250 years of Bristol Old Vic

As Britain's longest continuously-running theatre celebrates a landmark age, Mel Sherwood takes a look behind the scenes and discovers a suitably dramatic history.

250 years of Bristol Old Vic © Alamy250 years of Bristol Old Vic © Alamy

This year, Bristol Old Vic becomes the only theatre in the English-speaking world to reach its 250th birthday. To mark the occasion, it is presenting a special series of productions, and it promises to be spectacular.

Advertisement

There’s already an Olivier award nomination in the bag (for Pink Mist). This current celebration and glory only makes the theatre’s story – which includes illicit beginnings, Nazi bombs and threats of closure  – all the more remarkable.

The Bristol Theatre, as the playhouse was originally named, was completed in 1766, after 50 local citizens each invested £50 (some £3,700 in today’s money). The original 50 investors of Bristol Old Vic were presented with a token, allowing them to see all performances for free. They can still be used today, for those lucky enough to be in possession of one.

It was built using designs by the architect of London’s Theatre Royal on Drury Lane. Bristol’s newest stage, however, was destined to have a rocky opening act.

The secret Knock

The first of its issues may seem to be something of a design flaw. When the theatre opened its doors to the public on 30 May 1766 (when renowned dramatist David Garrick trod the boards), it didn’t actually have any doors to open. Instead, every member of the audience had to knock on the house of the theatre’s neighbour, Mr Foote, and be ushered through his home.

What’s more, the entire theatre was hidden from street view. Andrew Stocker, Bristol Old Vic’s Tour Guide, explains why: “The theatre was built without a patent; it was technically illegal.”

A door was only one of the vital elements that the structure lacked, as the stage was constructed with no foundations. “We discovered that during some renovations,” Stocker reveals. “We also found skeletons just beneath the surface.” It seems that, on the occasions that plague ravaged the city, the dead were dumped, en masse, around the corner.

The teething problems of the early days did nothing to deter audiences. Up to 1,000 patrons would squeeze into the auditorium (thanks to Mr Foote) to watch performances.

Director Denis Carey on the stage of the Bristol Old Vic, or Theatre Royal as it was known in 1952 © Getty Images
Director Denis Carey on the stage of the Bristol Old Vic, or Theatre Royal as it was known in 1952 © Getty Images

Yet regulars must have been relieved when, in 1778, the theatre was awarded a royal patent, and officially renamed the Theatre Royal. As the playhouse was now legal, its actors could perform without fear of arrest.

Finally on the right side of the law, improvements to the building began. In the early 19th century, the auditorium’s roof was raised, a new angled gallery was built and capacity increased to 1,620. The ceiling fitted then is the same one audience members see today.

During World War II, Bristol fell victim of Luftwaffe bombs. “The defence of the Theatre Royal fell to a man with a wooden leg,” admits Stocker, “who was stationed on the roof to kick away any bombs that should fall.” It doesn’t sound like a thorough precaution, but the danger was very real – the venue’s main local rival, the Prince’s Theatre in the north of the city, was hit and destroyed.

Act three

As the nation settled into peace, attention shifted back to the arts. In 1946, the new Arts Council asked the London Old Vic theatre, led by Laurence Olivier, to send a company to Bristol’s Theatre Royal, and Bristol Old Vic was born.

That same year, an acting school was set up, which rapidly developed a reputation for turning out stellar actors. Its alumni include Daniel Day-Lewis, Patrick Stewart, Miranda Richardson and Olivia Colman, to name but a few.

Within a decade, Bristol Old Vic was setting the bar for theatre nationwide. “1954 was a magical year” Stocker claims. “It saw the birth of the musical Salad Days and the UK premiere of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.”

The backstage of the Old Vic, c1940 © Getty Images
The backstage of the Old Vic, c1940 © Getty Images

While the theatre continued to flourish artistically, it was failing financially by the 1980s. It suffered a chronic lack of funding, and soon became threatened by closure. Thankfully, a campaign successfully saved the theatre. In 2012, a £19 million refurbishment plan began, the final phase of which gets underway this year.

Advertisement

The 250th anniversary falls this weekend, 28-30 May, when a host of special events is on the theatre’s agenda, including a day of free tours.

This article was first published in the May 2016 issue of History Revealed.