Liverpool’s Royal Court 80 years on: How an outsider venue transformed itself into a people’s theatre
The art deco venue has been awarded national portfolio organisation status and has recently completed a major restoration, just in time to celebrate its 80th birthday. Catherine Jones charts the history of the Liverpool landmark
The Scouse Nativity broke attendance records at Liverpool’s Royal Court last month after 42,000 people flocked through the doors of the art deco building during the play’s run. It’s not a bad way to see in its 80th anniversary year for a venue that has gone from outsider status on the city’s art scene to ‘people’s theatre’ over the course of a decade. There has been a theatre on the site for almost 200 years. Pablo Fanque, celebrated in Beatles song Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite, performed there in the Victorian era when circus acts and variety thrilled the crowds.
The current grade II-listed venue has been through many incarnations since it opened with musical comedy Under Your Hat in 1938. It hosted wartime appearances by John Gielgud, Richard Burton and Ivor Novello, and it was where Judi Dench made her professional stage debut as Ophelia in an Old Vic production of Hamlet in 1957. In the 1980s, it became a music venue, hosting gigs by David Bowie, U2 and Iron Maiden.
When the current team took over the city council-owned building in spring 2005, initially as the home of Rawhide Comedy Club, it was tired and unloved. The theatre was sandwiched between the Penny Farthing – dubbed an “eyesore” by Liverpool Mayor Joe Anderson – and a 1950s shopping centre. There was no heating, no stalls seating, and the floors were sticky.
Royal Court executive producer Kevin Fearon recalls: “The building was horrible. We put a Lycra mesh across the top of the stalls, so you hid the circle. That kept some of the heat in. It was actually the biggest piece of Lycra in Europe at the time.”
All the common areas then were “absolutely terrible”, agrees Paul Monaghan of Stirling Prize-winning architects Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, who in 2009 won an open competition to design the theatre’s £10.6 million restoration. He adds: “We felt we could make those places people might want to go, even when the theatre wasn’t on.”
In the ensuing decade, Fearon says it was a struggle to be accepted by the local theatre scene. It was also a struggle to keep the business running, where receipts from a production paid for the next to be staged.
But four key moments helped turn the Court’s fortunes around. It started with the “game-changing” success of ribald Scouse comedy Brick Up the Mersey Tunnels, first staged in 2006, a theatrical phenomenon that has now been seen by 175,000 people over six runs.
“The big thing was word of mouth,” Fearon recalls. “Anyone who came to see it that first weekend told their neighbours. They were the people queuing on the Monday morning, before the reviews were out.”
He adds: “For the first couple of weeks, we had to go to Currys three or four times to buy a laptop because we couldn’t deal with the sales. We just weren’t ready for it. We had 99 messages on the answer machine. It was fantastic.”
Setting up the Royal Court Trust, headed by partner Gillian Miller, to drive the theatre’s redevelopment was another key stage, as was securing financial support from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
Redevelopment has taken place in three ‘acts’ over five years: first the auditorium, then the new entrance, circle bar and terrace, disabled access and backstage, and most recently the 150-seat basement studio theatre, balcony upgrade, and redevelopment of the Penny Farthing as a bar and restaurant.
5 things you need to know about the Royal Court
1. There was theatre on the site as early as 1826 when Cooke’s New Circus opened its doors. In 1831 it was given the grand name Cooke’s Amphitheatre of Arts and could seat 4,000 people. It was renamed the Royal Court in 1881 but burned down in 1933.
2. The current theatre, opened in 1938, boasts the biggest revolve stage outside of the West End.
3. Judi Dench started her professional career at the Royal Court in 1957, when she played Ophelia in the Old Vic’s production of Hamlet.
4. The roll call of other famous faces who have appeared at the current Royal Court includes Vivien Leigh, John Gielgud, Sean Connery, Margot Fonteyn, Patrick Stewart, Barbara Windsor and Les Dennis. Comedian John Bishop appeared as a henchman in panto there.
5. More than half the Royal Court audience is categorised as “mid-engaged” with the arts, and a third “low-engaged”, using Audience Spectrum segmentation.
Along with Heritage Lottery funding, the work has been paid for by grants from the European Regional Development Fund, a city council loan and, most recently, £2 million Arts Council funding, assisted by £630,000 from a ticket levy that was started in 2011.
