1706

Duke of Grafton’s Comedians

1709 River Thames freezes over in The Great Frost

1728 First production of The Beggar’s Opera

1737 Licensing Act restricts drama production to just Drury Lane and Covent Garden and extends censorship

1741 David Garrick becomes the first British actor to be called a star

The Theatre Royal Windsor has a fascinating history that started back over 200 years ago…

Legend has it that in the reign of Elizabeth I, strolling players used from time to time to set up their stage in the courtyard of an inn in Peascod Street.

Image: Spartacus Educational

However, the first recorded date in the theatrical history of Windsor is 1706 when an actor named Yates opened a booth where, if tradition is to be believed, Mrs Susan Carol, a widow, assumed with complete success the heroic role of Alexander the Great. It was whilst Mrs Carol was acting with the Duke of Grafton’s comedians at Windsor that she met her second husband, Joseph Centlivre, who was engaged on official business at the Castle as Chief Cook to Queen Anne.

Pieter Schenck Henry FitzRoy, 1st Duke of Grafton
National Portrait Gallery

1776 The United States declares independence

1778-1793

Theatre Royal Windsor – The Barn

1783 John Philip Kemble debuts as Hamlet. His acting sets the London style for third years and becomes the first actor-manager.

1789 The French Revolution begins

1791 Mozart premieres The Magic Flute

Between the years 1778 and 1793 the building used in Windsor as a playhouse was a small barn about a mile out of town set in a very muddy field.

Even with a full house, the theatre only made £25.00 per performance. Nonetheless the existing playbills referring to this building grandiloquently call it the Theatre Royal, Peascod Street, Windsor.

William Hogarth Strolling Actresses in a Barn, 1738
Victoria &Albert Museum

1793-1815

Theatre Royal Windsor, Peascod Street.

1795 France adopts The Marseillaise as its national anthem

1810 Covent Garden put up ticket prices after a fire, leading to three months of Old Price Riots where audiences disrupted performances, brought in pigs and released pigeons in the auditorium.

It was in 1793 that a new theatre was built in the High Street. The opening play was inevitably a farce called Everyone Has His Faults. It was this theatre which George III invariably attended when in residence at the castle. One side of the lower tier of boxes was reserved for him and his entourage. The King and Queen were provided with capacious armchairs and presented with playbills printed on silk. At the conclusion of the performance, when the King had left the auditorium, there was a wild rush to see if any of these had been left behind as they were highly prized as souvenirs.

The building was very small and Farmer George, if he had so wished, could have shaken hands with any of his subjects in the pit. The Orchestra normally consisted of half a dozen fiddlers and the King preferred comedies to tragedies and loudly applauded his favourite actors. At the end of the third act the King and Queen retired for a short period to sip their coffee. The curtain went down at eleven and then, after the Orchestra had played “God Save the King”, His Majesty ceremoniously bowed to the audience which was the occasion for loud cheering.

During this time, the Windsor theatre was not open all the year round but only for the six weeks in the summer when Eton College was closed for holidays. It was obviously felt that a theatre constantly open would threaten the school work of those hardworking scions of the aristocracy who might never have won the Battle of Waterloo on their playing fields with such a nearby corruptive and seductive influence. Unfortunately the problems of management were no less then than those which beset anybody today who is rash enough to run a theatre for a living and in 1805 its proprietor sold the freehold to a dissenting sect who evicted the actors and turned the building into a chapel.

Allan Ramsay George III in Coronation Robes
Wikimedia

Silk playbill
Victoria & Albert Museum

1814 Edmund Kean‘s debut performance as Shylock at Drury Lane sets up his heavy drinking, scandalous career as the new superstar of the London stage.

1815-1908

Theatre Royal Windsor, Thames Street

1830 Eliza Vestris becomes London’s first woman actor-manager at the Olympic.

1850s Fashionable interest in history means theatre sets and costumes become more accurate, earning theatre more respect. Audiences become more middle class.

1890 River Thames freezes over once again

Photograph Skaters On The Ice
Windsor Museum

1897 William Terriss – famous for staging melodrama at the Adelphi is dramatically assassinated at the theatre’s stage door.

The citizens of Windsor were furious that the theatre had been turned into a chapel. They set a splendid example to their descendants by subscribing the £6,000 needed to build a fine new theatre on the site of the present building. This was opened in 1815 and continued with fluctuating fortunes until it was gutted by fire on 18th February 1908.

Postcard The ruins of the theatre after the fire
Windsor Museum

An account of the disaster in the local press seems more concerned with the prowess of the various fire brigades called to the scene than with the sad fact that Windsor was once more without a theatre. Fortunately its owner, Sir William Shipley, was a prosperous and public spirited man who was determined that the old building should be replaced by one worthy of its setting.

Sir William Shipley
Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead Civic Collection

1905 Max Reinhardt’s Midsummer Night’s Dream introduced modern, spare styling to theatre in a reaction to the intricate realism of the 1800’s. Stanislavsky sets up a studio for experimental theatre in Russia.

