Glorious new dawn for an old gold stage: Bristol Old Vic reopens after a sumptuous refit

Charlotte Cripps describes the sumptuous 18-month refurbishment, and famous alumni relive their memories.

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The Independent Culture

Britain's oldest continuously working theatre, the Bristol Old Vic, has re-opened after an 18-month refurbishment inspired by its original 18th-century design. It has olive-green velvet seats, a chocolate-box-pretty horseshoe-shaped auditorium and new dressing rooms, named after figures from the Old Vic's past. The seats have been designed by French seating specialists Quinette Gallay, whose also did seats for Opera Bastille.

Saved from bankruptcy four years ago, the Old Vic, which was built in 1766, was a starting point for many top actors, including Daniel Day-Lewis, Pete Postlethwaite – and Peter O'Toole, who was an unforgettable Hamlet in 1956.

The first production since its theatrical facelift is John O'Keeffe's comedy Wild Oats, directed by Mark Rosenblatt, which will be performed on the new thrust stage, with the audience on three sides. During excavation work, the original position of the stage was revealed with its curved front. The floor in the pit has been raised to its original level, where theatregoers used to stand to get a good view. The edges of the floorboards from the stage have been relaid in their original position in the stage boxes. A blocked door has been found leading from the box above the stage to the back of the house areas, which was probably used to allow rich men to meet actresses in private.

When the theatre was built in 1766, 50 people invested £50 each in the project, until some of them had to find an extra £30, and it allowed them free entry to theatre productions. During its latest refurbishment, Bristol Old Vic still produced productions – even outside on the street. Productions in the Studio included Brian Friel's 1979 play Faith Healer, a Pinter/Beckett double bill – A Kind of Alaska and Krapp's Last Tape and Natalie McGrath's Coasting, the first full-length pay to come out of Bristol Old Vic's new work programme, Ferment.

What's next? Renewing the foyers and front of house areas of the theatre in time for its 250th anniversary in 2016.

Daniel Day-Lewis

During our three years at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, the sublimely beautiful Theatre Royal glowed in the night, within our reach yet just beyond it. For my first year as a professional actor it was my home and I was proud of that. Now the restoration on this exquisite theatre is complete it [will] once again become the rightful home of the Bristol Old Vic and, for the sake of the actors, directors, stage management and front-of-house [staff] lucky enough to work there; for the sake of the audiences from Bristol, the west country, Great Britain and abroad; it should be treasured for all time and never again be allowed to go dark or fall into disrepair.

Richard Eyre

If there's a place that I can associate with my first enchantment with theatre it would be the Bristol Old Vic. I grew up in Dorset – a county conspicuous, at least during my childhood, for its complete absence of theatre. At school I was more interested in maths and physics until, in 1958, at the age of 15, I went to stay with a friend in Bath and I saw Hamlet at the Bristol Old Vic.

The theatre itself struck me then – as it does now – as a conjuror's box varnished with 200 years of history. I can remember the sloping stalls, the gilded pillars, the tiered balconies and the horseshoe auditorium with the vividness of a child's first memories of Christmas. When the lights went down I felt anything could happen; my imagination was being conscripted.

I saw that, while everything was unreal – or at least not real – it thrived on my readiness to believe in what I was seeing. Things stood for things rather than being the thing itself: a room became a world, a group of characters became a whole society. Like magic, it invoked in me astonishment at the way that shapes changed and shifted, magnified and diminished, as they do in childhood.

Hamlet was played by Peter O'Toole in his unreconstructed state – dark-haired, wild, violent, mercurial and thrilling – before stardom and Lawrence of Arabia turned him blonde, small-nosed and epicene. I had never read the play, barely knew of its existence and the play and O'Toole's performance capsized me.

