Survey of London: Volumes 33 and 34, St Anne Soho. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1966.
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The Royalty Theatre
Previously Miss Kelly's, Royal Soho and New Royalty Theatre
From 1834–7 until 1955 the back part of the sites of Nos. 73 and 74 Dean Street was occupied by the theatre known latterly, until its closure in 1938, as the Royalty (fig. 52). It originated in an attempt by the actress, Frances Maria Kelly (1790–1882), to establish a dramatic academy, and had a long tradition of actress-management. The theatre was small, obscurely sited, perilously combustible and rarely prosperous for long, but, partly by reason of its consequent use for occasional or independent ventures, it housed some productions of note.
The more southerly of the two houses on the street frontage, No. 73, was Miss Kelly's house and was occupied together with the theatre for the whole period of the theatre's existence, but No. 74 for only part of the time. The freehold of both sites had been disposed of by the Crown in 1830, to Peter Thompson of Frith Street, gentleman. (fn. 3)
In 1834 No. 73 was taken by Fanny Kelly as her private residence. Miss Kelly was nearing the end of her Drury Lane career and in the previous year had essayed a season of one-woman performances at the New Strand Theatre. (fn. 4) In Dean Street she now devoted her savings to the realization of an idea current among lovers of the drama, the creation of a school of acting, with a theatre attached. (fn. 5) In August 1834 she obtained the first of a series of licences for daily dramatic readings and twice-weekly theatrical performances at No. 73 from Michaelmas to the following Easter. (fn. 6) The Lord Chamberlain, the sixth Duke of Devonshire, was a friend of Miss Kelly's, and to him she sent thanks for 'the Licence for my School'. (fn. 7) In the same year she began to build a small theatre, (fn. 8) approached through her house and extending behind it and No. 74 (to both of which sites she must be presumed to have had a title). The architect was the leading theatre practitioner, Samuel Beazley, a resident in Soho Square. (fn. 9)
The theatre was substantially finished by 1837. In that year Miss Kelly appears as occupant also of No. 74, (fn. 10) and in July she submitted to the Duke of Devonshire, no longer Lord Chamberlain but her continuing patron, an announcement of the public opening of the theatre, which she then intended to name in his honour. The announcement ran:
'The Duke's Theatre and Royal Dramatic School. Miss Kelly has the honour to announce to her pupils and Subscribers that she will commence a course of Private Lectures on the Dramatic Art preparatory to opening her Theatre to the Public in September next. The Teachers of the Establishment will be in attendance on Mondays and Thursdays for Elocution, Tuesdays and Fridays for Vocal and Instrumental Music, and on Wednesdays and Saturdays for Dancing, Fencing, and Gymnastic Exercises.'
Miss Kelly also sought from the Duke 'an audience of a few minutes for my Architect and kind friend Mr. Beazley whose good taste and nice feeling will briefly explain to Your Grace the purpose so vital to my interest'. (fn. 11)
The public opening was, however, delayed, and from spring 1838 to spring 1840 Miss Kelly did not renew her licence. (fn. 12) This was perhaps on account of the installation of a new type of stage machinery, of all-metal construction. The inventor, (Sir) Rowland Macdonald Stephenson (c. 1808–95), a civil engineer who was later knighted and became Deputy-Chairman of the East Indian Railway Company, (fn. 13) had exhibited a model of his contrivance in the autumn of 1838. (fn. 14) It was patented in February 1840, (fn. 15) and received considerable publicity. (fn. 16)
In January 1840 Miss Kelly was again ready to announce the public opening of the 'Royal Dramatic School and Theatre'. The printed prospectus stated that her pupils would be instructed by 'Courses of Lectures, daily readings and stage studies', while they would be enabled to support themselves by 'a branch of the Establishment' devoted 'to the intellectual improvement, and the industrious occupation of the youthful pupils of both sexes; affording to each a fair proportion of the funds arising from their own exertions'. Annual subscribers of two guineas would have privileged admission at public performances. (fn. 17) For an unknown reason Miss Kelly still found herself in a 'painful and perplexing position', (fn. 18) but the theatre was finally opened to the public in May 1840 under a special licence for performances in the following two months. (fn. 19)
On the opening night Miss Kelly expressed the hope that the theatre would be one 'in which the dialogue would at least be heard'. (fn. 20) There was a relatively spacious stage, and Beazley's work in the auditorium was thought pretty. The Times described the theatre as 'most elegantly fitted up and appointed, and painted in a light tasteful manner. The pit is half occupied by chairs and half by benches; the part corresponding to a gallery is considered as a tier of upper boxes, and the lower tier has a distinguishing price'. (fn. 20) The theatre was designed as a bijou for a fashionable audience. A box was taken by Queen Adelaide, and most of the others, according to a newspaper puff, by 'the heads of our old aristocratic houses, for themselves, and the youthful members of their families, who, of course, can come and go as they would to an apartment beneath the paternal roof'. (fn. 21)
An undated watercolour drawing in the London Museum is said on uncertain authority to represent Miss Kelly's theatre, (fn. 22) and is perhaps a working design by Beazley, although it differs in some respects from newspaper descriptions (Plate 30b).
