Royal Court Theatre, Liverpool
Built in the 12th century, the site of the current Royal Court Theatre was originally a water well. The turning point was in 1826 when a circus owner, John Cooke, bought the site for his circuses, plays, operas and concerts, and it became known as 'Cooke's Royal Amphitheatre of Arts.' During this time, Pablo Fanque, the black circus performer and proprietor immortalised in the Beatles song, Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite! performed here as a part of William Batty's circus. In 1881, the building was redesigned by Henry Sumner as a regular theatre and it was re-opened as the Royal Court.
A fire destroyed the building in 1933 during the opera and drama that Howard and Wyndhams Ltd were staging. After a small delay, construction works began in March 1938 to ensure the theatre was rebuilt and reopened in October of the same year.
The Royal Court Theatre we know now was opened on 17 October 1938. It had been totally rebuilt with a new Art Deco style, making it Liverpool's number one theatre with all its splendour and grandeur. The interior of the building holds a nautical theme, which is in line with Liverpool's seafaring traditions. The basement lounge has its design based on the Queen Mary liner. There are three viewing levels within the main auditorium: the Stalls, the Grand Circle and the Balcony.
Although the Blitz of World War II destroyed many of the buildings around it, the Royal Court itself remained intact. Throughout the war, many well-known artists performed in the Royal Court, including Ivor Novello, Margot Fonteyn, John Gielgud and Richard Burton who appeared in an Emlyn Williams production. The 22-year-old Judi Dench made her professional stage debut here in September 1957, playing Ophelia in an Old Vic production of Hamlet
In 1980, two former Liverpool taxi drivers took the Royal Court in a new direction, moving away from traditional plays and instead transferring the focus to rock and pop concerts. Their first year ended promisingly and proved to be a successful strategy for the venue, which went on to play host to artists as internationally famous as Rage Against the Machine, R.E.M., Iron Maiden, David Bowie, Ozzy Osbourne, Roger Taylor, Brian May, U2 and George Michael.
The music videos for "Let It Go", "High 'n' Dry (Saturday Night)", and "Bringin' On the Heartbreak", by the British rock band Def Leppard was directed by Doug Smith and shot on July 22, 1981. The photo on "Let It Go" single cover was taken from that shoot.
The stalls are now set out in a three-tier cabaret-style arrangement with tables and chairs and a bar at the rear of the stalls. The current capacity is 1186 (Stalls 290 [cabaret,] Circle 403, Balcony 493) Following two years of being the home to the Rawhide Comedy Club, the Royal Court made a move back to producing theatre in the summer of 2007 with the sell-out re-run of Brick up the Mersey Tunnels.
The counterweight fly system has recently been refurbished. There were originally in excess of 70 fly lines, however this has been reduced to about half that number in order to increase the distance between bars.
The original brakes have now been removed. They screwed shut and could hinge open to completely release the rope.
The lighting was controlled by a 'Grandmaster' which was situated on a perch about 8 feet above the stage floor on Stage Right. This would have been operated by two people and was in operation until the 1980s. It was only disconnected from the power in June 2006.
The lighting is now controlled by a High End Systems Roadhog lighting desk and 3 Avolites Art 2000 48-way dimmers. It has an extensive lantern stock including ETC Source Four 750's, Strand Cantata Fresnels and Martin Mac 500's.
With no televisions and no cinema, Liverpool audiences of the late 19th Century flocked to the theatre. Liverpool possessed no less than 26 theatres and 38 music halls. The main theatres towards the end of the century were the Prince Of Wales in Clayton Square (opened 1861) the Shakespeare Theatre off London Road (opened 1866) and the Royal Court Theatre.
The site of the Royal Court had been a theatre for many years. As Cookes Royal Amphitheatre of Arts, up to 4,000 people would gather to attend plays, operas, concerts and circus. In 1881 as ownership of the theatre changed, it was rebuilt and renamed The Royal Court Theatre. Along with the three other theatres it presented an annual pantomime.
The Victorian pantomime was not only the template for today’s show, but very much a vehicle for music. The Poluskli Brothers hall stars. Combining a mixture of music hall, comic opera and a large chunk of spectacle, the pantomime appealed to all levels of society. The first Royal Court pantomime, or “annual” as it was known, was Babes in the Wood. It is not clear whether this was a success or not, but no further pantomime was produced at the Court for fourteen years, until 1895 with the presentation of Dick Whittington.
Three years later, Arthur Lawrence was appointed the theatre manager. Starting with Aladdin, it was Lawrence who put the Royal Court firmly in the centre of the panto map. The biggest music hall stars of the day would appear in the Court’s “annual”. George Robey, Harry Lauder, Little Hetty King as Aladdin Tich, the Three Sisters Levey and the Poluski Brothers all helped to make the Royal Court’s pantomime among the most famous in Britain. With the ownership of the theatre passing to Howard & Wyndhams Ltd at the turn of the century, the growth of pantomime blossomed.
