Theatre Royal

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The name has been used to refer to theatre venues, and has also been used as the name of a play

Theatre Royal (venue)

A very popular name for theatre venues in the British Empire, also in various cities in South Africa, especially during the 19th century. The name formerly referred to patent theatres, which had a Royal Patent, without which performances of serious drama would be illegal.

Theatres Royal, Cape Town

Theatre Royal, Harrington Street

A brick building, built by Mr. Glynn to order of Sefton Parry. It opened on 9 August 1860. From 1861 till 1863 Parry and his first professional company, the Alfred Dramatic Club, utilized its stage. Parry returned to London (1863) and the theatre was closed down for a while.

In 1865 the theatre was revamped when hired by H.J. le Roy (he had made it a condition of him hiring). The contractor for the project was a Mr Baskett, with Tuppen and Stonestreet as architects. Decorator was the set designer R.S. Cooper.

The theatre was also briefly referred to as the Cape Town Theatre (circa 1861), possibly also known as the Harrington Street Theatre at a later period. The building burnt down in January of 1868.

Theatre Royal, Burg Street

Occasionally also referred to as the Burg Street Theatre, this was a new theatre built in 1875 by the Cape Town Institute and Club on the site of their original club building and was designed by the architect Freeman in 1873 - though taking two years to complete. Intially simply known as the "New Theatre" in Burg Street, and leased by Signor Augusto Cagli in October 1875 for his Cagli Italian Opera Company. In 1876 Captain Disney Roebuck took over the lease and moved in, naming it the Theatre Royal. It opened on 6 May 1876 with The Octoroon.

In 1882 the theatre was leased by Mabel Hayes and her company, and in July, shortly after she had left for Port Elizabeth, the building burnt down. It was quickly rebuilt and leased by Henry Harper for 1884, opening on 18 July with Faces in the Fire (Bayard & Laurencin/Buckingham) and The Two Gregories (Sewrin/Dibdin), followed by a very active season.

In 1885 the theatre passed into the management of H.C. Sidney and H.J. Fiedler, after Disney Roebuck's untimely demise in March,

From May 1886 onwards the theatre was leased by Benjamin Wheeler and the Wheeler Comedy Company.

Theatre Royal, Port Elizabeth

Initially referred to simply as the New Theatre, the Theatre Royal was a new theatrical venue that opened in Whites Road, Port Elizabeth on June 2, 1862, built and operated by the Port Elizabeth Dramatic Company. It was later also referred to as the The Barn, the Barn Theatre or The Old Barn.

Jill Fletcher (1994, pp ) rather confusingly states that the funds to construct the venue she refers to the White's Road Theatre had been founded by some members of a re-constituted "Dramatic Club" which had reappeared in 1862. However according to Margaret Harradine (1995) this is erroneous and the reference is actually to a venue called the New Theatre, situated in Whites Road (and also known as the Theatre Royal or The Barn, Barn Theatre or The Old Barn), and in fact constructed by the Port Elizabeth Dramatic Company, not the "Dramatic Club".

The New Theatre or Theatre Royal, was constructed and opened by the Port Elizabeth Dramatic Company in 1862, initially under lease to Sefton Parry.

The venue was described by the Eastern Province Herald as “a very pretty temple dedicated to the drama. . . . wonders have been done in a very short space of time. The interior is lofty, cool and commodious – the decorations tastety, (sic) simple and effective.” Richard Cooper was the scene painter. “The stage is the largest of any yet built in South Africa, and the audience portion of the building, perhaps, as comfortable as could be wished.” The newspaper was very kind regarding the seating, for patrons were well advised to bring their own cushions and the theatre became known as the Old Barn. “. . . when the hurried nature of the preparations are considered . . . Sefton Parry, will not fail to make improvements as time shall serve.” One of the prime movers to have a theatre built for Port Elizabeth was Henry William Pearson, who later served as Mayor for 16 years.

The Sefton Parry Company leased the theatre for a period of three months and opened the venue with a performance of Grist to the Mill (Planché) on 2 June 1862. A very successful three months run followed at the theatre.

On June 17, 1862, Sefton Parry, the manager of the New Theatre, produced James Sheridan Knowles' “magnificent” five-act play, The Hunchback. Knowles was an Irish actor and dramatist who made his first appearance when he played Hamlet at the Crow Theatre in Dublin. His best-known play was The Hunchback which was staged for the first time at Covent Garden either in 1820 or 1832 (sources vary). Knowles was praised for his role as Master Walter in the production. During his lifetime he wrote 22 plays, five novels or short stories, and three collections of poetry. The production in Port Elizabeth was described as being staged with “Beautiful New Scenery by Mr Cooper” and “Elegant Elizabethan Costumes”. After The Hunchback, Miss Lizzie Powell danced the celebrated Varsovienne, a slow, graceful dance in ¾ time with an accented downbeat in alternate measures. The dance originated circa 1850 in Warsaw, Poland. The name means 'from Warsaw'. The dance was popular in the 19th-century. The unique arm hold – also known as the promenade hold – is used in other dance styles such as the American square dance and some ballroom dances. The dance was followed by the "screaming farce” of A Kiss in the Dark.