At the first performance on 25 May three pieces were presented, a 'new trifle', Summer and Winter, by Morris Barnett, a melodrama, The Sergeant's Wife, and an 'old farce', The Midnight Hour. (fn. 23) The opening was unsuccessful, and within a week the theatre was closed. (fn. 24) The fiasco has been attributed to a failure, verging on farce, of the stage machinery. (fn. 25) This was certainly faulty and exposed the scene-shifters to the audience's view. (fn. 26) Miss Kelly later admitted to 'some difficulties in the scenic department'. (fn. 27) The inventor, however, subsequently published praise of his design by Beazley and the scenic artist, Clarkson Stanfield, and attributed the theatre's lack of success merely to 'want of public patronage'. (fn. 28) A contributory factor was probably the high admission charges of five or seven shillings. (fn. 29)
Miss Kelly reopened her theatre, at reduced prices, on 22 February 1841, for a short season of her own monologues, (fn. 30) but in the following year illness finally ended her active use of the theatre. (fn. 31) By 1842 she had ceased to occupy No. 74 (fn. 10) and in 1847 mortgaged her lease of the two sites. (fn. 32) By 1849 she was unable to pay the rent, and was evicted in November. In a letter to The Times she said she had spent £16,000 on building and operating the theatre. (fn. 33) (fn. 1)
Since 1842 the theatre had mostly been used for occasional amateur productions. Among these were performances of plays by Ben Jonson and Beaumont and Fletcher in 1845–6 by a company, the Amateurs, which included Charles Dickens, to whom Miss Kelly confessed 'with tears in her eyes … that any jokes at her additional expense in print would drive her mad'. (fn. 34) In 1850 the theatre was reopened as the (Royal) Soho Theatre, after redecoration by W. W. Deane and S. J. Nicholl, (fn. 35) and in the following year an entrance portico was built, (fn. 36) probably that shown on Plate 30a. In 1852 a sub-lease was acquired by T. P. Mowbray and J. H. Rogers, cabriolet proprietors (who promptly mortgaged it to a clergyman). (fn. 37) Mowbray took later leases in 1864 and 1875, when he was designated theatrical manager. (fn. 38) Productions were various and ephemeral, including English 'Grand Opera' in 1850. Performances were mostly by amateurs, hiring the theatre at standard rates. (fn. 39) In 1853 Mowbray still advertised 'Pupils prepared for the Stage'. (fn. 31) At other times the theatre, as 'Theatre Français', attracted patrons chiefly among the foreigners in Soho. (fn. 40)
In 1861 the direction of the theatre was assumed by Albina di Rhona, 'the young Servian artist', a dancer and comic actress. She renamed it the New Royalty Theatre, and had it altered and redecorated by 'M. Bulot, of Paris, Decorator in Ordinary to his Imperial Majesty, Louis Napoleon', with 'cut-glass lustres, painted panels, blue satin draperies and gold mouldings'. (fn. 41) The theatre was reopened on 12 November. But despite a varied opening programme, in which Miss di Rhona danced, the leader of the Boston Brass Band from America executed a bugle solo, and a good performance was given by a fourteenyear-old actress named Ellen Terry, (fn. 42) the new régime was not successful.
On 25 March 1875 the theatre, under the direction of Selina Dolaro, enjoyed an historic success, with the first Gilbert and Sullivan opera to be staged by Richard D'Oyly Carte. The favourable reception of Trial by Jury, however, led D'Oyly Carte to create his own company and theatre, and brought no continuing prosperity to the New Royalty. (fn. 43)
In 1877 began the association of the theatre, lasting some thirty years, with Kate Santley, (fn. 31) who later seems to have acquired the head lease. (fn. 44) Many of the productions were opera-bouffes adapted from the French.
