Curtain call for Theatre Royal, Chatham
by Jenni Horn
The Theatre Royal theatre in Chatham was built in 1899
but less than a year later, disaster struck when a fire tore
through the building.
Burning backdrops crashed to the stage, and the theatre was
engulfed and damaged seemingly beyond repair. But despite utter
devastation, the theatre was rebuilt and operating agains within
The auditorium was huge, accommodating 3,000 seats. It was among
the first to use electric lights, and no fewer than 1,000 bulbs lit
Many actors and actresses who later went on to achieve national
fame, appeared on its playbills. Coronation Street actress Betty
Driver, the Rovers Return barmaid famous for her lunchtime hotpot,
was among them.
In the early days, it was rollicking music hall acts, but in 1947
the Royal was re-launched as a repertory theatre with a
performance of Pink String and Sealing Wax starring John Le
Mesurier, later of Dad’s Army fame.
The opening ceremony was performed by Dame Sybil Thorndike, who
grew up in Rochester. However she became lost in the fog on the
drive down from London, so the opening was carried out after the
But with the popularisation of television in the 1950s, audiences
dwindled. In 1955, the stage lights went out for the last time.
Parts of the premises were hived off for shops and a
But in the 1980s a campaign was started to return the theatre to
its former glory. Originally it was estimated that the project
would cost £14 million, a figure which later jumped to £20 million.
The restoration project was hit when a lottery bid failed and then,
water, weather and frost all took their toll on the building.
Despite support from stars and local people, the theatre was sold
Partial demolition was granted two years ago. The work
began on April 18 after a safety inspection ordered by owner
Chatham House decided the building was in danger of
The Theatre Royal was opened in 1899. A campaign to restore the Grade II listed building failed in 2004 as costs soared.
Poster of Theatre Royal, Chatham
Inside view of the theatre taken when there were still hopes the building could be restored
Street scene showing Theatre Royal
Happier days - Theatre Royal Trust celebrate the historic venue's centenary in 1999
The End - Demolition underway at the Theatre Royal, Chatham
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