OPINION: How our town’s theatre has changed over the years - David Bown, chief executive of Harrogate Theatre

It is “one of the handsomest, cosiest and best appointed theatres in the Provinces. Two minutes from the rail station. Fitted with all the latest improvements.”

Thursday, 27th May 2021, 5:34 pm

The accompanying picture is the opening press notice for the Grand Opera House, now Harrogate Theatre. Alongside is the theatre today, in the midst of its ‘latest improvements’. Not too much has changed visually on the outside.

Back then the theatre boasts inside that ‘all staircases are fireproof, there are electric lights, fire appliances, hot water and sprinklers.’

It is precisely some of these elements that are being further upgraded today. It will once again be one of the handsomest, cosiest and best appointed.

There is a great deal of interesting information in this poster. Opened at the turn of the twentieth century, it was designed by Frank Tugwell, who’s other major achievements were The Futurist in Scarborough and the Savoy down in London. He was regarded as one of the best architects, although not quite in the same league as Frank Matcham who is responsible for many splendid theatres up and down the country, including our own Royal Hall.

The Opera House is also referred to as ‘The Peacock Theatre’, as William Peacock was the first managing director, successfully running the building with his family for the first 35 years of its existence. The Opera House was a fitting compliment to the growing splendour of this thriving Victorian Spa Town, as it was a major venue on the national touring circuit due to the luxury afforded by the nine dressing rooms with ‘hot and cold water.’

You’ll notice at the bottom right of the picture the ticket prices that range from 6d in the gallery to £2.2s for a box. However, I am a little taken aback by the stated capacity of 10/6, currently it is 4 and that’s a squeeze, with not everyone getting a full view of the stage.

I think one of the most arresting pieces of information in this picture is the capacity of the main house stated as 1,300... it is currently 500. That is a staggering reduction over the past 120 years and reflects the changing nature of the industry. When the theatre opened, Victorian Melodrama was at its height, with big shows, big performances and dramatic plots. However, as we moved through the century, film and television redefined acting and writing for the stage. Dramas generally speaking became more realistic with smaller subtle performances.

Arguably these large grand auditoriums were no longer fit for purpose.

The popularity of live drama was also on the wane due to the introduction of these new mediums and therefore audience dwindled.

As we entered the 1960s, new and experimental theatre took over with the emergence of practitioners like Pinter, Beckett and Joan Littlewood. New builds were smaller and the old spaces were adapted to reflect demand.

The auditorium at Harrogate Theatre has had two significant reductions in size, the last one being in the 1970s, led by Roderick Ham who was also responsible for the Thorndike Theatre in Leatherhead.

Today we still compete with other and emerging art forms, but after the last 15 months, I get the impression many of us are absolutely desperate to get back in to a revitalised and safer Harrogate Theatre to see live performances once more.