In that year the First Chief Officer of the London Fire Brigade strongly recommended to the Metropolitan Board of Works the immediate closure of the theatre. (fn. 46) Miss Santley, however, had it reconstructed to designs of the architect, Thomas Verity, whose plans, providing improved means of egress made possible by the acquisition of a right of way through No. 74, were approved in October 1882. (fn. 47) The builder and decorator was E. W. Bradwell. (fn. 48) This reconstruction raised the rateable value from £317 to £990. (fn. 10) On 23 April 1883 the theatre was reopened. The improvement of the 'stuffy little hole' was praised by The Stage: 'The staircases have been furnished with a happy combination of dark red and gold paper. The interior of the house is decorated with red velvet covered with plaques, which present portraits of various dramatists and composers, and a further decoration of imitation pearl helps to give a richer effect to the general tone. The stage has also been much enlarged.' (fn. 49)
Shortly afterwards a former tradition was revived when M. L. Mayer, on removal from the Gaiety, staged twice-yearly seasons of plays in French. The Coquelins and other luminaries of the Comédie Française appeared here in the 1880's, when the Royalty was 'the recognized home of the Parisian drama' (fn. 50) and M. Mayer 'by considerably raising the prices, actually made the little house hold four hundred pounds'. (fn. 51)
But the opening of Shaftesbury Avenue and of new theatres in that neighbourhood was perhaps inimical to a theatre in Dean Street and in the 1890's the Royalty was not prospering. Being vacant, it was taken in 1891 by J. T. Grein for performances by his Independent Theatre before subscribers, and here on 13 March 1891 'an orderly audience, including many ladies, … listened attentively to the dramatic exposition of a subject which is not usually discussed outside the walls of an hospital'. (fn. 52) Other critics of the first performance in England of Ghosts called for the withdrawal of Miss Santley's licence. (fn. 53)
Early in December 1892 the curate of St. Anne's was condoling with her on the theatre's lack of success. 'There were rain and fog outside, and prospects were not cheerful within. In spite of her successive plucky efforts, business had been bad for a long time in the pretty little house, and, as we sat, in the yellow twilight, in the deserted refreshment saloon, with its bare bar and tables, Miss Santley seriously debated with me the advisability of getting rid of the unlucky property altogether. But the gas "T-light" was flaring on the dreary stage below, we heard faint sounds from afar, and ghostly figures flitted through the gloom. A new play, a last desperate effort, was being rehearsed. By and by there came into our desolate saloon a tall spare gentleman, with a deep and pleasant voice… . The sympathetic speaker was Mr. Brandon Thomas, and, all unknowing, he was standing on the threshold of a great fortune, and the success of his life. For this play, born of the doubt and the darkness, turned out to be "Charley's Aunt"… .' (fn. 54) The first performance in London was on 21 December 1892, but its success led to its transference in a month to the Globe Theatre. (fn. 55) The 'ghostly figures' glimpsed by the curate, though momentous in theatrical history, may not, however, have been rehearsing Charley's Aunt (which was not to be staged for another fortnight) but the play to be produced the following night, again by the Independent Theatre. This was Widowers' Houses, and the performance on 9 December 1892 was the first of any play by Bernard Shaw. It did not foreshadow the success of Charley's Aunt and 'the fall of the curtain was attended with some disorder'. (fn. 56)
On November 1893 the Royalty housed another independent experiment, when William Poel produced for the Shakespeare Reading Society a performance of Measure for Measure under an approximation to contemporary conditions and within a reconstruction of the Fortune Theatre. (fn. 57) Another first performance in England by the Independent Theatre was of The Wild Duck, on 4 May 1894. (fn. 58)
In 1894–5 expensive alterations, partly designed to make the theatre safer, were carried out by Walter Emden. (fn. 59) The managements continued to be short-lived. In 1895–6 the manager was Arthur Bourchier. (fn. 60) On 26 November 1899 the first production of the Incorporated Stage Society took place, with the first performance of Bernard Shaw's You Never Can Tell. (fn. 61) In 1900–1 Mrs. Patrick Campbell hired the theatre, at £90 per week, and staged an enterprising succession of contemporary plays, (fn. 62) and in 1903–4 a company under Hans Andresen and Max Behrend had a successful season of German theatre, including Hauptmann's Hannele and a Sudermann farce three weeks after its first performance in Berlin. (fn. 63) Also in 1904, the newly founded Irish National Theatre Society gave plays by W. B. Yeats and an early performance of Synge's first play, The Shadow of the Glen, and Philip Carr's Mermaid Society produced Elizabethan and Jacobean plays. (fn. 64) In May William Poel produced Romeo and Juliet for the Elizabethan Stage Society, with very youthful players, Esmé Percy and Dorothy Minto, in the name parts. (fn. 65)
