Stratford theatre set for return to former glory years

The present Theatre Royal

The present Theatre Royal - Credit: Archant

As the auditorium at Stratford’s Theatre Royal undergoes an extensive refurbishment, we look back at the life of the “people’s theatre” over the past 130 years.

The auditorium in the 1950s

The auditorium in the 1950s - Credit: Archant

Last month, the Theatre Royal Stratford East began a major refurbishment on its 130-year-old auditorium.

The extensive work includes replacing all seating and carpeting, replacing bench seating with individual seating, re-stepping the upper circle as well as painting and restoring the antique chandelier.

“It’s a Grade II listed building so we can’t go too wacky with the design,” explained Kerry Michael, artistic director for the theatre, “so it will still be red and beautiful.”

“It’s very exciting. We last refurbished the building in 2001 and did everything apart from the auditorium and now we are able to complete the refurbishment.

Gerry Raffles

Gerry Raffles - Credit: Archant

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“It’ll look fresh and new. It has needed to be done for the last five years and without the funding we wouldn’t have been able to do it.”

The theatre secured £208,000 from the Arts Council England and £5,000 from the Theatres Trust in February but it still needs an extra £60,000 to complete the work.

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The auditorium was last refurbished more than 20 years ago but information on restorations over the century are vague.

Luckily, despite the lack of restoration records, much is known about the history of the theatre which has stood the test of time, standing strong through two world wars and the threat of demolition.

It was built in 1884 as a playhouse by actor and manager Charles Dillon.

“The story goes that he wasn’t a very good actor so he bought the theatre so he could put on his own plays instead,” Kerry said.

Charles starred in the theatre’s very first play, Richelieu, which opened on December 17.

The theatre’s next owner was coal merchant Albert O’Leary Fredericks and it stayed in his family for almost 50 years.

Above the stage are the letters “FF”, which stand for Freddy Fredericks, and superstition has it that if the letters are ever removed, the theatre will crumble to the ground.

The theatre stayed open throughout the First World War but closed during the Second World War.

“No one was willing to take it on,” Kerry explained.

“In 1954 the Theatre Workshop took on the derelict building and turned it into the theatre we now know.”

Under the direction of Joan Littlewood, with Gerry Raffles as manager, the company brought the “people’s theatre” to Stratford.

And it was Gerry Raffles who saved the theatre from demolition in the 60s by securing a last-minute Grade II Preservation Order.

He died in 1975 and the square outside the theatre is now known as Gerry Raffles Square in his honour.

One of the Theatre Workshop’s best known productions is Oh, What a Lovely War! which played in the West End and on Broadway.

Philip Hedley, Kerry’s predecessor, was credited with reaching diverse audiences and giving a voice to the great number of communities in east London.

During his time, he engaged in large-scale co-productions with black and Asian companies, which was then seen as pioneering.

Over the past 11 years under Kerry’s directorship, the theatre has been nominated for seven Olivier Awards, two of which it won.

In 2014, the theatre reached 3,000 young people and 86 per cent capacity.

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