The Old Vic is nearly 200 years old: it opened in 1818 under the name The Royal Coburg and in 1831 Edmund Kean performed some of his most famous Shakespearean roles. The theatre closed for refurbishment and reopened in 1833 under the name The Royal Victoria, in honour of the then Princess Victoria.
In 1858, 16 people died after a false alarm of fire caused a stampede in the Upper Gallery. This fourth level was removed in 1871 during reconstruction of the interior of the theatre. The social reformer Emma Cons acquired the theatre and her niece Lilian Baylis was appointed Acting Manager in 1898.
During the 20th century, the theatre went from strength to strength, with the Old Vic Shakespeare Company mounting the complete First Folio early in the century, and John Gielgud joining later as an actor and later leader of the Company. In the Thirties, Lilian Baylis opened Sadler’s Wells and the theatres alternated drama, opera and ballet, until 1934 when opera and ballet moved to Sadler’s Wells, with the Old Vic – the nickname was now the theatre’s official title – focusing on drama.
Despite bomb damage during World War II, the theatre continued to attract big names including Richard Burton and Judi Dench. The theatre also became the first, temporary home of the National Theatre, with Laurence Olivier as Artistic Director, before the purpose-built home on the South Bank was ready.
In 2003, Kevin Spacey was confirmed as the first Artistic Director of the Old Vic Theatre Company, and since then the theatre has put on some great productions.
Tours are led by Stage Door Manager Ned Seago, who has worked at the Old Vic for years, is extremely knowledgeable about the theatre, and very entertaining to boot. We were taken outside to see the foundation stone, in through the stage door, onto the stage to look out into the auditorium, and all around the public and some more hidden areas of the theatre. We also learned about some spooky ghost sightings!
I’ve done a few theatre tours, but the Old Vic’s remains my favourite – definitely one to go on.