Further alterations for security against fire had been required by the London County Council in 1903. (fn. 66) These were delayed until 1905 when it became possible for Miss Santley to acquire all of No. 74 and have an extensive reconstruction carried out by Smee and Cobay, decorators. The plans were approved in October 1905. The roof of the stage was raised, new exits provided, and seated accommodation slightly increased, to 696 persons. (fn. 67) It was evidently at this time that the upper face of No. 74 was cemented and the difference in window-levels of the two houses camouflaged (Plate 102a). Inside, Smee and Cobay employed a light-coloured 'Régence' scheme (Plate 31), making the Royalty 'one of the brightest and prettiest theatres in London'. (fn. 68)
The theatre reopened on 4 January 1906 with Réjane in a performance of Pailleron's La Souris. (fn. 68) This inaugurated a season of Théâtre Français directed by Gaston Mayer, son of the former director of French plays here, and for a year or two the earlier tradition was renewed. (fn. 2)
In 1911 J. E. Vedrenne and Dennis Eadie acquired the Royalty, (fn. 69) and in March 1912 staged Milestones, by Arnold Bennett and Edward Knoblauch (later Knoblock), which had over six hundred performances. (fn. 70) A post-war success was the concert-party entertainment, The CoOptimists, first staged in June 1921. (fn. 71) The year 1924 saw the replacement of benches in the pit by tip-up seats, the production by Walter Wanger of an American play, Polly Preferred, with a 'cinematographic interlude', (fn. 66) and the first West End production of Noel Coward's The Vortex. (fn. 72) The first performance in London of Juno and the Paycock was given in November 1925. (fn. 73) Another first performance of an O'Casey play was of Within the Gates, a production of the New Everyman Theatre in February 1934, (fn. 31) but the last big success was in 1932 with While Parents Sleep. (fn. 74)
By 1936 the danger of fire from celluloidstores and other adjacent properties was thought to override the consideration, strongly pressed on the Lord Chamberlain by the licensee, that the theatre had been on the site before the development of inflammatory trades nearby, and finally it was decided not to renew the licence after November 1938. (fn. 47) The last performance was given at a matinée on 25 November 1938, by the Southern Cross Players. (fn. 31)
Abortive plans for complete rebuilding had already been made in 1928–9 by Robert Cromie. Others, for conversion to a cinema, were now prepared by Charles Brett. Proposals for rebuilding as a theatre were renewed in 1943 when Cecil Masey submitted designs, and again after the war: in 1954 a theatre seating one thousand persons was planned by T., P. H. and E. Braddock.
All these plans were basically similar, aiming to provide the maximum accommodation in a cinema-like auditorium with stalls and a single deep circle. Cromie's scheme was for rebuilding on the site of Nos. 73 and 74, but the designs by Masey and Messrs. Braddock made use of No. 72 for side exit-passages and ancillary accommodation.
In 1954–9, however, the present block of offices, Royalty House, was erected on the site of Nos. 72, 73 and 74, to a design by Messrs. Braddock (see below). (fn. 75)
Architectural Description of the Theatre
The graphic evidence relating to Miss Kelly's theatre is limited to a lease plan of 1840 and the unsigned, undated, and tentatively ascribed watercolour drawing in the London Museum to which reference has already been made.
The lease plan (fig. 52) shows the ground storey of the former Nos. 73 and 74 in some detail, but of the theatre building nothing is indicated apart from the outer walls, the proscenium, and the stage apron, or band pit. (fn. 76) It had a frontage of 46 feet 4 inches to Richmond Mews, and a depth of 62 feet 9 inches, extended by an ante-room 13 feet 9 inches deep at the back of No. 74, leaving a small yard or light-well at the rear of each house. The ante-room or foyer was approached by a short flight of steps rising from the north-west splay of the bay in the ground-floor back room of No 73. The lease plan shows that the auditorium was about 44 feet wide by 33 feet deep, and the stage was 24 feet deep with a 24feet-wide proscenium opening.
