beer goggles

The most perfect theatre: the reawakening of William Wilkins’ Regency playhouse in rural England.

The Greenes and the Kings were Suffolk brewers in the early 19th century. Greene King is a big real-ale brand in England today. However, before the two rival families joined forces, Benjamin Greene met someone else: William Wilkins, theatrical impresario and architect. Later, Wilkins was to build the National Gallery in London, and he was already busy on Downing College Cambridge – but right then he wanted backing for a new regional theatre in Bury St. Edmunds. The affluent brewer loaned him the £5,000 he needed. It was 1819. The little theatre, a near-perfect example of its ultra-rare Regency breed – it’s the only one of the period still in use – has now been painstakingly restored. The money’s over £5m these days. It reopens in early September. It is a revelation.

The symbiotic relationship between beer and theatre has continued right up to the present day. When the theatre ran out of money, Greene obligingly took it over. When it finally closed in the 1920s, it was still right next to the brewery, so they used it, somewhat prosaically, as a barrel store. That’s the way it stayed until it was rediscovered and reopened in the mid 1960s. In 1974, the brewers gifted it to the National Trust on a very long lease. But they’re still involved, in a hands-off kind of way. In a knowing theatrical pun, “The Greene Room” is the name of the new bar and restaurant extension alongside, a low-key addition that has allowed the character of the old building to be unlocked.

Not that you need to see the name to guess the connection. The theatre sits up at one end of this historic market town with its Norman ruins and its unexpected, newly-completed gothic cathedral. The playhouse is surrounded by brewery buildings of all ages. Right opposite is the palatial main brewing hall of 1938, reeking of hops, steaming like the Art Deco power station it resembles. In this brash company, the Wilkins theatre is understated almost to a fault. Broadway it isn’t, West End it’s not either. Just a modest entrance portico – classically chaste, with no grandiose columns or pediment, sunk slightly below today’s street level. You don’t so much arrive as slink in. But then, as artistic director Colin Blumenau points out, in those days theatres were known haunts of prostitutes. The squirearchy would rock up looking for entertainment, and they didn’t much care what kind.

Assuming they got past the services on offer in the foyer, Regency theatre-goers were in for a treat. Although this looks like a miniature theatre to us – just 350 seats today – for a country town it was more than enough, and they squeezed more than twice as many people in anyway, packed on benches. It is, quite simply, beautiful. And I don’t mean the decoration, though that has been done with a touch of Regency swagger and mischievous trompe l’oeil by theatrical scene-painters. No, it’s the proportions and the intimacy of the place. It is extraordinarily good, whether you’re in the auditorium looking at the surprisingly large stage, or on the stage holding the audience. Key to it all is the fact that the high stage projects a little way forward of the proscenium arch. There’s a memory of earlier theatres here, of loudly whispered asides and bolshie, involved punters. When you stride onto the forestage, you are moving out into the audience. “You almost feel you can touch everyone in the room,” says Blumenau.

Back in 1988, architect and performance-space specialist Axel Burrough from the Levitt Bernstein practice wrote a highly informed essay on the place, titled “Theatre of Proportion”. It had opened in 1819 with a typical double-bill of a comedy followed by a farce,put on by the Norwich Comedians, he wrote. Wilkins and his three sisters had inherited their father’s investments – leaseholds and freeholds – in six existing regional theatres following his death in 1815, and he maintained the theatre businesses throughout his own life (Wilkins Senior had also been an architect). Bury St. Edmunds was one of three theatres that Wilkins Junior built – the others were Yarmouth, Norwich and possibly Cambridge.

Only Bury survives intact. A diarist, Henry Crabb Robinson, who visited in its first week, remarked: “It is a handsome tho’ small house. There is from the upper boxes a cheerful breadth and airiness that is quite exhilarating contrasted with the pent-up chicken coops of most theatrical boxes.” Being on the East Anglian theatrical circuit – much the same system as Shakespeare’s strolling players – meant that the new theatre opened for a season in October only when the big county fair was in town. Otherwise, it was used on special occasions only.

Burrough found that Wilkins, who had “an interest in proportion bordering on obsession”, especially classical proportioning systems derived from Vitruvius, may however have used an equilateral triangulation method familiar to medieval masons and carpenters. Similarities to early Elizabethan theatres such as the Fortune of 1600, precursor to The Globe, are apparent. The acting/scenery zone is the same size as the audience zone, and both overlap exactly and beautifully on the forestage. It’s more complicated than that – precise triangular and quadrangular geometries are involved – but the point is, it works. The horseshoe shape of the auditorium angles everyone towards the same sweet spot. Stand there on the forestage, and you’ve got everyone’s attention without even trying.

Theatre has always been monumentally image conscious, and strict class boundaries were observed. The wealthy and aristocratic, and upper middle classes, marched straight in to their seats in boxes: both levels cost four shillings a seat. Those lower down the pecking order, but still halfway respectable, took their places in the pit – these days the stalls. They paid two shillings and sixpence (half a crown). And a further 120 one-shilling places were reserved – standing and groping room only – for sweaty farm labourers and their molls, in a gallery up in the gods. The entire theatre had just four earth closet toilets for a capacity audience of 780 people.

It has taken a long time for Burrough’s researches to bear fruit, but he stayed with the theatre and the restoration, aided by the Heritage Lottery Fund, is finally complete. Recreating its ambience, he has not tried to impose any democracy on the place beyond giving everyone equal levels of comfort. He has designed his extension in the same proportions as the original building, making it clear that it is of today rather than yesterday. In the old house, he and the historical consultants have re-instated the original two-tier box arrangement, doing away with the central-aisle layout introduced in the 1960s.

Curving walls of doors face you at the back of the boxes. To get into the front of your box, you have to go through one of those doors, swing open a seat back and flip up its seat (furniture designer Luke Hughes devised the system). Latecomers will be very unwelcome here. But once you’re in, the buzz will be amazing. This is theatre as social event. Town society getting together to chat and bitch.

But as artistic director, Blumenau’s task is to do more than oversee a building restoration. It is received wisdom that British theatre entered a kind of melodramatic dark age roughly between Sheridan and Wilde. Did that century between the 1790s and the 1890s really produce so little of lasting merit? When Wilkins built his masterly theatre, was the stuff it showed rubbish? Blumenau says it was a different kind of theatre, wedded to high artifice and spectacle. “Crowd-pleasers – the television of its day,” as he puts it. Well, he reckons he’s winkled out some playwrights who deserve to be revived, and the first of these kicks off the re-opened theatre on Sept 11: “Black Eyed Susan” by Douglas Jerrold, first performed in 1829. A melodrama, sure, but a satirical one: what’s a girl to do when her sailor-husband is away fighting Napoleon? The Georgian actress/playwright Elizabeth Inchbald, a native of Bury St. Edmunds, will also be dusted down. But such revivals will take their place alongside new writing, stand-up, music, even ballet – that surprisingly big stage allows it.

Whatever is staged here will have an unusual immediacy, thanks to the wonderful building that the Regency architect and brewer cooked up between them. “Although it has pretensions,” muses Blumenau, “When all’s said and done it’s very simple, very beautiful, very classic.” He’s not wrong. If theatres were stringed instruments, this one would be a Strad.

Text © Hugh Pearman. Photographs by Dennis Gilbert and Martin Rushworth. Axonometric drawing by Richard Leacroft. A fuller version of the article first published in The Sunday Times, August 26 2007, as: “Suffolk Revelation”.

Theatre Royal, Bury St.Edmunds:
Levitt Bernstein, architects: