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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

Theatre Royal

Theatre Royal

Theatre Royal after the fire of 1935
Theatre Royal after the fire of 1935

The Theatre Royal in Norwich has had an extremely chequered past including many name changes, damage by fire and rebuilding. It has survived World War Two bombs and near-closure in the 1960s.

The new theatre

The 'New Theatre in Chapel Field,' built at a cost of £600 by Norwich architect, Thomas Ivory, was opened in January 1758. It was only the second purpose-built theatre in England, situated on a 6,000 square foot plot alongside Ivory's earlier building, the Assembly House. Ivory had signed a four hundred year lease for the land at a yearly rent of £30. In 1759 Ivory re-named his theatre, modelled on London's Drury Lane, 'The Grand Concert Hall' in order to comply with current law. The building was licensed as a theatre in 1768.


In the early 1820s, after a slump in theatre going, William Wilkins built a new Theatre Royal. It was opened in 1826 and had cost £6,000. In the 1850s a critic wrote that in Norwich, plays are 'much better performed than they are at the present day in any theatre in London'. The theatre company toured throughout East Anglian market towns until 1852. A new manager, Fred Morgan, was appointed in 1885 when audience numbers were low and the business was on the verge of bankruptcy. He set about winning back audiences with all year round opening, modest gallery prices, and a more varied programme. He also undertook extensive renovations to the theatre with gas lighting being replaced by electricity in 1894.

Morgan left the Theatre Royal from 1903-4 when he was involved in the building of another Norwich Theatre, the Grand Opera House, which later became the Hippodrome. In his absence, rather confusingly, the Theatre Royal was named the Hippodrome. Upon his return in 1904, plays and drama were performed in the renamed Theatre Royal with the Hippodrome, in St Giles Street, providing entertainment for the masses.


The Theatre Royal flourished until 1934 when it burnt down. At a cost of around £75,000, (currently £3.5 m) a new, faience-fronted, Art Deco styled theatre was built which opened in September 1935. The design was that being used for many Odeon Cinemas being built at the time. During World War Two, a couple of incendiary bombs dropped onto the theatre roof but were quickly extinguished.

In 1956, Essoldo, a cinema chain, used the theatre mainly for films, with a Christmas Pantomime and occasional Sunday Concerts. Audience figures diminished and the theatre almost became a Bingo Hall. Fortunately Norwich City Council stepped in and bought the building in 1967 for £90,000. The auditorium was by then, shabby with uncomfortable seats and inadequate facilities. In spite of this, by 1968, Laurence Hill, the new manager, had raised audience figures from 75,000 to 275,00.

Public ownership

In 1970, the city council undertook the re-modelling and re-furbishing of the theatre, using architect David Percival. The completed theatre was then handed over to the newly-formed Theatre Royal Trust. Dick Condon was appointed general manager and the theatre did well until 1989 when the Theatre Trust launched a development appeal to fund re-furbishment. The theatre was closed for two years with some building work beginning in 1991.

In 2003, the firm of Tim Foster Architects were appointed to design three possible modernisation schemes. The adjoining Dencora House was purchased enabling more scope for improved front of house facilities. The theatre closed in March 2007 for a ten million pound refurbishment, re-opening in mid-November of the same year. On the verge of the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the opening of Ivory's original theatre, Peter Wilson, chief executive of the Theatre Royal, has said that the modernised theatre is the best of its kind in East Anglia and among the top five in the country. 

Further reading

  • The Norwich Theatre Royal: The First 250 Years, Michael Blackwell, and Carole A. Blackwell, Contributor Harriet Walter, Connaught Books, 2007.
  • A History of Norwich, Frank Meeres, Phillimore, 1998.
  • Norwich Since 1550, Carole Rawcliffe, and Richard Wilson, (eds), Hambledon and London, 2004.

Shirley Wigg

December 2007