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History of the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds

Exterior of Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk
Exterior of Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds | © National Trust Images/Dennis Gilbert

Discover the history of the Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds, Britain's only surviving Regency playhouse. Built by a leading neo-classical architect in 1819, the theatre has a rich heritage and continues to provide many with a unique cultural experience.

Britain's only surviving Regency playhouse

This delightfully intimate theatre, with seating for just 350 people, is the only surviving Regency playhouse in Great Britain that is still used for performances.

Built in 1819, it dates from an era when Bury St Edmunds was a provincial capital, and farmers and gentry from miles around crowded into the town for the short autumn season. Comfortable plush seats have replaced the benches in the pit, but original boxes still fill the dress circle and the stalls are steeply raked towards the stage.

Neo-classical design

The theatre was designed by William Wilkins the Younger, one of the leading neo-classical architects of his day, who was later responsible for the National Gallery in London and Downing College, Cambridge. Wilkins was inspired by the ancient Greek amphitheatre at Taormina in Sicily and this is reflected in the shape of the auditorium, the use of classical motifs, such as the winged sphinxes and griffins decorating the dress circle, and the painted ceiling, which represents the open sky.

The theatre’s decline

Although the theatre continued to put on plays over the next hundred years, including the world premiere of Brandon Thomas’s Charley’s Aunt in 1892, attendances gradually declined. In 1920 it was bought by the Greene King brewery, whose huge buildings adjoin the theatre’s arcaded façade on Westgate Street. Greene King closed the theatre five years later and turned it into a barrel store.

The theatre restored

It was largely forgotten until the 1960s, when a group of residents spearheaded a movement to restore it. The theatre was officially reopened in 1965 and ten years later Greene King leased it to the National Trust.

All kinds of performances have been held here since, and in 2005 a further restoration project reinstated Regency features which had been lost. In particular, the forestage that projected into the auditorium with boxes either side was reintroduced, so plays of the period can once again be staged as was intended, with the actors interacting closely with the audience. The original decorative scheme was also re-created, and the theatre is thriving once again.

The auditorium, seen from the stage, at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

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