The history of Brighton's Theatre Royal represents a microcosm of British theatre and most leading actors and actresses have performed here during their careers. But this year the intimate space affectionately known as "the actors' theatre" is making a song and dance about something especially important - its 200th birthday
Think of Brighton and what springs to mind? Piers, promenades and people cramming the beach to hear DJ Fatboy Slim spinning records? Fair enough, but there's also a star attraction that keeps its light under a bushel: the Theatre Royal Brighton (TRB).
The seaside city has a long-established theatrical reputation. When the TRB opened in 1807, it had the most famous actor of the day, Charles Kemble (think Tom Cruise in today's terms), playing Hamlet. Built in around nine months, it was also there at the start of the exuberant era of the Prince Regent, who later became King George IV. Nicknamed the "Prince of Pleasure", he built the Royal Pavilion and his licentious behaviour established Brighton as a spa town with a naughty undercurrent. "One supposes he was chasing some actresses at the time," muses Julien Boast, the current chief executive of the theatre, who jokingly calls himself "Chief Referee".
For the first half-century of its life the TRB suffered mixed fortunes; there were financial clouds constantly on the horizon and no manager lasted longer than 18 months. Enter Henry Nye Chart, the manager and owner from 1854 to 1876, who changed its course. Although an actor, his energies were better placed offstage. He purchased the TRB for £7,500 and expanded it after his marriage to Ellen Elizabeth Rollason, an actress. A forerunner of the great actor-managers of the late 19th century, he transformed the theatre into a respected local institution.
At the time the theatrical profession was considered to be disreputable - the colonnade outside the theatre was frequented by prostitutes and a local gin palace lurked nearby - but Nye Chart was unusually principled. He formed a highly successful resident repertory company, presenting a mixture of plays featuring London stars.
When he died, his widow created a theatre of national importance. Ellen introduced romantic comedies and social dramas with great actors, including Henry Irving and Lily Langtry. She was soon offering highly successful "flying matinees", where an entire company would come down from London by train, perform at 2pm and return to London for the 8pm evening performance. Inspired by the productions at Drury Lane, she also introduced Christmas pantomimes, which were highly profitable. For her time, it was extraordinary that she was such an independent and successful woman. "She made her shareholders money so they let her get on with it," says Boast.
Ellen was not only a hit with the moneymen. Every year she would invite all the inmates and staff of the Brighton Workhouse (over 1,000 people) to a free performance of the pantomime. It was this unusual kindness that made her enormously popular. "She was a very special woman," smiles Boast. "She did social inclusion before anyone else had even thought about it. This is what the Arts Council is advocating nowadays, but it was happening here 150 years ago."
When Ellen died in 1891, her funeral was huge. "Brighton went to her graveside and gave her almost a state funeral," says Boast. She left a £40,000 profit for the theatre and put Brighton on the map, now renowned for hosting the highest quality touring companies and actors. "But for all this, not a lot was really known about her," he adds. "Her ghost appears outside the staircase of the Royal Circle, where there's a beautiful terracotta bust of her." The bust will feature in the exhibition (see p50), but Boast admits he hasn't seen her spectre. "I'm usually too distracted. But I talk to her bust all the time about programming and other issues. The staff think I'm bonkers!"
The theatre survived the two World Wars, becoming a who's who of theatreland. In the 1930s, Noel Coward's Design for Living played, featuring Diana Wynyard, Rex Harrison and Anton Walbrook. During World War II, Margot Fonteyn performed with the Vic-Wells Ballet. Glyndebourne Opera's first touring production also came here. After the war, Peter Ustinov starred in Bergman's Frenzy and Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie premiered. And 1949 was an especially outstanding year, with The Lady's not for Burning with John Gielgud and Claire Bloom and the original production of TS Eliot's The Cocktail Party, with Alec Guinness and Robert Flemyng. The early 1950s saw Shakespeare seasons with a star-studded Old Vic Company. The Millionairess was presented with Katharine Hepburn and Robert Helpmann; and Dirk Bogarde and Isobel Jeans appeared in The Vortex. The golden couple of the British stage and screen, Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier, appeared in Terence Rattigan's The Sleeping Prince.
With so many luminaries appearing, the bizarre was sometimes just a whim away. When Marlene Dietrich trod the boards, she took one look at the spotlessly clean dressing room prepared for her and shocked the stage manager by asking for rubber gloves so that she could personally scrub it again. She clearly suffered from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Across the road, the traditional fish restaurant English's - which has seen an ocean of stars, directors and producers pass through its doors, from Charlie Chaplin to Ewan McGregor - would send over fresh lobster and champagne on a silver platter.
This year will create even more memories. There is a celebrity-studded fundraising dinner and auction in August, then, when the so-called "cultural quarter" - centred on Theatre Royal Brighton, The Royal Pavilion, Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, Dome Arts Complex and the Jubilee Library - is completed, the theatre will become even more of a focal point.
The future of the theatre is looking dynamic and secure now that it is owned by the Ambassador Theatre Group who, while catering for the theatre's loyal audiences, are also pitching to a younger clientele. Having always survived solely on box office receipts, those actors who stood in a large fishing village 200 years ago would be amazed at the spectacle that has played out ever since.
Theatre Royal, New Road, Brighton BN1 1SD +44 (0)870 060 6650; www.theambassadors.com/theatreroyal