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13 November 2014

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You are in: Suffolk > Don't Miss > Features > Theatre Royal restoration project makes progress

Flint-lined medieval well

Flint-lined medieval well

Theatre Royal restoration project makes progress

Hard hat, reflective jacket and borrowed wellies - not what I’d usually wear to visit a theatre.

I was back at the Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds on a very special visit behind the scenes.

Sample seats for new boxes

Sample seats for new boxes

It's over four years since, on a very hot summer's day, my morning show on BBC Radio Suffolk was broadcast live from the theatre as the ambitious plans for restoring and improving the Grade One-listed National Trust property were revealed. 

On this visit I was part of an invited group of journalists, there to see what had happened since the theatre closed its doors in September 2005, and the builders, Haymills of Stowmarket, moved in.

A Victorian brothel!

As you can see from the photographs I took, the theatre looks nothing like the mishmash of original Georgian features, 1960s theatre seating and decor, (described by theatre director, Colin Blumenau as resembling "a Victorian brothel",) that we are used to.

Old fireplace for heating

Old fireplace for heating

With fixtures and fittings removed, and the building stripped back to its original 1819 brickwork, much has been revealed.

"We've had many of our ideas about the theatre confirmed – but are constantly surprised by what we didn't know," Colin told me.

As no-one knew if the theatre had any heating, it had always been assumed that productions must have been staged in warmer summer months. That assumption has been challenged as the renovations revealed an old stove, positioned in the centre of the stalls at the rear of the seating area (there would have been no central aisle then).

Under boxes ticket office for lower classes

Ticket office for lower classes

Class distinction

Georgian theatres were places where the classes were strictly segregated and building work in Bury has uncovered a separate staircase that led from the side of the building to a pit entrance and ticket office (complete with Victorian graffiti), under the stage boxes, thus enabling the lower classes to go directly to their seating area. This would have been one of four entrances, with only the upper classes using the main entrance of the theatre.

Flint-lined well

Archaeologists are especially excited about the discovery of a flint-lined well in the auditorium, which must have been covered over by the original builders. It had been assumed that the theatre was built on a virgin site.

"We are considering installing glass panels and lighting, to show modern audiences the features, such as the stove and the well, we have discovered", explained Colin.

Old stairwell entrance for lower classes

Old stairwell entrance for lower classes

Exciting new facilities

Behind the theatre, the site of two houses has been cleared, and that is where the foyer, restaurant and other new facilities will be constructed. The design will allow audiences to admire the Georgian brickwork of the theatre, courtesy of the glass and metal design, and to sit outside during intervals.

I bet that the original architect of the theatre, William Wilkins, would, if it were possible, have a lot to discuss with the restoration projects’ architects, Levitt Bernstein Associates.

Reopening

It will be in the spring of 2007, that the Theatre Royal will reopen its doors to reveal the restored theatre with its layout of individual boxes, retractable forestage complete with trapdoors and facilities (both backstage and front of house) for people with disabilities.

An exciting programme is planned, of modern theatre mixed with the sort of productions that Bury St Edmunds audiences of the early 19th century would have enjoyed.

Rear of the theatre

Rear of the theatre

Before that, Haymills have to start rebuilding and replacing what has had to be removed, a lot more fundraising needs to be done and Theatre Royal productions will continue to tour the county.

Next time I visit, hopefully, a hard hat won't be necessary!   

last updated: 26/11/2008 at 14:32
created: 24/01/2006

Have Your Say

The BBC reserves the right to edit comments submitted.

Edward Garbutt
theatre royal website is www.theatreroyal.orgThere are a few tickets left for their opening production of Black Eyed Susan which I have heard is going to be fantastic!

William E Neve
I am trying to find your website to see whats on this year at Theatre Royal Ipswich, can you please help.Thank you

joe warren
i think it is very excicting to restore the theatre back to its origanal state. i first went into the theatre when i was 3 years old. it was this that made me think that i want to act. hopefully i will be able to act sometime soon at bury theatre and forful my dream. and it will be a very good experence i think i will have to go on a tour of the theatre when it opens as i also am intrested in history. this iswhere i mader my dream of acting. this is so excicting and very intresting. i cant wait to see the finishes event.

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