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Theatre Royal Winchester – a brief history

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Did you know that Theatre Royal Winchester on Jewry Street began life as a hotel? Or that it was almost demolished in the 1970s?

Now a beloved cultural hub in the city, the theatre attracts thousands of visitors each year with an exciting programme of drama productions, family shows, comedy, dance, music and more, plus, a popular, traditional family pantomime.

But what came first?
The Market Hotel, circa 1850-1912
A convenient stop-over

Originally the Market Hotel, in 1850, farmers visited the building to rest while on their way to sell cattle and buy provisions from the Corn Exchange (The Arc).

New beginnings

Then in 1912 the Simpkin brothers bought the building and converted it, opening it as a cine-variety theatre in 1914, showing a range of variety acts, melodramas, silent movies and Pathé Gazette newsreels.

Theatre (1910s, 20s)In 1922 it was converted again, this time into a permanent cinema. It remained this way for the next 50 years and in 1954 it celebrated being the first city cinema to show CinemaScope films.

Rescue mission

Sadly, in June 1974 the owners closed the cinema and applied for a demolition order. The building was under threat!

Fortunately, Winchester City Council secured a Grade II listing for the building and within two months the Winchester Theatre Fund was formed to ‘restore live theatre in Winchester’ – and with the council’s help, plus trusts and fundraising, it purchased the building in April 1977, restored it, and reopened it in November 1978 as Theatre Royal Winchester.Theatre (70s, 80s, 90s)

Renovations

Between 1979 and 1987, the theatre underwent further building work – 22 and 23 Jewry Street next door were purchased to extend the theatre.

The foyer was also refurbished and a new upstairs Circle bar and Box Office were created. The auditorium seating was redesigned, five new dressing rooms were added, and the stage and fly tower were extended. Projection facilities were installed so the theatre could screen films again.

Panto season

In 1991 Cinderella became the first professional pantomime to be staged at the theatre in 71 years.

Restoration

In January 1996 the theatre closed again, to restore cherished period features in the auditorium, including the proscenium arch over the stage, and install a colourful curved wall at the Circle level entrance to the auditorium – inspired by the west window of Winchester Cathedral.

The work was made possible thanks to the support of national, regional and local public funding, local businesses and private donations.

By 2001 the theatre was open again. Owned by Winchester Arts Trust Ltd. and operated by the charitable trust, Live Theatre Winchester Trust (formed two years earlier).

A time for celebration

In 2014 the theatre turned 100 and four years later, 150 guests celebrated the 40 years since the building was saved from demolition.Play to the Crowd charity rebrand - Adrienne Photography

In 2019 Live Theatre Winchester Trust changed its name to Play to the Crowd – a charity incorporating Theatre Royal Winchester, Hat Fair – Winchester’s long-running festival of Outdoor Arts, founded in 1974, and Playmakers – creative learning and community engagement.

The theatre’s foyer was also refurbished and given a striking new look, with a new bar and environmentally friendly light fittings.

Survival campaign

In March 2020, like many others, the theatre was forced to close due to the pandemic and a survival appeal was launched to ensure that the theatre did not face permanent closure.

Thanks to the local community, a staggering £225,000 was raised and the theatre was able to reopen in December 2020 in time for pantomime – with social distancing measures in place. It was Four Dames in Search of a Panto with a smaller cast, fewer tickets on sale, to allow for space between audience members, and the option to rent a recording to watch at home.

That year the theatre was also awarded a share of money from the government’s Culture Recovery Fund to support it in the months ahead.

Theatre Royal Winchester at night

Theatre Royal Winchester at night pre 2019/theatre refurbishment/charity rebrand

A toast to the future

In 2021 live stream equipment and a cinema screen were installed to enable the theatre to film performances for audiences to watch at home, and screen films and live performances from theatres around the country – meaning it could once again host live performance and films.

In recent years, a grant has enabled the theatre to install an additional accessible toilet in the foyer, plus bi-fold doors to enable more air and light into the building especially in the summer, and new Circle toilet facilities.