Why Bury’s Theatre Royal deserves more recognition as one of Britain’s best

PUBLISHED: 15:20 26 February 2020 | UPDATED: 15:20 26 February 2020

The glorious auditorium

The glorious auditorium


Bury’s Theatre Royal, the only Regency theatre in the UK, is a hidden attraction that deserves to have its name up in lights | Words: Lindsay Want - Photos: Aaron Weight & Theatre Royal

If you're in love with the architecturally awesome, Suffolk sees you spoilt for choice. From Lavenham's half-timbered Corpus Christi Guildhall to redbrick Melford Hall, the National Trust's local portfolio alone provides some pretty impressive visiting.

But there's one place technically in its care which always seems upstaged by the likes of Ickworth House and looked down upon by the millennium tower of St Edmundsbury Cathedral.

The Theatre Royal at Bury St Edmunds keeps a low profile beneath the town-centre buildings of Greene King brewery, and may be nothing much to look at from the outside as you weave your way around the curves of Westgate Street.

But step into the original Georgian foyer. Treat yourself to a ticket for a performance. Above all, book a place on one of its regular guided tours.

Theatre Royal as a barrel storeTheatre Royal as a barrel store

Once you're through the door to the auditorium, this place will blow you away. . . although perhaps not in quite the same way as it would have done, had you found yourself suddenly catapulted back in time to jostle through its doors in the 1820s.

"Take a whiff of these," invites dapper gentleman guide Rory O'Brien, with a certain thespian flourish, offering up an array of coloured- glass potion bottles to members of his unsuspecting audience.

There's an exchange of suspicious glances, as stoppers are gingerly removed. Then a whole cast of grins and grimaces as various distillations of Eau de Regency Theatre release their unexpected aromas up super-sensitive 21st century nostrils.

"Ah, I see you got the manure one," smiles Rory, looking at the lady who has reached for her hankie. One by one, raised hands own up to nasal passage experiences ranging from waft of tallow candle or pipe smoke, to zesty oranges, sooty fires, oil lamps and unclean bodies.

The Theatre Royal exteriorThe Theatre Royal exterior

"Well, soap was taxed, you see, and when the theatre opened in 1819, up to 750 people would attend performances which could be up to five hours long. And there were only three earth closets for the whole building." Clearly some things were less of a priority back then, or the architect at least had his mind on other things.

And that he most certainly did. Not only was William Wilkins a most eminent 19th century architect, he was a man who inherited a passion and innate understanding of theatre.

Today his reputation tends to be bound up with his high profile pieces - London's National Gallery and University College, and Downing College, Cambridge.

But in Suffolk, his lighthouse on the shifting shingle spit of Orford Ness was a true beacon of engineering expertise and his 'New Theatre' in Bury - later known as the Theatre Royal - was clearly his pièce de résistance.

The curtain hides thye forestageThe curtain hides thye forestage

The Wilkins family had owned shares in the Norwich Circuit of seven theatres across East Anglia since 1768. In the early 1800s, when William's father assumed overall control, father and son set about renovating and rebuilding to maximise profits.

With its annual fair, Bury was a thriving market town and this theatre, then at the Market Cross, was the biggest money-spinner of all.

William took it on personally in 1808 and soon saw how its potential was limited by its 350-person audience capacity.

He had been wowed during his Grand Tour by the engineering excellence of the vast, ancient, open-air theatre at Taormina in Sicily.

The skies the limit . . . Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds ceilingThe skies the limit . . . Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds ceiling

He understood how the experience of contemporary theatre worked in the England of his day, as a place to see and be seen, of intimacy, exposure and all sorts of intercourse, where each and every strata of society came together, yet somehow kept its distance.

Above all, though, Mr Wilkins the younger was one savvy businessman. "You'll see, it's a really good rubber-necking theatre," shares Rory, full of thespian presence and promises, as the gathered throng champs at the bit to push through the row of doors from the curvaceous dress circle passage into private stabling in the theatre boxes.