I was like the composer Berlioz who said after seeing a performance of the same play in Paris: "Shakespeare, coming on me unawares, struck me like a thunderbolt. The lightning flash of that discovery revealed to me at a stroke the whole heaven of art, illuminating it to its remotest corners. I recognised the meaning of grandeur, beauty, dramatic truth... I saw, I understood, I felt... that I was alive and that I must arise and walk." And he added: " this time of my life I neither spoke nor understood a word of English."

My epiphany at the Bristol Old Vic was part of my luck. With its inventive redevelopment a new generation has the chance to get as lucky as I did in the oldest and most beguiling of British theatres.

Kwame Kwei- Armah

Bristol will always be special to me. Having spent five years filming Casualty there, I feel as if I know the city almost as well as I know my place of birth, London. However it is the Bristol Old Vic theatre that is at the epicentre of my remembrance. If I am to be truthful, at the epicenter of what and who I am now.

We never forget our first time, do we? I will never forget sitting behind Arnold Wesker on the first night of the very first play I had written, A Bitter Herb. Nervous at his every move. Never forget the first laugh my "jukebox musical" Blues Brother Soul Sister received or the sound of the band as we rocked out the final eight bars of "Try a Little Tenderness".

Never forget sitting in the rehearsal room with the then artistic director Andy Hay as we refined and defined what I was trying to say with both pieces, never forget Andy calling me into his office to teach me how to read bad reviews or how to not inhale the good ones. Never forget the joy of returning with Elmina's Kitchen before it transferred to the West End. Never forget seeing the "sold out" sign for one show or the empty seats of another. The Bristol Old Vic was the place where I first dared call myself a playwright.

Samantha Bond

I arrived at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in September 1980. Within a couple of weeks, a few of us auditioned to be extras in John David's production of The Tempest. I was cast as an unspeaking nymph, shepherdess, sailor and minor goddess! And was thrilled! And that is when my love affair with the [Old Vic] started…

My family's love affair started many years earlier, when my mother watched a young man in the chorus of Julian Slade's Christmas in King Street. Family lore goes that the young man dropped his cane in a dance number, swept to the footlights to pick up the cane and sent a dazzling smile out to the auditorium. My soon-to-be mother turned to her companion and said, "I want him for Christmas!". He was Philip Bond – my father! But the smile may never have worked in a different theatre!

The glory of the BOV is its astonishing intimacy. It is the most beautifully designed theatre. For both actors and audience that intimacy is almost palpable. I can whisper – and you can hear me. I can feel – and you can empathise.

As a student, I watched many productions, including my first King Lear, starring Graham Crowden – an astonishing performance! A Cinderella, when the transformation from kitchen to palace made me burst into tears! An outstanding performance by Bill Wallis in Arturo Ui. As a student, you perform your final shows at the Theatre Royal.

As we did the dress rehearsals, I was sure I had seen a figure in one of the boxes. I then bumped into a fellow student in a silken dress. When I turned my head to apologise, the fellow student simply wasn't there! Was it the ghost of Sarah Siddons [who is reputed to haunt the Theatre Royal]? I hope so! I still hope so.

Catherine Johnson, writer of 'Mamma Mia!'

I have had brilliant and hilarious and happy times working at the Bristol Old Vic, but its biggest impact on me came on the other side of the boards. My father loved the theatre, so when we moved from Cornwall in the Sixties, the Bristol Old Vic was our local. I would like to say we saw all the greats, but we sat up in the Gods and I was so short-sighted, I couldn't make out the faces.

Over the years, I've watched actors like Daniel Day-Lewis, Julie Walters and Pete Postlethwaite, but I had to appreciate their work through their skill with the text. An eye-roll, a smirk or a tear was wasted on me. Often we sat on the "historic" wooden benches. It had to be a really good show to distract me from that torture. The Bristol Old Vic delivered good shows and I fell in love with the theatre.

When we finally descended to the relative comfort of the stalls, Dad was mortified as my sister and I sat through a production of Othello shaking with silent laughter. From our new vantage point we could see right up Othello's skirt. Ah, the joy of live theatre!