From April 20 – 21, 1876, Captain Roebuck's Company presented G R Sims' latest London comedy in three acts, Crutch and Toothpick!

Saturday, April 22, 1876, special performance of Queen’s Evidence by Captain Disney Roebuck for Uitenhage residents. Through the courtesy of the Traffic Manager, the last train returned to Uitenhage at 11.30 pm, allowing them to attend the performance.

April 24 & 25, 1876, the last two presentations of Two Roses.

On April 24 and 25, 1876, Captain Disney Roebuck's Company announced the upcoming production of Jacques Offenbach's three-act comic opera, La Fille Du Tambour Major (The Drum-Major's Daughter), first performed in Paris in 1879. The jingoistic plot is set during the Austrian occupation of Italy after Napoleon invaded Lombardy in 1806. A company of French soldiers, led by Lieutenant Robert, crossed the Alps and invaded a convent but the only occupant is a young girl, Stella, who was in penitence and was believed to be the daughter of the Duke Della Volta. Stella fell in love with Robert, but her father had promised her hand to Bambini, an ineffectual old marquis. However, Robert received the news that Stella was not the daughter of the duke, but of a French drum-major. The production was very successful overseas and ran for 240 performances in its initial form.

On December 13, 1876, Hilda Temple, an internationally acclaimed Shakespearean actress, gave her South African “farewell benefit” performance at the Theatre Royal with extracts from Othello. During the same show, Captain Disney Roebuck continued with his company, the United Service Dramatic Company. Roebuck came to South Africa in 1873 after hearing about Parry's success. He produced two shows in Port Elizabeth, Two Orphans and Under the Gaslight, “with new scenery by Mr W Thorne”. Roebuck joined the British army in 1837 and was promoted to Captain in the 23rd Royal Welsh Fusiliers. Whilst in the army he organised garrison amateur theatricals. Roebuck and his actors were great favourites and were always welcomed by Port Elizabeth audiences.

During 1870 Charles du Val visited Port Elizabeth as well as the Scarelso Opera Company, and the Verdi Opera Company from Italy performed at the Theatre Royal. Soon after their visits, the Amateur Opera Company was formed and over the next few years two popular Gilbert and Sullivan operas, Trial by Jury and The Pirates of Penzance were produced.

In January 1892, the Council sold the Theatre Royal and the proceeds of £3000 went towards the building of the final product: The Opera House.

In his book “Memories,” by the Hon N Cripps, CMG, the author writes “The theatre in PE was not one to be proud of, and one looked down upon its roof when descending White’s Road. It housed at long intervals good touring companies and operatic singers as well as conjurers and other entertainers, and was well patronized by the public.”

Theatre Royal, Durban

A theatre situated at the conrer of West Street and Theatre Lane, it opened November 1882, as a multiple-purpose venue (plays, dances, boxing, etc). Extensively renovated in 1899, seating 1000, for theatrical performances.

Besides local productions, visiting performers and companies included H. B. Irving, Lily Langtry, Marie Tempest, Harry Lauder and Sybil Thorndike. Mark Twain performed his At Home there in 1896.

From 1939 also used as a cinema. In 1953 the building was sold to a furniture business and is currently the site of a set of warehouses.

Theatre Royal, Grahamstown.

Built round about 1848. Apparently situated in Styles’ Hotel, New Street, it had a proscenium designed by Frederick Timpson l'Ons, a well known local artist. Used by the Graham's Town Theatrical Amateur Company as a base between 1848-1850. l'Ons also designed and painted scenery for the company's productions in this and other venues.

Theatre Royal, Johannesburg

Theatre Royal: Theatre in early Johannesburg, housed in a portable corrugated iron hall and used for vaudeville and similar entertainments. In 1888** Luscombe Searelle took his wood-and-iron theatre with his Opera Company to Johannesburg, travelling from Durban on wagons. The theatre was set up on the corner of Commissioner and Eloff streets. It opened with Maritana (Fletcher, 1994: 116) and closed in ****. In 1889 the Lessee and Manager was A Bonamici.


In December 1889, D'Arc's marionettes troupe and fantoches, Francaises, performed at the Theatre Royal. "D'Arc's original illustration of the well-known song, To Be There" was sung "by six new artists - (a) powerful addition to D'Arc's gigantic troupe".

December 3, 1899: D'Arc presented The Marvellous Fantocinni, The Court Minstrels was staged with songs and topical jokes.

December 3, 1899: D'Arc presented Blue Beard, "the most luxurious of all pantomimes, staged equally in scenery, dresses and appointment to the best Drury Lane productions."

