 at prices of 1d. and 2d.
1913 – 1932
Extensive alterations were then made – the Gallery being taken down as were the arms of the Balcony, and the building was redecorated. The seating capacity was reduced from 700 to just 376. The theatre was equipped for the showing of ‘real films’, as a new lease of life flowed from 1913 until 1932 when the building again closed, remaining so until it became the home of Playgoers in 1936
“Box Office receipts fell so much that, in 1907, Mac’s Variety and Cinematograph Shows took over once nightly. These soon became twice nightly, but at prices of 1/- and 6d for seats, they had to give way to Pictures and Vaudeville in 1908. Just as television today challenges live theatre, so the cinema did in the first decade of this century, and when seats at 1d and 2d were not occupied, some re-thinking had to be done about Mac’s. The gallery was removed, the wings of the balcony were clipped, and real pictures began in 1913 and lasted until 1932″
John Skelton – Golden Jubilee Brochure
On 5th December 1935 at a meeting of 120 townsfolk, the Founder President Ieuan Banner Mendus successfully put the case for a new acting club and Workington Playgoers Club was formed. An appeal raised £48-10-0d to refurbish the theatre and to pay the monthly rent of £2.13.4d for the first 6 month lease. Membership was limited to 250 by the landlord (Graves Ltd) but was subsequently increased to 275 as 271 had signed up before the lease was formalised. How the 60 people on the waiting list must have fumed with frustration at not being in at the beginning of this exciting new venture, despite a membership fee of 5/-.
A quote from the minutes of that first meeting sketched the scheme, ” a society operating through six months of the year. giving opportunities to all who wished to act, holding private and public and other meetings, and appealing to those wished to act and to those who wish to watch” S.B. Beck (Secretary)
1936 – 1945
The first public performance in the Theatre, Sutton Vane’s Outward Bound ran for 3 nights only in April 1936 as our lease restricted the Club to only 6 public performances per annum!
The Club continued to thrive and membership rapidly reached 300 with a waiting list of 210 by 1940. Despite the war, the Club put on 2 public and 2 private performances, held 2 play readings, 2 dances, 2 concerts and 3 social evenings every year. By the 10th anniversary in 1945 the Club was highly regarded as one of Workington’s cultural treasures.
The wooden seats in the Stalls (2/-d or 1/-d on the 8 back rows) and the narrow seats on the balcony (2/6d) were replaced and the floor of the theatre was raked to improve the view of the Stage. Subsequent improvements in the seating have progressively reduced the capacity from 376 to 314 to 254 to today’s capacity of 149.
Theatre Preservation Fund
The Cumberland County Council introduced new and stringent regulations controlling the safety precautions in public halls and theatres. The members of Playgoers set to to raise the funds over the next months by organising raffles, bring and buy sales, light-hearted concerts and draw for £10 shopping vouchers.
Workington Playgoers Club celebrated its Silver Jubilee. There were 10 public performances involving 79 actors.
Workington Playgoers Club with a membership of 400 successfully negotiated the outright purchase of the Theatre Royal. The members contributed £3,000 towards the purchase price and necessary repairs. The number of public performances was increased to 5 a year.
Workington Playgoers Club was granted charitable status
Theatre Royal Development Programme
It began when two adjoining 3-storey properties of 26 and 28 Wilson Street at the rear of the theatre in Wilson Street were purchased. Here was the opportunity to incorporate these into the Theatre and provide the much needed workshop, storage and wardrobe space, dressing rooms as well as multi-purpose rooms for readings, committee and social use by patrons and members.
Theatre Royal Development Programme
1977 – 1978
The Theatre Royal Development Funding programme under the chairmanship of Cdr. Michael Lyne was launched on September 13th 1977. The cost of the work the Playgoers wished to carry out was £35,000. This target amount was reached within seven months of launching.
The Main Contractor was Lightfoot’s Builders of Maryport.