Arthur Lawrence quoted in The Liverpudlian, November 1938:
In 1906, in Aladdin, I had Hetty King and [Happy Fanny Fields], together with Malcolm Scott and Harry Tate-some combination. I produced at the Court, in twenty-six years, twenty pantomimes. The 1906 panto was the biggest success. We averaged takings of just under £2,000 a week, and that in a theatre supposed to hold no more than about £275 at full capacity. Our pantomimes would run elsewhere for about five years, so Liverpool was thus a pantomime manufacturing centre. 'Happy' Fanny Fields, They were all made here- scenery, dresses, jokes and music, and all. I may mention, also, that we had a stage unsurpassed for its equipment. Every kind of trap ever known on a stage was in being
That pantomime Aladdin was repeated, with almost the same cast, at the Adelphi Theatre in London the following year. “A chorus of over 100 Voices” boasted the posters. A magazine was produced in Liverpool solely devoted to pantomimes.
[Fanny Fields] in AladdinBy the 1920s the death of Music Hall was under way, and the Royal Court panto mirrored its decline. Hetty King Gone were the stars with their own personal songs to be replaced by “free” songs that anyone could sing. The Royal Court panto ended, replaced each Christmas by musical comedy, or a visit by the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company.
Upon re-opening some years after its fire in 1938, its first Panto was Humpty Dumpty, starring Gene Gerrard, Bobbie Comber, the Tiller Girls, and a cast “of Over 80”. The consecutive run of pantomime was not to be, With another World War the Howard and Wyndham's - Babes in the Wood spectacle of pantomime found itself replaced with the comedy The Eric Maschwitz revue, featuring a young Charles Hawtrey (of later Carry On Fame) performing female impersonations. The following year Vivien Leigh appeared in The Doctor’s Dilemma.
It was not until 1943, with the arrival of A. Stewart Cruickshank as managing director that pantomime returned, again starting with Babes In The Wood. By the 1960s television comedians and pop stars became the new stars of panto. In 1956, young heart throb Dickie Valentine took on the role of Aladdin. By the end of the fifties, facing stiff competition and dwindling audiences, the Royal Court Pantomime began a slow lingering death. In the Sixties occasional pantomimes (always Cinderella) were interspersed by Christmas shows by Ken Dodd, Dora Bryan, Frankie Vaughan, the Bachelors and the Black & White Minstrels.
Howard & Wyndham’s financial problems increased, and the Royal Court was offered to the City Council to purchase. They refused. An attempt to open the Court as a Bingo Hall in 1968 was abandoned after eight months. There was no Christmas show after Aladdin in 1975. An attempt to revive panto in 1981 with Snow White was not successful, and pantomimes were no longer performed at the Royal Court.
In 1997 the Neptune Theatre in Liverpool presented Aladdin at the Court. Following on their success at the Neptune the previous year with Sonia in Dick Whittington, they presented Aladdin starring Julie Goodyear as Mrs. Twankey, and Danny McCall as Aladdin. Since then the Royal Court pantomimes have been Cinderella (1998), Babes in the Wood (1999), Aladdin (2000) and Dick Whittington (2001).
Slappers and Slapheads
- 2003 Performed at The Royal Court, Slappers and Slapheads, written by local Playwrights Len Pentin and Fred Lawless was performed with a mainly local cast and crew. Slappers and Slapheads is returning to the Royal Court in 2009 from Friday 6 February to Saturday 7 March with an all new cast.
Brick up the Mersey Tunnels
- 2006, 2007 and 2008
Brick up the Mersey Tunnels a play with music written by Dave Kirby and Nicky Allt showed in the Royal Court from 3 August to 26 August 2006. This was a huge success and received 9/10 in a review in the Liverpool Echo.
- Performed between 31 August to 29 September 2007, Lost Soul is Dave Kirby's second play at the Royal Court. The play returned for a second run from 5 to 27 September 2008.
Stags and Hens
- John M. Turner, "Pablo Fanque, Black Circus Proprietor," in Black Victorians, Black Victoriana, edited by Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina (Rutgers University Press: New Brunswick, New Jersey, 2003)
- Who's Who In the Theatre, 17th edition, Gale (1981)
- Royal Court Theatre Liverpool | Royal Court | Royal Court Liverpool - a brief history
- Port Cities: - The Royal Court Theatre
- "The Royal Court Theatre, Liverpool", The National Heritage List for England, English Heritage, 2011, retrieved 14 August 2011
- Liverpool Capital of Culture - Liverpool Entertainment Guide, Tourist Information and Listings
- It's Behind You - Pantomimes at the Liverpool Royal Court
- Slappers and the slapheads enjoy a Royal night out
- Royal Court Liverpool website
- What's On At The Royal Court Theatre, Liverpool
- Brick up the Mersey Tunnels Review.
- Liverpool Theatre History