Ken Dodd used to say that you could immediately tell a Frank Matcham theatre simply by walking on to the stage and speaking quietly. You’d be audible at the back of the gallery without difficulty.
Frank Matcham’s smallest surviving theatre is the Wakefield Theatre Royal & Opera House, for many years known as the Opera House and now as the Theatre Royal.
It stands on the site of an earlier Theatre Royal, which had been built in 1776 for the actor-manager Tate Wilkinson (1739-1803).
Under his management John Kemble performed in Wakefield in 1778 and 1788 and Sarah Siddons in 1786; in the following generation Charles Kemble acted at the Theatre Royal in 1807 and Edmund Kean in 1819.
The old theatre went into gradual decline through the middle of the nineteenth century, and in 1871 became a beer house and music hall, licensed by John Brooke, the landlord of the Black Horse pub.
In 1883 it was revived as the Royal Opera House by Benjamin Sherwood, but was denied a licence nine years later because of the condition of the building.
The replacement theatre was built in 1894 in nine months flat at a cost of £13,000 to Matcham’s designs and opened on October 15th that year.
After the failure of Benjamin Sherwood’s marriage in 1900 his wife Fanny and their children took over the theatre as Sherwood & Co.
In the early 1950s their family sold it for £20,000 to Solomon Sheckman, owner of the Essoldo chain of cinemas. He installed a wide screen for Cinemascope in 1954 and operated it solely as a cinema until he leased it as a bingo hall in 1966.
It passed to Ladbrokes and was listed Grade II in 1979.
When Ladbrokes announced its closure in 1980 the Wakefield Theatre Trust, led by Rodney (latterly Sir Rodney) Walker, began a campaign to bring live theatre back to the town.
The restoration involved –
- renewing the stage house
- strengthening the grid and installing a new counterweight system for flying
- re-raking the stalls and lower circle floors
- reinstating the front-of-house canopy
- removing the projection box
The building is Grade II* listed, largely on the strength of the quality of the auditorium decoration by De Jong of London – bombé balcony fronts, foliage, fruit and flowers on the lower balcony and paired dolphins in waves on the upper circle. The original colour-scheme was gold and blue. The proscenium is intact, and the ceiling has eight decorative medallions of the Muses, reinstated by Kate Lyons, who placed the ninth muse in the central panel of the dress circle front.
It reopened with a gala show on March 16th 1986. Arthur Starkie, who co-ordinated the theatre’s centenary celebrations, founded the Frank Matcham Society at the Theatre Royal in 1994.
The Trust acquired the adjacent street-corner site to create a new entrance and bar. Further grants in 1995, 2002 and 2012 enabled improvements to the auditorium.
The theatre has gained prestige from the appointment as creative director of the playwright John Godber in 2011. He was born locally, at Upton, and taught drama at the nearby Bretton Hall College. His breakthrough play, Bouncers (1977) has become a perennial favourite, and his John Godber Company is resident at the Theatre Royal.
I first saw Bouncers at the Wakefield Theatre Royal. The play is performed by four male actors in black tie, who play the bouncers, the stroppy youths who have to be chucked out and the girls dancing round their handbags. John Godber portrays the bitter-sweet lives of the men who spend their Saturday nights dealing with the clients who create so much noise, aggression and vomit.
At the end of the night, walking out of the theatre on to Westgate was like stepping into the play.