Brighton’s Theatre Royal is one of the oldest continually-working theatrical venues in Britain. There’s been a theatre on this site for more than 200 years, with the original building gradually expanding over the years and taking over adjoining houses and cottages, producing a ramshackle, labyrinthine structure full of secret spaces.Actors ranging from Marlene Dietrich and Laurence Olivier to Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart have trodden its boards; it is no anonymous space, but rather a receptacle of living history. The theatre can sometimes seem transient, with a new production arriving every week. However as I found out in my tour of the premises, the opposite can be true. In the recesses of the building, its guts and bones, things remain timeless and unchanging.
Our tour guide is Tom the technical manager, a mine of information about the workings of the theatre. When Nick, the Badger photographer, and I arrive, we encounter a busy scene. It’s a ‘dark week’ at the Theatre Royal, with no performances. A production of La Cage aux Folles that was due to arrive has cancelled, giving an opportunity for the theatre hands to carry out some maintenance repairs.
The first port of call is the door through which we entered the building. Called a ‘get in’ (apologies if I get the terminology wrong, I took notes on a Dictaphone which proved to be a bit crackly), it is through here that all of the scenery is transported from outside. One of the smallest of its kind, even fully opened, this get-in is a tiny opening through which to manoeuvre large pieces of wood. According to Tom, it causes many headaches.
All the terminology used backstage comes from sailing, as Tom explains. One side of the stage is ‘prompt side’ taken from ‘port side’, and ‘stage right’ is taken from star board.
The stage floor is called the deck. Everything above, the scenery poles and ropes is called the rigging. The operations backstage during a performance require many hands and a high degree of co-ordination. Leaving the main stage we ascend to the upper levels of the theatre. At this height it’s easy to feel slightly giddy. I regret my choice of footwear and clothing (high-heeled boots and a skirt) as I climb gracelessly up the ladders.
The Theatre Royal is one of the few left in Britain where the scenery is still hoisted by hemp ropes. At the lower flight floor, piles of it are coiled at my feet, and many more are suspended from the ceiling. The ropes are heavy, even the ones unattached to anything. Hoisting scenery from these is hard manual work, and the moving of even one piece of scenery requires up to eight people, some of them precariously attached to safety lines.
A large winch used to hoist the big red house curtain called the ‘rag’ is the last of its kind in the country. The curtain material itself is around 80 years old, and the mechanism even older, 110 years or so. “It’s a bit like a working museum”, Tom comments.
Even graffiti and caricatures scrawled everywhere pay testament to the age of the theatre, with some of it dating years back. I am especially distracted by references to a ‘Mr Nod’, which occur sporadically on walls as we walk through the building.
Up again to the upper flight floor: I’m not brave enough to scramble up to the grid at the roof of the theatre, where a stage hand can sit casually astride a beam some 15 meters up off the ground. As you ascend the ladder, this is the one point where if you slip and fall, there’s nothing to stop you plummeting to the ground below. Nick has a go climbing awkwardly up to take some photos. Up here the mechanics of the rope and pulleys become apparent.
The knots that secure everything have to be well done otherwise the repercussions can be serious. When repairs have to be made to some of the beams suspended above the stage, abseiling gear is often required. It’s not for those who don’t have a head for heights. To Tom’s knowledge however, no one has yet fallen from here and died.
It’s easy to imagine that there might be ghosts here. The theatre is a dark place, there’s not a single bit of natural daylight.
“When you’re here last thing at night or first thing in the morning, it’s pitch black, you can’t see your hand in front of your face. Due to the age of the building, it talks to you, you can hear the wood creak, if a breeze gets up the bars knock together. It’s strange, but the building lets you know that it’s here”. It’s lucky for a playing house to have ghosts, and the Theatre Royal has three. The first one is Mrs Nye Chart, the first female manager of the Theatre Royal (and whose house forms the foyer area at the front of the building), the second a nun, and the third a child who fell down a flight of stairs and broke its neck (lovely).
Delving back into the history of the theatre, Tom tells us that it may have been originally run by fishermen; hence the sailing terminology mentioned earlier. He thinks it likely that some of the large, old beams we can see were taken from boats. Their worn, pockmarked and weathered appearance suggests that they may have been salvaged from something else. The history of this place is impressive. The main frame on this side of the building has remained untouched for most of its life, aside from a lick of paint here and there.
Descending into the bowels of the theatre, you encounter two levels. The first was built to accommodate a trap door on the stage. At one time, you would have been able to pull back the whole stage floor, or make the floor rise up. The mechanism was designed to accommodate people and even a carriage and two horses. The trapdoors are gone now, no longer fashionable. (although apparently they are set to make a comeback: you heard it here first folks).
We also have a peek at the orchestra pit: musicians are apparently quite notorious for wanting their own way, and dictate the vast majority of show times. Rather than a director or lead actor, it is the orchestra who can often present a problem. “The musicians’ union are the mafia of the theatre”, explains Tom. “When you get called in to work, you will come in for a minimum of four hours and you get paid per hour after that. Those in the musicians union get called out for three hours, and if they go even a minute into that, they’ll get paid for another three hours”.
Before we leave, Tom shows me one last thing. There’s one seat in the theatre where you can sit and watch the performance without anyone else in the audience seeing you. Situated in a little recess to the left of the stage, it was originally the director’s box, and is now called the QE2 box because the Queen sat here with Prince Phillip for the theatre’s bicentennial in 2007. I’d like to sit here next time when I come to see something at the Theatre Royal!
However, if you’re not lucky enough to get this seat, and your student pennies aren’t stretching very far, the Theatre Royal also does £11 stand-by tickets. You can get them from the Box Office one hour before the performance by calling 08448 717650 (bkg fee). Subject to availability.