May Theatre of the Month > Theatre Royal Margate

May Theatre of the Month Theatre Royal Margate
Theatre Royal Margate, Britain’s second oldest theatre, celebrates 230 years. Read on for the venue's history.

During the reign of King George III, lived Francis Cobb, an influential Margate businessman, landlord of the 'Fountain Inn', Kings Street, Margate, and head of Cobbs Brewery.

Situated at the rear of the Fountain Inn was a stable that was being used as a theatre. This Cobb rented to a retired Sea Captain called Charles Mate, who already had control of a theatre in Dover. The cost of rent was £20 per year.

Charles Mate decided to invest £200 and opened a new theatre on this site. Meanytime, Sarah Baker, a woman of theatrical background, who was in fact England's first woman theatre manager, brought her Company to Dover and in 1785 approached Mr. Cobb and sought of him permission to open a theatre in Margate.

Cobb refused her request. Undeterred, Sarah, intent on having a theatre in Margate, had a wooden theatre erected in just over a month. Her summer season opened in July, the same month that Charles Mate opened his. After three months, a disgruntled Mate found the competition too strong, lost interest and money in his theatrical venture in Margate.

Townsfolk, influence by Cobb, sent a petition with 900 signatures to parliament, requesting a Royal Charter. The 'Margate Playhouse Bill' was introduced and the Royal Charter awarded. The licensee had the power to prevent rival Companies from invading Margate.

The licensee would be permitted to give dramatic performances there from 1st May to October 31st every year and permitted the sale of alcoholic drinks 24 hours daily. The permit remained valid for one hundred and twenty-five years! Good news indeed for Cobbs Brewery.

Charles Mate decided that he wanted to try again in Margate, so he formed a partnership with Mr. Thomas Robson, a singer from Covent Gardens, London. Charles Mate’s former Margate theatre was re-opened and renamed the 'Theatre Royal'. Both these men had ambitious plans to succeed in Margate and towards the end of 1786, their co-owned 'Theatre Royal' was closed and preparations were made for the building of a new theatre.

The new site was on the east side of Hawley Square (now known as Addington Street). The land belonged to an estate and was purchased for the princely sum of £80. The cost of the theatre was approximately £4000. The 'flies' above the stage were built from ship timbers. Whether or not they are from Charles Mate's ship is not known.

The first stone was set down on the 21st September 1786 and the following inscription was on it, "This is the first stone of the Theatre Royal laid in due form and attended by the brethren of Thanet Lodge, by the proprietors, Thomas Robson and Chas. Mate, on the 21st of September, 1786, on the reign of Geo.III"

On June 27th 1787, amid much ceremony, the Theatre Royal was opened. The first performances were "She Stoops to Conquer" and "All the Worlds a Stage" in which Charles Mate played the part of 'Diggory' - a character who paradoxically fancied himself as an actor!

As for Mrs. Baker, her theatre building was carefully taken apart, transported by sea to Faversham, re-built and became part of the Canterbury Circuit.

It was radically altered in 1874 by Jethro T. Robinson (father-in-law of Frank Matcham, the famous and prolific theatre architect), who along with his two protégés are responsible for building more than 200 theatres before 1915,

Initially, it was built to vie as a facility for the entertainment of the upper classes along with the Assembly Rooms, Cecil Square (1770s), and the Circulating Library, Hawley Square (1786), both now sadly demolished.

The 1874 conversion marks the transition of the theatre from a Georgian boxed Playhouse into a Victorian Theatre. The stage was shortened and a second floor ‘gallery’ level added to the expanded auditorium.

The theatre was the site of the first drama school in the country. This School of Acting, opened by Sarah Thorne in 1885, and attended by a young Edward Gordon Craig. Craig himself went on to become the undisputed father of modern theatre design and was arguably the most important theatre practitioner to come out of Britain since Shakespeare.

From the outset, Margate Theatre Royal was used as a live theatre until 1963 with a period for chapel use during the1840s, and cinema between the wars.

In 1988, it returned to live theatre following essential works for licensing but operated only falteringly until closure again in 1991.

From 1992 to 1994 it had occasional use only, and from 1995 operated on a theatre club basis. In 1998, it reopened licensed for limited capacity public performances.

The Theatre Royal Margate shares much with the contemporary Alexandra Theatre, Camden (1872), albeit a scaled down version, employing identical decorative detailing from the proscenium arch to the balcony fronts and ceiling.

The theatre is therefore of major significance, both historically, and architecturally and is well supported by its local community.

In 2007, the building was bought by Thanet District Council and leased back to Margate Theatre Royal Trust on a peppercorn rent.

Essential improvements to the fabric of the building were carried out and core funding agreed by Thanet District Council and Kent County Council.

The theatre developed rapidly from a struggling seaside venue to an energetic arts organisation presenting high-quality professional work, offering a new community, youth and education programme delivered to over 20,000 people each year.

In 2009, The Arts Council England awarded the theatre a major grant over two years for a new project – Made in Margate - to allow the theatre to develop the capacity to target specific audiences, create an artistic springboard for South East theatre companies, develop a cohesive, high-quality programme of performance and participation, and take an important role in the cultural regeneration of East Kent.

In 2012, the Trust ran into financial difficulties and it was Thanet Leisureforce (now YOUR Leisure Kent Ltd), which runs Margate Winter Gardens, that Thanet Council contracted to manage the theatre.

Check out what's on at the Theatre Royal Margate - www.theatreroyalmargate.com