For more than seven decades, the Bristol Old Vic theatre company has been entertaining audiences in Bristol. Based at the Theatre Royal in Bristol, the company runs a successful Young Company for people between the ages of 7 and 25, and is associated with the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.
The History of the Theatre Royal, Bristol
Bristol’s Theatre Royal is the oldest continually-operating theatre in England, and the English-speaking world. Situated on King Street, the theatre was built between 1764 and 1766.
The public entrance to the theatre is through Coopers’ Hall, the oldest building on the property. The hall was built in 1744 for the Cooper’s Company by William Halfpenny.
The theatre itself wouldn’t be built until 1764. The auditorium’s design is believed to be inspired by London’s Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.
Thomas Paty is credited as the architect of the building, but the theatre was built according to designs by James Saunders.
Rackhay Yard was chosen as the building site for the theatre, which was, at the time, a rectangular site behind a row of homes.
The Theatre Royal opened in May 1766 with a performance by David Garrick, which included a prologue and an epilogue. At the time, the proprietors had not obtained a license for the theatre. To avoid the restrictions imposed on theatres, productions were labeled as “concerts” with “rhetorick.”
In 1778, the Theatre Royal became a patented theatre, and opened for the winter season. A joint company was also formed to allow for performances at both the Bristol and Bath Theatre Royal. The company featured famous figures, like Sarah Siddons, who is believed to haunt the Bristol theatre.
The theatre has undergone some renovations since 1800, including a narrow entrance that was added in 1903.
The Birth of Bristol Old Vic and the Theatre School
In 1861, James Chute relinquished his lease on the theatre, and was determined to focus on his business at Prince’s Theatre.
The lease owners made the decision to put the building up for sale in 1942, but an appeal from the public to save the theatre led to the establishment of a trust to purchase the building.
The building was leased from the trust to the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts, or CEMA. In 1946, the Arts Council, CEMA’s successor, staffed the company with company members from the London Old Vic.
Bristol Old Vic was then established.
The company boasted several famous early members, including Peter O’Toole, Timothy West, John Neville, Dorothy Tutin and Barbara Leigh-Hunt. Hugh Hunt took on the role of artistic director.
That same year, the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School was opened by Laurence Olivier. The school is a Conservative for Dance and Drama affiliate, and is also a University of West of England associate school.
The school used a small room above a fruit vendor’s warehouse in Rackhay Yard, close to the Theatre Royal’s stage door.
Company rehearsals continued in this space until the 1960s.
The 1954 production of Salad Days was a major success for Bristol Old Vic. The show eventually transferred to the West End, where it would go on to become the longest-running musical in London at the time.
Royalties from the show were given to the Theatre School to purchase and renovate two nearby Victorian villas in Clifton. The villas remain the school’s base to this day.
In 1963, the City Council took over the Art Council’s management of the theatre. The London Old Vic disbanded that year, and the Bristol Old Vic became an independent company.
The Modern Day Theatre
Peter Moro designed the current theatre complex, which was officially completed in 1972. The entrance that was added in 1903 was demolished, as was a number of other buildings on the site. The stage area of the original 1766 theatre was also demolished.
The new construction included a fly tower and stage as well as offices and technical facilities.
The 1970s and 1980s were a prosperous time for Bristol Old Vic, with many productions being well-received by local audiences and on tour.
In 2007, the theatre’s board of trustees closed the building for renovation. Over the next few years, a new board of trustees appointed a new artistic executive director and executive chairman.
In 2010, the Old Vic and Theatre Royal Bristol Trust merged into a combined charity. Fundraising efforts by the charity helped raise the £19 million needed for the planned renovations.
Bristol Old Vic Tours
Bristol Old Vic is known for taking its productions on tour throughout the United Kingdom and overseas.
The company’s most notable productions that went on tour include: Hamlet, A Man for All Seasons, Arms and the Man, and Man and Superman.
In recent years, the company has co-produced with the Royal National Theatre, Kneehigh Theatre, and West Yorkshire Playhouse.