December 3, 1899: D'Arc presented The Harlequinade, was staged "with new incidents, the beautiful transformation scene, with limelight effects."

Wednesday, December 4, 1899: D'Arc presented An "illuminated day performance" was held.

Thursday, December 5, 1899: D'Arc presented a "debut of the adaptation from Charles Dickens's celebrated novel, Bleak House or Poor Joe.

Friday, December 6, 1899: D'Arc presented the "Third Fashionable Box Night . . . dedicated to the elite of Johannesburg".

Theatre Royal, Kimberley

The Buildings

There were three Theatre Royal buildings used by the same company in Kimberley.

The first one, a corrugated-iron building, opened on the 23th September, 1871, in Dutoitspan Road. A replica of a theatre was built as part of the Kimberley Mine Museum next to the Big Hole in 197*?.

The second building, also in Dutoitspan Road (now written as Du Toitspan Road), opened on the 13th March, 1875. This theatre was described by Charles Du Val in his book, With a Show Through Southern Africa which was published in 1882. (He does not give a date for when he visited Kimberley but he does mention Odds and Ends which we know he took on tour between 1880-1882 during his visit to South Africa.)

He left us with a lovely description of the theatre in Kimberly and the patrons, who were mostly fortune-seeking miners:

“The Theatre Royal, where I gave 20 performances, is nothing more than a long hall, composed chiefly of galvanised iron.

“It’s roof being entirely of this material, when the summer rain descends the piece ends an unintermitting and relentless patter prevails, and vain is the attempt of singer or speaker to make the voice heard over the obnoxious din produced.

“Had old Demosthenes being exhumed by some enterprising digger in his search for gems, he could have improved on that experiment which classic historians tell us was his wont, of addressing the roaring waters of the ocean, in an endeavour to make himself understood above its murmurs, as he would those of a multitude of people; the roof of Kimberley theatre, in a semi-tropical rain shower, would have made the old man offer a stout reward for the loan of a speaking trumpet.

“Apropos of the theatre, the class of audience to be met with in 'the Fields' are, as a rule, marvels of deportment; noise and rowdyism are conspicuous by their absence when the material offered for their amusement are of a kind they appreciate.

“Most of the present residents of 'the Fields' are people of European cities, or who have travelled and seen the current amusements of the day; and I was a listener at a high-class concert performed chiefly by amateurs of Kimberley, that not only gratified but astonished me.

“I had scarcely hoped to find such an exhibition of cultivated taste so far away, and in what I had been led to believe was a mining-camp.”

On November 12, 1877, a rollerskating rink was opened (as part of the complex?).

In 1883 electric lights were installed in the theatre.

In 1887 the iron structure was demolished and the third Theatre Royal re-opened in a beautiful brick building in Beaconsfield (which was then a separate town, adjacent to Kimberley) on June 25, 1887. It was a beautiful concrete and brick structure situated in Dutoitspan Village and was designed by the architect Robert Scott Day, the architectural plans being dated 1887.

The theatre closed on 28th December, 1888 and was converted into a hotel. It was destroyed in 1930 when a huge fire swept through the town.

Contribution to South African Theatre


Die Kulturele Lewe van Diamantdelwers te Kimberley vanaf 1870 to 1890 by Helena Maria Scheffler. Dissertation/Thesis for the University of Pretoria.

With a Show Through Southern Africa by Charles Du Val Published 1882.

Theatre Royal, Pietermaritzburg

A revamped version of the old Bijou Theatre, initially called the New Bijou Theatre, it opened on 11 August 1877. **** Mark Twain performed his At Home there in 1896.***

Theatre Royal (play)

A play in three acts by American novelist and playwright Edna Ferber (1887-1968) and playwright and director George S. Kaufman (1889-1961).

The original text

Opened 23rd October 1934, at Lyric Theatre, London. The cast included Laurence Olivier, George Chamberlain, Mona Harrison, Marie Tempest. Directed by Sir Nöel Coward, stage manager Herbert Chown.

Published by Samuel French, 1929.

Translations and adaptations

Performance history in South Africa

1941: Produced for Combined Dramatic Societies of Cape Town by Mary Holder at the Little Theatre, Cape Town.


With a Show Through Southern Africa and Personal Reminiscences of the Transvaal War (Volume 1 & 2) by Charles du Val: 1882. Tinsley Brothers, 8 Catherine Street, Strand.

Margaret Harradine. 1995. Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the End of 1945. Port Elizabeth: E.H. Walton Packaging (Pty) Ltd.

Laidler, 1926

Special undated 1989 commemorative newspaper which consisted of various articles originally printed by The Star in the course of 1889. These particular articles about the fire were not dated but were probably printed on September 8, as it was the day after the fire.

Trek 2 January 1942 p 20

Jill Fletcher, 1994.

Percy Tucker, 1997

Dennis Schauffer, 197*

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