Oldest British theatre still in original form faces closure due to financial problems


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The Independent Culture

The oldest theatre still in its original form in Britain faces closure unless it can raise about £120,000, the latest regional arts centre to run into financial problems since the recession.

The Georgian Theatre Royal in Yorkshire, which was built in 1788, has been forced to kick off an urgent funding drive to avoid shutting the original theatre and a youth theatre. The closure would also derail plans for a learning centre.

Malcolm Bryant, chairman of the theatre, said: “It is exquisite and truly a unique gem of a theatre. It is very much loved.” It also has the oldest piece of painted scenery in Britain.

Yet, he is under no illusions about the challenges the organisation faces. “The whole operation is under threat; we have had to dip into our reserves in the current financial year to maintain our activities. We are up against it.”

The Grade I listed building holds 200 seats. It has a small team running the day-to-day operations along with 100 volunteers.

Mr Bryant said: “If we can’t find a way through these very difficult financial challenges then closing down would be the worst possible outcome. It’s a source of such pleasure and joy to so many people we can’t afford to fail.”

Samuel Butler, the manager of a touring company, opened the theatre following changes to licencing laws. 

The playhouse, which showed a range of productions, became hugely popular and had to be closed on several occasions by the magistrate because of “bawdy and lewd behaviour”.

It fell out of favour in the mid-1800s and was closed in 1848, variously used as a storeroom and a warehouse. It returned to its original use in 1963.

The Bristol Old Vic is the oldest working theatre, opening in 1766, but the building has been overhauled, while the Georgian’s auditorium remains the same.

Mr Bryant said: “The wonderful think is the actual structure of the building had remained intact from 1788, which is why we can talk about it being the oldest theatre in its original form.”

Many theatres in the regions are struggling in the current financial climate. Mr Bryant said: “You feel part of a collective commitment to arts and culture outside of London which isn’t always appreciated but nonetheless very important. We can’t afford to lose it.”

He continued that putting money into the arts was more than just supporting that particular art form. “It’s an investment in regional development, tourism and helps to regenerate an economy. That’s in addition to nurturing people’s spirit at a time of financial difficulty. The arts are contributing to the spirit of the nation.”