William Birch & Sons have been carrying out an extensive refurbishment of York Theatre Royal, the theatre’s biggest project since it was first built back in 1764 – and the first major refurbishment since 1967.
There’s something very special about knowing that this extensive refurbishment is going to result in bringing years of pleasure to the future audiences and cast of the many shows, musicals and pantomimes the theatre puts on. Indeed, it is clear how much enjoyment people have had in previous years, judging by the 1970s and 1980s memorabilia found beneath the various floors and behind the walls during the current refurbishment, like snuff boxes, old cigarette/cigar packs, posters, and even an old photograph that was reunited with its owner 60 years after it was lost when a plea was put out by the local paper.
In fact, a theatre at York has existed since 1744, albeit not quite in the location it is found today. The current location was built on the remains of St Leonard’s Hospital, which had been one of the most important medieval hospitals in England. It was initially thought (prior to the project commencement) that very little of the hospital foundations remained, but it soon became clear that some significant elements had lain beneath the current theatre for a very long time.
The Theatre Royal project includes works to a number of different areas around the Theatre building, but primarily the main auditorium and works to the front of house to improve leisure facilities for visitors. The existing front colonnade to the building is currently external, and has been glazed to complement the iconic arches and brought within the building complex to create seating and café/bar areas. Now complete, theatre goers will see the biggest changes in these areas, although there have been many more changes going on behind the scenes to turn the theatre into a modern and efficient facility, with a new and state-of-the-art stage, upgraded lighting and improved audio-visual equipment. New seating has been installed for several areas, along with improvements to the stalls to enhance performance viewing quality.
Robert Pell is Contracts Manager at William Birch & Sons and he commented: “York Theatre Royal is a fascinating building on many levels, built up like a patchwork over different time periods. Even the logistics of accessing the building have proved challenging, sited where it is in York’s centre and in such close proximity to its neighbours. We knew from the start of this project that there were a number of ‘unfounds’ that were likely to be revealed as we began peeling back the layers, and indeed the significant remains of St Leonard’s Hospital have been the biggest find here.“
The media interest in the finds has been intense, and indeed there has also been strong interest from members of the local and national theatre-going public.
Improving the stage
The existing stage at York Theatre Royal has been levelled to improve the versatility of the space, enabling the theatre in future to be able to programme a wider variety of productions, such as dance. This levelling has also improved the sight lines from the stalls.
The theatre’s basement has also been lowered by 600mm. This was to allow a removable mid-section of the stage with head room and also pop-up stages as needed. The stage within the auditorium is linked to the orchestra pit, beneath which most of the recent archaeological finds were made, including columns and arches.
Work to the main upper theatre gallery has included a complete remodelling and reprofiling for better viewing angles, with significant structural and joinery work. The dress circle has also been reprofiled to provide disabled access, and carpets have been replaced in the upper dress circle. Gallery fronts to all three levels at the theatre have required remedial strengthening work and structural improvements, along with lighting bars and brackets. The back of the top two galleries now has new steel supports and specialist plastering to ensure it remains in keeping with the existing theatre, which has been time-consuming work for the William Birch team.
The theatre’s main auditorium ceiling required some plasterwork repairs. There are new bars to the ground and first floor, new toilets, and even a new passenger lift. The lift will enable disabled access to the stalls and to the dress circle for the first time; previously, there was only disabled access to the stalls.
William Birch & Sons have also been busy with external work at the theatre, too, with new masonry, repair and replacement of defective stone where necessary, as well as a stone cleaning and reroofing programme. Every roof slate has been replaced, two flat roofs replaced and the theatre’s rooflights are now electrically operated.