The London Museum drawing (Plate 30b), apparently a study for the decoration of a small theatre internally constructed of wood, shows a pit of eight straight steppings rising to a gallery at the back which is returned on either side of the pit, with two stepped rows of benches. (fn. 22) Below the side gallery shown is a passage leading to the front entrance of the pit and, presumably, to the stage pass-door. The proscenium has splayed reveals, each containing a door with a window above. The ceiling, treated as a sky dome framed by a balustrade, continues with pendentives that meet the rectangle of the auditorium and frame wide segmental arches opening to an upper gallery. Assuming that the pit seating was spaced in rows 2 feet 6 inches back-to-back, the auditorium of the drawing would exactly fit the space shown on the lease plan.
As a design it has little in common with Beazley's Lyceum and St. James's Theatres, but resembles more closely such simple box-like playhouses as the mid-Georgian theatre at Richmond, Yorkshire. The decorations, however, with rose-marbled columns, the walls panelled in tones of green, and the rose-trellised panels on the lower gallery front, suggest a date around 1840.
No evidence, beyond that already quoted or referred to, has come to light giving precise details of the structural and decorative changes made in 1850, and in 1861, but the printed report of the First Chief Officer of the London Fire Brigade gives the following details of the theatre at the time of his inspection in 1882. 'The front building was originally a private house and … is in good repair. In the basement is the carpenters' workshops and a dressing room; on the ground floor are the entrances and exits; and on the floors above are the manager's office, housekeeper's rooms, and refreshment saloons. This building communicates with the back building on each floor. The back building, or theatre proper, is 65 feet long and 48 feet wide, and comprises the auditorium, the stage, dressing rooms, property stores, and gas fitters' and carpenters' workshops. … No structural alterations have been made as far as can be ascertained.' The report gives the capacity of the theatre as follows: the gallery held 295 persons; the dress circle 123; the private boxes 27; the pit 88; and the stalls 112. (fn. 46)
Thomas Verity's reconstruction of the theatre in 1883 gave the auditorium its final basic form. Verity took down the original rear wall of the auditorium, which he extended eastwards to the back of the houses, leaving the yard behind No. 74. On the line of the old wall, which was retained in the basement where the dressing-rooms were accommodated, he placed three cast-iron columns to support the new, partly cantilevered dress circle. This contained six stepped rows of seating, and at each end of its serpentine front was a double and a single box. An upper line of three columns supported the gallery, horseshoe fronted and containing six steppings, of which the front two continued on each side up to the proscenium wall. The reconstructed auditorium was designed to hold 644 persons, with the gallery accommodating 200, the dress circle 128, the boxes 30, the pit 200, and the stalls 86. According to the specification, £200 was to be included for 'canvas plaster in Box fronts, Circle fronts and main ceiling', and £400 was provided for 'papering, decorating and gilding'. Verity's section shows that the stage was roofed at the same level as the auditorium, and as the proscenium opening was very high it seems probable that there were no facilities for flying the scenery. Emden's plans of 1895 show only modifications to Verity's work (fig. 53), but considerable changes were made by Smee and Cobay in 1905, when the stage roof was raised and a grid installed, the means of exit further improved, and the seating was increased to 696, with standing room for 158 persons. (fn. 77)
Smee and Cobay's 'Regence' decorations, which survived until the demolition of the theatre, are recorded in a series of photographs now in the Enthoven Collection in the Victoria and Albert Museum (Plate 31). Above the splayed reveal of the elliptically headed proscenium arch, richly moulded with foliage ornament, was a swannecked pediment composed of C-scrolls, centring on the royal arms and ending in volutes on which were seated putti, playing musical instruments. Terminal figures divided the dress-circle boxes, and the upper stage box was framed by an arch, surmounted by a broken pediment also decked with seated putti. Wide elliptical arches spanned the sides and back of the auditorium well, and the flat ceiling was decorated with a rich frame enclosing a large circular panel, radially divided by eight ribs of guilloche ornament meeting in a central octagon, framing a ventilation grille.