Theatre Royal

66-68 Shakespeare Street,
Dumfries, DG1 2JH

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Theatre Royal Dumfries (Official)

Additional Info

Architects: Charles John Phipps

Functions: Live Theatre

Previous Names: Theatre, Dumfries Electric Theatre

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Theatre Royal

In Dumfries, in the Dumfries and Galloway area of Scotland, construction began on the Theatre in 1790. Completed at a cost of £800, it opened its doors on 29th September 1792, with a seating capacity of 600.

Robert Burns was very heavily involved in its construction while he lived in Dumfries, and he wrote several pieces specifically for it, including “A Scots Prologue”, which was performed at a fundraiser for the new theatre.

In the early-1830’s it is presumed that the Theatre received a letter of patent, as it soon became known as the Theatre Royal. With the royal patent came not only a change of name but also a change in the variety and quality of shows that could be performed.

Celebrated theatre architect Charles J. Phipps was tasked with renovating the Theatre Royal in 1876. The main change he made was the expansion of its interior. He lowered the stalls and stage into the basement, installing boxes in a horseshoe shape at street level with a balcony above them. This increased the theatre’s capacity to a maximum of 1,000.

Phipps also modified the exterior walls, covering up the portico pillars and building a new façade several feet in front of them. This exterior façade is still the one that can be seen from the street outside the theatre today.

In 1909 the Theatre Royal was purchased by the Stobie brothers. They installed a Maplewood floor in a bid to capitalise on the fad for roller skating. This, however, was short-lived, so they quickly reinstalled the seating and created the Dumfries Electric Theatre, with (according to the 1914 Kinematograph Year Book) 500 seats, operating as a cinema.

When the talkies arrived, a Marshall sound system was installed. From the late-1920’s until the mid-1930’s, Mrs E. M. Bartlett was the proprietor and, perhaps rather bizarrely, a seating capacity of 900 was listed in the Kinematograph Year Books. However, by 1937, the lessee was shown as A. P. Bartlett (of the same address) and the seating capacity was given as a much more reasonable 600. The proscenium was 21ft wide.

Mr T. H. Reekie took over in 1939, and he replaced the sound system with Kalee equipment. Presumably he also carried out other improvements/renovations, as the seating capacity was reduced, to 440.

Mr Reekie remained as the operator until the Dumfries Electric Theatre closed in 1954 (though it was still listed in the Kinematograh Year Books until 1956 - it was shown as “Closed” in the 1957 edition).

It is not known what, if anything, happened to the building immediately after this closure but, in 1959 the Guild of Players began looking for a new, permanent venue.

They were able to purchase the building and immediately begin a refurbishment programme, retaining as much of the historic character as they could but installing many new features. These included new dressing room facilities, and the re-named Theatre Royal re-opened in 1959.

In 1992, the need to make major repairs was identified, and the Guild quickly began planning a further major refurbishment project.

After much campaigning and fundraising, the theatre was set to be completely renovated in the early 2000’s. The plans would see the interior of the theatre completely rebuilt from the ground up, installing several new spaces and an entire extra storey on top. However, after funding was withdrawn in 2003, the project stalled.

After regrouping, the Guild managed to secure support from new sources and instead of planning on building new facilities upwards, they looked towards expanding outwards. Adjacent buildings were purchased and renovation work began in 2014. This was completed by the end of 2015. The newly refurbished Theatre Royal, Scotland’s oldest theatre, with 190 seats, now includes several new spaces while maintaining many of its historic features.

The Theatre Royal is listed Grade B.

Contributed by David Simpson
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