101 Views

Backstage at the Theatre Royal

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.

Get the best viral stories straight into your inbox!

Don't worry, we don't spam

Leave a Reply

Join the Badger Team

Apply today!

Latest Posts

Union obliterates the debate – unwritten requirement used to shut down free speech debate
Campus News
496 views1
Campus News
496 views1

Union obliterates the debate – unwritten requirement used to shut down free speech debate

Jordan Wright - April 27, 2018

Student society Liberate the Debate’s most recent event was cancelled over a lack of compliance with the Students' Union's (USSU) requirement for a neutral chair - a…

Verve Couture – Musicality, kitsch & ignition: the beginning of a series
Arts
21 views
Arts
21 views

Verve Couture – Musicality, kitsch & ignition: the beginning of a series

Ricardo Reverón Blanco - June 17, 2018

Pictured: Zac Black At Proud Cabaret audiences were spellbound as if at night at the circus, yet this was not like Angela Carter’s magical realist novel; Verve…

Fleabag on stage at The Old Market – review
Arts
73 views
Arts
73 views

Fleabag on stage at The Old Market – review

Florence Dutton - June 11, 2018

[caption id="attachment_35513" align="alignnone" width="2400"] Fleabag at Soho Theatre[/caption] Last Monday at 8pm at Brighton’s The Old Market, I sat myself down in my theatre seat eagerly awaiting…

Fleabag preview
Arts
83 views
Arts
83 views

Fleabag preview

Florence Dutton - June 2, 2018

[caption id="attachment_35513" align="alignnone" width="2400"] Fleabag at Soho Theatre[/caption] Following the mass success of the Bafta award-winning BBC Series, DryWrite and Soho Theatre are about to hit the…

Brighton Festival: Ezra Furman at the Dome
Arts
107 views
Arts
107 views

Brighton Festival: Ezra Furman at the Dome

Georgia Grace - June 1, 2018

Having completed my final semester of university with modules on punk history and queer arts, it was fitting that I rounded off my end-of-assessment celebrations by attending…

Arts
128 views

The Tempest review

Georgia Grace - May 30, 2018

As the sun begins to set over Hove Green, tinnies of Red Stripe are cracked open, tartan blankets are strewn, and families tuck into their picnic hampers.…

A Glass Half Empty review
Arts
140 views
Arts
140 views

A Glass Half Empty review

Georgia Grace - May 27, 2018

For those of us coming to the end of another year of university study, the prospect of careers, marriages and babies may seem a long way off.…

DollyWould at The Old Market review
Arts
132 views
Arts
132 views

DollyWould at The Old Market review

Alex Hutson - May 27, 2018

Sh!t Theatre’s DollyWould is a hilarious, thoughtful and experimental performance piece. The award winning show has the Sh!t Theatre duo integrating comedy, storytelling, personal experience and music.…

UCU Launch Petition to End the ‘Hostile Environment’ at Sussex
Campus News
210 views
Campus News
210 views

UCU Launch Petition to End the ‘Hostile Environment’ at Sussex

Billie-Jean Johnson - May 26, 2018

The Sussex branch of the University and College Union (UCU) has launched a petition calling for Vice-Chancellor Adam Tickell to end the 'hostile environment' at Sussex. The…

Arts
98 views

Shakespeare in the sun – The Tempest preview

Georgia Grace - May 24, 2018

In a world of dystopian King Lears and female Hamlets, Shakespeare’s classics are constantly being reimagined for the modern day. There’s something oddly refreshing then about the…

Review: Nick Cave Double Bill at The Old Market (TOM’s Film Club)
Arts
196 views
Arts
196 views

Review: Nick Cave Double Bill at The Old Market (TOM’s Film Club)

Sophie Coppenhall - May 23, 2018

What a phenomenal contrast these two films present when watched side-by-side. In essence, together they are capable of tracing inner and outer metamorphoses of their subjects. The…

Dollywould at The Old Market preview
Arts
129 views
Arts
129 views

Dollywould at The Old Market preview

Alex Hutson - May 22, 2018

From the 22nd May - 25th May 2018 DollyWould will be showing at The Old Market. An exciting new show, presented by Sh!t Theatre, who won the…

Exhibition: Io-sono Fedilouu
Artist Focus
203 views
Artist Focus
203 views

Exhibition: Io-sono Fedilouu

Ricardo Reverón Blanco - May 16, 2018

Last week artist Fedilou made her debut exhibition in the downstairs space of Morelli Zorelli, a quaint vegan Italian restaurant in Hove, featuring a collection of intimate…

Interview with Philosophy faculty and COGS director Ron Chrisley
Interview
140 views
Interview
140 views

Interview with Philosophy faculty and COGS director Ron Chrisley

Nikolaos Manesis - May 15, 2018

Ron Chrisley is a Reader in Philosophy, on the faculty of the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science, and is the director of COGS (Centre for Cognitive Science).…

Adam review
Arts
209 views
Arts
209 views

Adam review

Ketan Jha - May 13, 2018

If you have been a stranger to the stage this spring and decide to see one contemporary show, let it be Adam. This reviewer went in entirely…

Brighton Fringe Preview: Nick Cave Double Bill at The Old Market (TOM’s Film Club)
Arts
229 views
Arts
229 views

Brighton Fringe Preview: Nick Cave Double Bill at The Old Market (TOM’s Film Club)

Sophie Coppenhall - May 13, 2018

In celebration of iconic Brighton local, legendary alt-rock musician (and episodic actor) Nick Cave, TOM’s Film Club are hosting a double-bill screening of his films at The…

Whimsical fairy-tale meets class war – Standard: Elite review
Arts
271 views
Arts
271 views

Whimsical fairy-tale meets class war – Standard: Elite review

Georgia Grace - May 11, 2018

Meta-theatricality and interactivity are becoming all the more vogue in contemporary theatre, and in a world where the arts are becoming increasingly open and democratised, I find…

A Year of Art Society: The Best Picks
Artist Focus
187 views
Artist Focus
187 views

A Year of Art Society: The Best Picks

Alex Leissle - May 9, 2018

  [gallery type="slideshow" ids="35385,35386,35387,35388,35389,35390,35391,35392,35393,35394,35395,35396,35397,35398,35399,35400,35401,35402,35403,35404,35405,35406,35407,35408,35409,35410,35411"]

More Brit(ish) than ever: A review of Afua Hirsch at Brighton Festival
Books
189 views
Books
189 views

More Brit(ish) than ever: A review of Afua Hirsch at Brighton Festival

William Singh - May 9, 2018

Afua Hirsch’s 2018 book - part memoir, part polemic - provokes mixed feelings. So too did her discussion of the topic at this year’s Brighton Festival. Don’t…

Ethnic-bioweapons: between conspiracy and reality
Science
243 views
Science
243 views

Ethnic-bioweapons: between conspiracy and reality

Luke Richards - May 8, 2018

Bioweapons exist, while ethnic-bioweapons are whispered conspiracies. Pandemics can fairly hazardous to human life, the 1918 Flu Pandemic killed 20-50 million people. A man made pandemic could…

Breaking: Spring referenda results announced
News
257 views
News
257 views

Breaking: Spring referenda results announced

Jessica Hubbard - May 4, 2018

Students have voted to support the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement, reject Prevent and adopt new Gender Equality policies. Results for the Students' Union referenda were…