When handles turn and doors at last swing open, you're firmly stopped in your tracks, overcome by a flood of colour from striking burnt reds to sky blues and gold, and a world that rises up to the gods and falls far away, down to the stalls, orchestra pit and ultimately the stage below. It's a whole new dramatic perspective, and a beautifully elegant one.

The 20th and 21st century journey of Bury's Grade I listed Theatre Royal, from struggling Edwardian enterprise, via brewery barrel store, to a working theatre restored to Regency period glory, is a whole story in itself.

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Regardless of whether you visit when it is empty or busting at the balconies, the playhouse building is a worthy spectacle, almost as awesomely engineered for sightlines and acoustics by its exacting architect as Taormina that inspired him.

Tour up to the gallery, originally designed to stand 180 theatre-goers. Explore the two 'circles' or rows of boxes - "only the Toffs had those."

Wander through the under-stage passageway to take a pew in the 'pit' (aka the stalls) where critics and intellectuals hung out to engage in discourse or belligerent banter with the actors, or sidle up to the "Aristos", perched in their stage boxes and practically treading the boards themselves.

Stand in front of the proscenium arch, on the narrow, Georgian 'forestage' to experience just how up close and out there the audience really would have been.

A view from the gods . . .A view from the gods . . .

Wherever you go, the place has a completely different feel to it - and that's before even being introduced to the back(stage) story and shown the scenery ropes or stage corridors, props store, costume cave and green room.

But smooth classical curves, trompe l'oeil friezes and slender cast-iron columns with Arcanthus-leaf capitals aside, perhaps the most delicious discovery about Bury's Theatre Royal is down to Wilkins' playful eye for illusion, perhaps his philanthropic desire to share his passion for drama, and his highly tuned business acumen.

His 'New Theatre' was not to be constructed on the constrained, but central, site of the old one. Instead, with his inspiring Taormina in mind, he purchased an idyllic green-field site where Bury's busy world sloped quietly away towards the River Linnet.

It cost him £200, but the site still required considerable excavation, so he sold some of it at quite a price for Mr Green (sic) to build a house on.

The curvaceous corridorsThe curvaceous corridors

Wilkins' playhouse could pack the people in and provide entertainment on a grand scale. Most importantly though, thanks to the ingenuity of its location and design, it allowed the town's most affluent, polite society theatre-goers to walk straight out of their carriages and into a classically elegant, fire-warmed foyer where rent-paying refreshment providers offered oranges, nuts and oysters.

The theatre experience was seamless and cleverly orchestrated to avoid all effort and inconvenience. Even one of the three earth closets was close by, practically in Mr Green's garden.

Fashionable attire could be paraded around the wide, curved corridors of power, before the wearers took to their primely positioned, yet appropriately private, seats. Go in at street level and come out on top. Very clever. Take a bow, Mr Wilkins.

Packing them in - the Theatre Royal filled to the rafters in 1906Packing them in - the Theatre Royal filled to the rafters in 1906

Theatre Royal then . . . and now

Outreach community and youth projects are an important part of Bury Theatre Royal's role today. Big Skies is a new youth project directed by Marcus Romer.

Facilitated by Theatre Royal's creative learning team it involves participants from County Upper School, Bury St Edmunds, Albany PRU, Bury St Edmunds, The Mix Stowmarket Thrive Programme and the Benjamin Foundation Meet-Up Café, Thetford.

Writers James McDermott and Atiha Sen Gupta are working with Suffolk young people to develop new pieces of work that explore what it is to be a young person living in East Anglia, issues of rural isolation, wellbeing, and mental health, and their 'Big Skies thinking' about their own aspirations for the future.

These new pieces of writing will be used to create a piece of theatre which will then tour back to the young people in their own venues. It will also be showcased at the Beyond Walls Festival at the Theatre Royal in June.

Beyond Walls, a three-year project funded by the Arts Council through the National Lottery, is a platform for communicating important universal stories buried deep in the life of rural Suffolk.

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