A trip to one of the best, most informative theatre websites around will tell you that York Theatre Royal is not only ‘one of the oldest theatres in the UK’ sitting in the very heart of York, but it is ‘the oldest continuously operating theatre company in the English speaking world.’ As a theatre which got its start as a ‘tennis court conversion’ back in 1734 and has expanded and improved in every possible way ever since, this gorgeous theatre, with all its eclectic combined aesthetics thanks to those years of renovation and expansion, is a treat to visit. Here are just five things to love about York Theatre Royal…
1. The team – which will come as a surprise to precisely no one. With Executive Director Tom Bird making bold choices recently, the theatre is certainly looking to a brave, ‘bold and original’ future. And the theatre is proudly propped up on the shoulders of thoroughly lovely ushers and bar/cafe/restaurant staff. The York Theatre Royal folk are some of the smiliest and chattiest you’re likely to meet and the theatre is led by a cracking bunch at every level. Press Officer Steve Pratt deserves a shout-out as he also happens to be the snappiest dresser of anyone in York town – a man as eager to don a cape as he is fancy footwear or hats given the right Press Night theme. I can still picture that ensemble for the opening of The Habit of Art now… And he’s flanked by Box Office folk who tend to find themselves on the stage they spend their days selling tickets for. How great is that?
2. The building. This beautiful theatre is decidedly striking and offers some pretty impressive sights. The various combinations of styles make this a pretty unique set of spaces and that brilliant website I was raving about earlier (no really, you should go and read up on the full fantastic history of the place) tells us exactly why I’m so prone to staring at the various details over an interval ice cream; the building combines architecture ‘from the Medieval, Georgian and Victorian periods, as well as a landmark modernist foyer.’
It’s no wonder then that at times the building feels like a converted church with its alcoves and its stonework. But walk five metres left and it feels like a swanky London new-build with its modern lighting and stairways. Look up at the geometric shape shifting beams and it feels like a hip new art gallery. Head into the main auditorium and you’ll be met by those comforting, embellished Victorian stylistic choices.
Yet even with all of those various styles and eras fighting for attention, there’s a wonderful sense of cohesion and it’s a uniformly lovely building wherever you find yourself. I do marvel at the fact that this theatre feels as historical as York itself while also feeling thoroughly modern thanks to its spacious designs – it’s certainly pretty unique for one space to capture all of those theatre-going sensations. There’s also the decor to consider, which includes displays of costumes from various productions to keep us entertained while we wait for curtain up – costumes not to be confused with the inspired Kids’ Corner, which offers youngsters costumes to try on and have some fun with!
3. The programming. Working across two stages, this theatre offers the best of both worlds when it comes to experimental, small-scale and larger scale mainstream theatre. With York Theatre Royal also being both a receiving and producing theatre, it embraces work from an array of genres and offers audiences great diversity in their programming and casting. It’s great to see the talent pool celebrate local, home-grown performers as well as bringing bigger names to the stage in touring productions. Particular favourites of mine recently have included Hello and Goodbye in the Studio and A View from the Bridge on the main stage – there’s fabulous work to be seen here.
I will also add as a side note that accessibility, seating and pricing are also winners at this theatre. Shows in the Studio are very inexpensive and with the main stage space being relatively small (seating 750) despite its grand designs, pretty much any seat is a great one because it’s not a deep auditorium. With shows operating across that main stage and studio week to week, you can always find seats at great prices.
4. The schemes and outreach. York Theatre Royal offers a variety of access performances including Audio Described and Touch Tours, BSL, Dementia Friendly and Captioned performances along with those all important and increasingly popular Relaxed Performances. The Youth Theatre has over 300 members aged 5-19 and the theatre (rather pioneeringly and nobly) also annually runs the Take Over Festival and Access All Areas which sees young people take over the running of the theatre. Beyond the youth outreach, the theatre also offers the Artist Development Programme IGNITE, The Friends theatre group for adults, Tour and Tea opportunities, Season Ticket schemes, costume hire and various workshops for adults and youngsters.
5. The food. Not only are the cafe staff always lovely and chatty and not only is there always a seat to be found (which can’t be said of everywhere), but the food on offer is top notch to boot. No really, the best scones and the best brownies you could hope for after a long day at work are right here in this theatre. I eat here more regularly than I should probably admit to but hey, the food is good! The menu is quite varied with hot and cold dishes but I’m a particular fan of the paninis because miraculously, the side salads are genuinely tasty and fresh…which can almost never be said of a side salad… I even have to praise the tables, which carry famous quotes from classic shows to keep you entertained over your pre-show nibbles. My point is this: they look after you and your tummy here!
So with all of that and 275 years of theatre history to thrill and delight, it’s no wonder I’m already feeling the drag of not being able to visit one of my favourite theatres at the moment. The recent theatre closures leave York Theatre Royal, like all other theatres, in a precarious position and they are seeking support – you can find out how to do so here. So it’s just left to say that I’ll be back as soon as I can be, and I’ll be stocking up on shows and brownies to make up for this lost time. I’m expecting big things from Steve Pratt’s wardrobe too – that re-opening get up had better feature all kinds of capes and sparkles!
Images credit: De Matos Ryan
Hungry for more theatre appreciation? Take a look at some of these other love letters to cracking theatres: Leeds Playhouse, Leeds City Varieties, The Grand Theatre and Opera House, Leeds, York Grand Opera House, Harrogate Theatre and Nottingham Theatre Royal. And watch this space – there’s plenty more to come!