‘Gobsmackingly gorgeous’ theatre restored

Exuberance, drama and lots of lustrous gold leaf – the style of Frank Matcham, Britain’s most prolific theatre architect who died in 1920 – has been recreated for modern audiences in a meticulous restoration of the Theatre Royal in Newcastle.

“Gobsmackingly gorgeous” is the verdict of Philip Bernays, chief executive of the Grade One listed building, which reopens on September 12.

In the late Victorian and Edwardian era, when theatre in Britain was a huge commercial success, Matcham brought panache, technical ingenuity and speed to his work.

Between 1873 and 1913, he was the architect of the building or rebuilding of about 160 theatres. They include the London Coliseum, the London Palladium and a number of other surviving theatres. He remodelled Newcastle’s Theatre Royal in 1901 after fire destroyed the interior (dating from 1837) in 1899.

Today, Britain’s theatres face tough economic challenges, including shrinking public finance. But Newcastle’s Theatre Royal, run by an independent charitable trust, has funded the restoration largely by means of a private funding stream – its own audience.

Via a £1.75 levy on every ticket sold since 2008, the audience has contributed £3.9m towards the £4.9m restoration. The rest has come from private and trust donations, plus £300,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund and £250,000 towards essential structural work from Newcastle city council, the theatre’s owner.

The benefits of the restoration for the audience are not only aesthetic – lovely though the painted cherubs and ornate wallpaper are. From a practical point of view, specially commissioned seats have transformed comfort and sight lines for audiences who had been making do with old cinema rows.

David Wilmore, a historic theatre consultant and Matcham expert who guided the restoration, said: “We’ve gone back to Matcham’s original levels and brought in the seats at the right height to use his sight lines.”

The 1,240-seat Theatre Royal has, like many historic buildings, undergone successive “upgradings”. Mr Wilmore was determined this restoration would be precise.

He hunted down Matcham’s original electrical wiring drawings at the Institute of Electrical Engineers in London and digitally enhanced old glass plate negatives of the 1901 interior – traced to English Heritage archives in Swindon – to reveal previously unnoticed painted cherubs.

“It was one of those eureka moments,” said Mr Wilmore, whose preoccupation with authenticity extends even to curtain tassels. “It’s obsessional, I’m afraid.”

Some companies that supplied Matcham’s 1901 Newcastle project still exist and were commissioned again, including Yorkshire-based Firth Carpets and Craven Dunnill, a ceramic tile company from Shropshire.

Finishing touches included 37,000 pieces of gold leaf, weighing 851 grams, sourced last October but worth about £37,829 now.

Mr Wilmore was adamant that the restoration must not resort to cheaper gold paint. “Gold leaf never oxides – it doesn’t go dull,” he said. “Cut back on the gold leaf at your peril.”

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