Richmond’s Georgian Theatre Royal may be a jewel in the crown of the region’s heritage, but it owes its survival to a quirk of fate.
When it was constructed in 1788, the theatre was not unusual, part of a circuit of eight created by Samuel Butler.
But as tastes changed in the decades which followed, leading to the closure of the venues and many others like them, Richmond’s escaped the almost inevitable loss of its interior.
Converted to an auction house with a new false floor over the pit, with a wine merchant’s cellar below, there was no need to strip out the original fixtures.
Although uses changed over the generations, the building remained unmolested until a history teacher and his students identified the significance of what was on their doorstep, with steps then taken to restore it.
The Crathorne family were heavily involved in that, leading to a trust being formed in 1960 and the building re-opening three years later.
That trust still operates the venue, owned by Richmond Town Council, and the Crathorne family remain enthusiastic supporters, offering financial support alongside the income the theatre is able to generate.
While the theatre’s historic importance attracts around 8,000 visitors each year, the theatre’s place in Richmond’s community is perhaps its dominant feature.
It hosts a wide range of professional shows, alongside its own amateur dramatics and operatic society’s shows, hosting school examination performances, business meetings and even themed weddings – including a very non-Georgian Star Trek-themed marriage recently.
Its annual pantomimes have become legendary, with a decade-old tradition of knitting items to be thrown at, or from, the stage now firmly established.
Knitters start work almost as soon as the run of the season’s shows are over and there is such enthusiasm for creating items – bananas were the first, in 2011 – that the theatre now even gets international contributions.
But for all its merits, the theatre would be unable to operate without a band of around 80 volunteers, who serve in roles from backstage to ushers and bar staff to ensure shows run smoothly and audiences enjoy their visits.
Chief executive Clare Allen said: “They really are the life blood of the theatre and also volunteer at other places. There is a real volunteer workforce around Richmond.
“There is an element of ownership, it is their theatre and we make sure we really connect well with them. We take on board their opinions and feedback. They work as a collective and the theatre can develop through their feedback.”
A recent change at the theatre has seen the capacity shrink from more than 200 seats to 155, work done during lockdown using a substantial donation to the theatre.
It has meant uncomfortable bench seats have been replaced with a more comfortable alternative and legroom also increased, with the work done to the satisfaction of Historic England and Richmondshire District Council.
A new ventilation system was installed at the same time, to keep the building suitable for modern use without compromising its heritage.