Every September since I moved to London, Open House London has taken place, but this is the first year that I’ve actually visited any of the buildings. In fairness, last year I took part in Maggie’s Culture Crawl and was far too tired to go traipsing around London after being up all night. This year, I decided to go for a “theatre” theme, booking myself onto a tour of Richmond Theatre on Saturday morning.
Richmond Theatre is one of my favourite theatres, and as it’s reasonably close to where I live I go there quite a lot. I was eager to hear more about its history. There has been a theatre in Richmond since Elizabethan times, but this particular building, designed by Frank Matcham, recently celebrated its 115th birthday. The building is beautiful in my opinion, but it bears many of the hallmarks of a traditional Victorian theatre, including the different entrances designed to facilitate social segregation.
Our guide began the tour in the simple and elegant foyer, which was refurbished within the last few years by none other than Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen. We explored the stalls bar, which has a series of boards on the walls concerning the history of the theatre, and which also contains the only remaining mahogany corner unit from before the refurbishment. We then entered the auditorium via the backstage route, coming out onto the stage in the middle of the Hay Fever set.
The auditorium is small and beautiful, with a slight rake in the stalls and on the stage too, ensuring that everyone is able to see the actors. Matcham pioneered a cantilever system which meant that no supporting pillars were needed in the auditorium – enabling clear sightlines for everyone. Apparently, the engraving on the balconies and the walls helps to ensure that sound travels well around the theatre – something I had not thought of before. The design at the top of the stage is Elizabethan, reflecting the long theatrical heritage of Richmond, while the text above the proscenium arch is by Alexander Pope. I was interested to learn about the rules for safety curtains – apparently these rules are different for every London borough. In Richmond, the safety curtain must be seen at least once by the audience; in Camden it must be seen twice, while in other boroughs a certain number of people must see it before it is whisked away into the gods.
We made our own way upstairs, going into the boxes, where our guide pointed out that several movies, including the recent Muppets movie and Finding Neverland, have been filmed in Richmond Theatre. On stage, actors such as Alec Guinness have made their stage debuts here. Just outside the auditorium, we were shown the opening to the old staircase leading to the Upper Circle, which is now a slightly less glamorous cleaning cupboard, and had a look around the upstairs bar. We ended our tour by going down the “plebian” staircase to the side of the theatre, coming out at the gallery entrance. A thoroughly enjoyable and highly informative tour.