Theatre Royal, King Street, Bristol, BS1 4ED
Theatre: scholars argue over the original building’s architect, either London’s James Saunderson and the West Country’s Thomas Paty. Foyer building: William Halfpenny.
Cooper’s Hall – limestone, probably from Bath
Theatre and guildhall
The Box Office is open to book shows in person. Monday–Friday Open: 10am. Close: 15 minutes after the start of the last show.
Saturday: Open: 12pm midday. Close: 15 minutes after the start of the last show.
Sunday: The Box Office is closed on Sundays with the exception of performance days when the box office will open one hour before the start of the first show, and close 15 minutes after the start of the last show.
Please check the website for details of performances and other opening times. Access to the foyer for public viewing and to the façade from King St at all reasonable times.
The world-renowned Bristol Old Vic theatre started life in 1766, thanks to 49 wealthy Bristol citizens who had contributed to a building fund for the first theatre inside the city boundaries. For a £50 contribution each received a silver token guaranteeing that the bearer could watch every performance – a promise the theatre still honours today. BOV houses Britain’s longest surviving auditorium, in pretty continuous use since 1766. It is one of few surviving Georgian examples to remain largely unchanged – in this case for over 200 years. The original theatre had no proper façade of its own. It sat behind houses in King Street, accessed via a passage between the houses. In the early 1900s a 17th century house was demolished to build a foyer.
Extensive remodelling took place in 1972 under architect Peter Moro. This demolished all the historic backstage machinery plus the early 1900s foyer, which it replaced with a studio theatre. It also created a new entrance area and grand façade from an elegant eighteenth-century building called Coopers’ Hall, which stood in front of the theatre. This is the façade we see on King Street today, with Moro’s studio theatre to the left. In 2011, a £19 million restoration and redevelopment project began. The Georgian auditorium and backstage areas were completed in 2012, with remaining work due for completion by 2016.
The name has changed over the years. In 1778 the new theatre was given a royal patent and became the Theatre Royal. The original royal coat of arms and its backboard from the street porch of the theatre are now on display at M Shed. They were removed from the theatre around 1902. In 1946 its name changed to the Bristol Old Vic because the newly formed Arts Council (which then had a different name) had backed a group of actors from the London Old Vic to launch a resident company at Bristol. This also made it England’s first regional state-subsidized theatre.
Today the oldest part of the theatre is what was Coopers’ Hall. This was once a guildhall, and was designed by William Halfpenny in 1743–4. Moro was ingenious in the way in which he incorporated this into a modern foyer. The theatre is filled with historic gems. Above the stage is the theatre’s original ‘thunder run’, a tunnel where metal balls would be rolled from one end to the other to create the sound of thunder.
Photography: ©Frances Gard
Theatre School Board Member