Theatre Royal

The Theatre Royal, built in 1907-1908, is situated at 145 Gloucester Street and is an example of Classical architecture. 

Theatre Royal
Theatre Royal. © Christchurch Star

The first Theatre Royal in Christchurch, built in 1863, was originally called the Canterbury Music Hall. Situated on Gloucester Street, opposite what is now the site of the current building, it later became known as the Princess Royal, before eventually assuming the name, Theatre Royal. A wooden replacement of this building was constructed in 1876.

After the 1903 Iroquois Theatre fire disaster in Chicago, in which over six hundred people were killed as a result of inadequate fire escapes, the Christchurch City Council surveyed the city’s theatres and found that the Theatre Royal did not meet the new safety standards it sought to impose.

Faced with the need for a new theatre, George Gatonby Stead, a grain merchant, led a group of businessmen to oversee the construction of a new theatre building. Their initial plans, once submitted to the city council, were met with opposition by the council’s by-laws committee, who had sought the advice of architect, Samuel Hurst Seager. The plans were revised, with architects Alfred and Sidney Luttrell overseeing the new design. When the safety standards were met, construction started in November 1906 at a site opposite the original theatre building.

The building featured a three storey façade designed in the Classical manner which faced onto Gloucester Street. The façade featured columns topped by an entablature. Above this were shorter columns, topped by another entablature. Set between the columns were the narrow windows of the theatre attic. Atop the latter entablature was a balustrade featuring a crown. The sides of the building were plain brick, while the roof was corrugated iron.

On either side of the Gloucester Street entrance were shops while the street front was covered by a verandah with iron columns. The street front doors opened into a small lobby, at the end of which was a staircase. The staircase led up to a landing where a ticket box was situated. At each end of the landing was a staircase, both of which led to the upper landing. This landing provided access to the balcony, set atop the verandah, and the crush lobbies set on either side of the stairwell. Doors in the crush lobbies opened into the dress circle, which could seat 240 audience members, and which overlooked the auditorium. The dress circle also provided access to the two boxes set at either side of the stage. The gallery, above the dress circle, could accommodate 600 audience members. The auditorium stalls, which could seat 400 audience members, were accessed from a ground floor entrance on the eastern façade of the building. The ceiling of the auditorium was painted with scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Opening night for the new theatre building took place in February 1908 with a performance of The Blue Moon. Soon after, the theatre was leased to J.C. Williamson Limited, a theatrical company, which subleased the building to other companies. At some point prior to 1926 the company purchased the theatre.

The Theatre Royal also hosted opera, with the first opera season taking place in 1910. Ballet also made an appearance in 1913, and in 1926 the Russian ballerina, Anna Pavlova, performed as part of her Australasian tour. With the advent of moving pictures, the Biorama Company, followed by the Pathé Picture Company, often leased the theatre to use as a cinema.

By 1926 the Christchurch City Council were concerned about the condition of the theatre. To bring the theatre up to modern standards, a full renovation was carried out by J.T. Julian and Son in April 1928. As part of this renovation, the foyer was enlarged, although it meant reducing the size of the street front shops on the ground floor. The gallery and dress circle were demolished and new versions were built using cantilevers, which allowed for the removal of the original pillars. The rear wall of the stalls was extended further back, creating more space for seating. When the renovations were finished, the theatre could now accommodate 1300 patrons.

As part of these renovations the theatre was also upgraded to meet the technological requirements for cinema. A projectionist’s box was built and a sound system was installed, allowing for ‘talkies’ to be shown from June 1929. Despite this, the use of the theatre as a cinema declined during the 1930s but was revived during the Second World War.

The decline in the fortunes of J.C. Williamson Limited, following the death of Frank Tait in 1965 led to many of its theatres, including the Theatre Royal, to be neglected in terms of maintenance. The use of the theatre as a venue was also affected by the opening of the Christchurch Town Hall in 1972, as many performances chose to utilise the new, modern venue. By 1975 the company advertised its intention to auction the theatre. As there was no interest, the building faced demolition. However, a trust, the Friends of the Theatre Royal, was formed and in 1980 the theatre was purchased. Following this purchase by the trust, the theatre was renovated, which included repainting, earthquake strengthening, and enlarging the foyer.

Further renovations were carried out in 2004 which saw the reconstruction of the fly tower and stage, the extension of the foyer and access to the gallery from the ground floor foyer. Since these renovations were carried out with the financial assistance of Lady Diana Isaac, the theatre was renamed the Isaac Theatre Royal in her honour.

The building was severely damaged in the 2011 earthquakes. Although repairs were carried out to ensure the new building would meet building standards, the heritage fabric was retained. The restoration process also allowed for new additions to be made, including the installation of an extendable stage and a new foyer in the upper grand circle. The dome was restored by Carolina Izzo.

The theatre reopened on 17 November 2014.