1908 to date

Theatre Royal Windsor reborn

1908 The Gaiety, Manchester becomes the UK’s first repertory theatre.

1915-1923 The Old Vic produces every Shakespeare play, laying the foundations tor national ballet, opera and theatre.

1930s Peggy Ashcroft, John Gielgud, Vivien Leigh, John Mills, Laurence Olivier, Michael Redgrave, Ralph Richardson and Flora Robson spearhead a new generation of stars coming through the Old Vic and the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre.

1930s saw more experimentation with Noël Coward’sPrivate Lives, J.B. Priestley’s Time and the Conways and T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral along with the inventive direction of Theodore Komisarjevsky.

Post World War Two A fifth of London theatres were destroyed or damaged by bombing. Rising costs and new taxes make theatres put on less risky, more popular productions.

 

1953 Joan Litltewood’s working class Theatre Workshop moves to Theatre Royal, Stratford

 

1956 Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot introduces the Theatre of the Absurd. Look Back in Anger by John Osborne is the first kitchen sink drama. Alan Bates, Richard Burton, Tom Courtenay, Albert Finney, Peter O’Toole and Joan Plowright were the new working-class heroes.

 

1961 Royal Shakespeare Company formed

1997 Reconstructed Globe Theatre opens

The present building was completed in 1910 and opened on 17th December that year. For some years Sir William Shipley remained in personal control of the theatre’s activities. Like many businessmen, however, he found theatre management too bewildering, frustrating and unpredictable and in 1921 he leased the building to Messrs Collins and Gladwin. When Mr Collins died, Jack Gladwin became sole Lessee and successfully pursued a policy of housing touring companies of every kind.

Bill Litten, a stagehand who worked and lived in Windsor, remembered a circus at the theatre in 1926 in which a large bear on a chain terrified the chorus girls who had to squeeze past the animal as its paw stretched towards them with inches to spare. There was a lioness with cubs and three chimpanzees, one of whom escaped and climbed up the backcloth to the delight of the audience who thought it was all part of the act. The same year he remembers the theatre putting on The Last of Mrs Cheyney.

The coming of talking pictures in 1928 knocked the bottom out of business. A year or two later Mr Gladwin converted the theatre into a cinema and subleased it to a local syndicate who used it as a dumping ground for third-rate pictures.

Three years later John Counsell rescued it briefly from its ignominious fate. For eight months he strove in vain to establish a repertory company with very little capital and in face of the obstinate indifference of all but a faithful few of the public. After several attempts to start again, he eventually succeeded and formed a repertory company in March 1938. Six weeks later the theatre achieved some of its former glory. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth attended a performance of The Rose Without A Thorn. The next morning the theatre was headline news and from that moment it may be said that the Theatre Royal and its company were accepted as an essential part of the Windsor scene.

This set a precedent which has been frequently followed by the present Queen and almost every other member of the Royal Family. In 1988 the company celebrated its fiftieth birthday, an occasion graced by the presence of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.

When the war came, John Counsell joined the Army. His wife, Mary Kerridge, his manager Arnold Pilbeam and Oliver Gordon as producer saw the theatre through the vicissitudes of the war years. Mary was responsible for running the theatre, and directed several productions; she wrote the book for all the pantomimes, which are still used as the basis for those presented today; and she helped tirelessly with the theatre’s day to day management, giving advice and encouragement.

Since then the theatre has seen many changes, both in policy and structurally. From weekly repertory with a resident group of actors the company evolved to the production of plays, independently cast, each running for three weeks to an average audience of 14,000. Its traditional pantomime is justly famed for inventiveness and spectacle. Various periodic improvements to the interior structure and amenities of the building culminated in the elegant splendour of its present decor, designed by Carl Toms in 1965 and refurbished in 1973, 1994 and 2018.

Bill Kenwright
Photo: overtures.org

In 1997 the management of the theatre was taken over by the prolific West End impresario Bill Kenwright, who had appeared here as a young actor under John Counsell’s management in the 60’s & 70’s. Subsequently he has co-produced many shows in association with the Theatre Royal, many of which transfer to the West End. Bill also produces films, such as Another Mother’s Son, My Pure Land (Britain’s submission for the Foreign-Language Oscar), The Hope Rooms, The Day After the Fair, Stepping Out, Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, Cheri and Broken, which won Best Film at the British Independent Film Awards. Burden, starring Garrett Hedlund, Andrea Riseborough and Forest Whitaker, won U.S. Dramatic Audience Award at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Bill Kenwright CBE is also the Chairman of English Premier League Football Club Everton. And a fan.

We hope that the history of the Windsor Theatre Royal will continue to be exciting and eventful!

The Great Raymond – Poster
Under the auspices of Lessees and Responsible Managers Mr. Joe Collins and Mr. Jack Gladwin

John Counsell
Windsor Observer

Mary Kerridge

Costume design by Carl Toms
Victoria & Albert Museum