Playgoers soon had extensive storage for their props and wardrobe . They had new dressing rooms, which had previously been under the Auditorium. A large workshop area suitable for storing flats and building sets was also developed. The old dressing rooms were given over to storage. At last Playgoers had an oak-beamed rehearsal room with a modern kitchen attached on the top floor. It was soon being used as a studio theatre by the early 1980s.
Launch of the Golden Jubilee Fund
Masterminded by Ian Mitchell. Prize money totals £2,560 per year, featuring four large prizes and 48 ‘return of stake prizes’ each year- all for £1 per month.”It’s the only time the Playgoers has given money away!” Ian Mitchel Times and Star October 11 1985.
Workington Playgoers Club celebrated its Golden Jubilee.
‘Funding Playgoers’ by Philip Heal from Playgoers’ Golden Jubilee Brochure.
Workington Playgoers joined the Little Theatre Guild (LTG) a co-operative of independent theatre groups or societies which are self-governing and which put on a regular programme of stage plays which are non-commercial in character in their own theatres.
First woman President in over 30 years. First time the club had had a woman President, Margaret Graham and Vice-President, Jenni Rushton
Reforming of the Theatre Royal Youth Section. Their first production was The Oz that Woz performed in January 1995
Workington Playgoers Club celebrated its Diamond Jubilee.
John Skelton’s ‘Look Back in Pride” from Playgoers’ Diamond Jubilee Brochure
Theatre Royal was re roofed by Pears and Torney
Established Limited Company status.
Workington Playgoers celebrated its 80th Birthday.
Reopening of the THEATRE ROYAL after refurbishment. There was a GRAND OPENING to mark the occasion.
Installation of the new Flying Grid. Installed by McGuckin Audio and Lighting.
West Cumbrian theatre invests £42,000 in new structure
A Workington theatre group found themselves under the threat of closure if an ageing structure on the stage was not replaced. Theatre goers at the Theatre Royal can now breathe a sigh of relief as another hundred years of attendance at the building has been secured with the installation of a new flying grid. Funding for the £42,000 project was obtained from Garfield-Weston, Allerdale Borough Council, The Hadfield Trust and £12,000 from the theatre themselves.
Pat Brinicombe, from Theatre Royal said: “Help with funding was of paramount importance because it had been described as unsafe and that could have resulted in enforced closure of the theatre. Here we are hopefully good with another hundred years of theatre.”
The flying grid sits above the stage and is used for storing cloths which display painted scenes to compliment the content of the play, musical or pantomime that is showing. The theatre’s previous grid dated back to 1860 and had been deemed to be a risk due to its age.
Pat said: “Many theatres do not have them anymore, but because ours had been installed in 1860 and made of wood and rumoured that the beams were old ships timbers, it had become a health and safety risk.” She said it was originally the intention to have the wooden grid restored and the Heritage Lottery were approached for help, but they did not qualify for funding because the flying grid could not be restored and had to be replaced by a metal structure and in accordance with health and safety.
Pat’s husband, Geoff Brinicombe, project managed the installation, which was fitted by local business McGuckin Audio and Lighting.
He said: “The flying grid is constructed from global truss aluminium which is used by many groups now over both internal and external staging for the performing arts.” The aluminium structure, which includes new stage curtains, was chosen over a traditional heavyweight steel installation as it is flexible, lightweight and very strong and approximately a third of the cost of a solid steel structure.
“The principle of a flying grid uses a system of pulleys and winches for raising and lowering the heavy lighting bars. There are eight other bars which can be used for suspending cloths, curtains, back cloths, borders and scenery in general”, Geoff said. “It is believed that the Theatre Royal is one of only two theatres left in Cumbria with this age old tower feature and therefore quite unique,” he added.
The theatre are grateful to their funders for giving them the opportunity to replace the flying grid and say they will be the envy of many theatres in the North of England who no longer have this kind of enhancement. They say this will not only benefit the Playgoer productions but other user groups who use the Theatre Royal.
Source: Lynne Wild Times & Star