“In the main theatre, the brickwork is the star. That’s what gives it character,” explains Liverpool-raised Monaghan, who regularly attends performances to gauge the audience experience.
That’s nowhere more apparent than in the restored first-floor bar area, a space not dissimilar to the new Everyman bar, where the theatre’s brick skeleton is exposed – a result, it turns out, not simply of conscious design, but tight budgets.
Monaghan admits: “More money isn’t always better. I’m not saying it wouldn’t have been helpful. But actually, it makes you think harder when you’ve got less.
“If we’d had more, we might have plastered over the brickwork, and it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as powerful.”
Last summer, the final piece of recognition came when the theatre was named an Arts Council national portfolio organisation, providing sustainable development funding until 2022.
While the return of the Everyman Rep might have made headlines last year, there has been an unofficial rep company at the Royal Court for the last decade, performing homegrown work to a homegrown audience, many of whom are experiencing theatre for the first time.
Along with acting ability, comic timing and an authentic Liverpool voice, its members also need confidence to work with the audience.
“That audience is quite powerful,” says Fearon, adding that the auditorium with cabaret seating in the stalls encourages the breaking of the fourth wall.
Lindzi Germain, a regular face at the Royal Court, is also one of the actors given the chance to write their own play – her hospital-set disaster comedy The Royal already having two successful runs. She says: “It was unbelievable, it really was, for them to give me a chance. And now also to be asked, ‘what else have you got? What else are you going to write?’
As for the audience, Germain adds: “They get so involved and so engrossed. In some shows, it’s like it’s just them watching a play on their own, and they feel the need to shout out. Rightly or wrongly.”
It makes for a different theatregoing experience in a city that doesn’t lack venues – from the Empire, a huge 2,400-seat receiving house, to the 100-seat Unity and pop-up fringe theatres.
The Royal Court joined forces with the Unity last summer to stage the premiere of Katie Mulgrew’s Omnibus, winner of the inaugural £10,000 Liverpool Hope Playwriting Prize for new comedies, an initiative between the theatre and Liverpool Hope University.
Fearon is in favour of more local collaboration. “There’s no strategy for theatre in Liverpool,” he says, “in the way the Arts Council has brought us on-board because it’s part of a national strategy of bringing in a wider audience.
“Here you’ve got the Unity, Everyman and Playhouse, Epstein and us, and the Empire, and there’s no forum for sitting down. Everyman and Playhouse and Unity are part of LARC [Liverpool Arts Regeneration Consortium], but we’ve never been allowed to be a member of that.”
When theatres co-produce, they share the costs of marketing, as well as set-building and costumes, Fearon says. “We could be doing that here in Liverpool. We could be doing a joint brochure. We could be building sets together.”
There is a renewed sense of vigour about the venue. The inaugural programme for productions in the new studio theatre is being finalised, a new theatre company dedicated to supporting and raising the profile of black actors and writers is being launched, an anniversary book is being written, and there are plans for at least two new shows in the main house, including a Liverpool musical, as well as returns for popular productions.
“I’ve never been so excited as I am now about the Royal Court,” says Fearon. “With the Penny Farthing redevelopment, the basement, and the confidence we have with the work on the stage, we’re in a good place.”
Profile: Liverpool’s Royal Court
Royal Court Trust chief executive: Gillian Miller
Executive producer: Kevin Fearon
Number of performances (2016/17): 466
Audience figures (2016/17): 134,901
Number of employees: 12 full-time, 75-plus part-time
Turnover (2016/17): £2.3 million
Key contacts: Producer Jess Bolger, community and engagement manager Miriam Mussa
We need your help…
When you subscribe to The Stage, you’re investing in our journalism. And our journalism is invested in supporting theatre and the performing arts.
The Stage is a family business, operated by the same family since we were founded in 1880. We do not receive government funding. We are not owned by a large corporation. Our editorial is not dictated by ticket sales.
We are fully independent, but this means we rely on revenue from readers to survive.
Help us continue to report on great work across the UK, champion new talent and keep up our investigative journalism that holds the powerful to account. Your subscription helps ensure our journalism can continue.