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Royal Court Theatre

Built in the 12th century, the Royal Court Theatre was originally the site of a water well. In 1826 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. 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.

Royal Court 1947

Royal Court Theatre Fire
In 1933 during the opera and drama that Howard and Wyndhams Ltd were staging a fire broke out and destroyed the building. 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. Designed by  J.B.Hutchins with interior decoration and furnishings by Cohen and Sons of London. 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 had a nautical theme, which is in line with Liverpool's seafaring traditions. The basement lounge  design was based on the Queen Mary liner. There were three viewing levels within the main auditorium: the Stalls, the Grand Circle and the Balcony

The Victorian pantomime was not only the template for today’s shows, but very much a vehicle for music. 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 and Wyndhams Ltd at the turn of the century, the growth of pantomime blossomed. 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 and White Minstrels. 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). Pantomime returned to the Royal Court in (2006) with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs starring Hollyoaks' Christina Bailey as Snow White.

The building was given a Grade II statutory listing in 1990, recognising its architectural Art Deco interest. From 2012 the theatre has undergone the first stages of a major renovation, including a complete refurbishment of the theatre’s Front of House Curtains and curtains dressing the royal boxes. The work was made possible by an £867,000 Heritage Lottery Fund grant and more than £200,000 raised by theatregoers in the form of a £1 ticket levy. The entire auditorium was repainted in classic black and gold and new lighting installed, including LED lights around the proscenium arch and along the gold moulded details on the ceiling. The largest expenditure was on the seating for the 1,150-capacity, three-tier theatre. The stalls were completely remodelled and new seats installed in both the circle and the balcony. A new bar was also installed on the ground floor, with two new disabled toilets on the ground and lower floors.

Royal Court Theatre Phase II Redevelopment
Photograph © Allerford Hall Managhan Morris

The work is the first phase of a £10.6m programme by architect Allford Hall Monaghan Morris which includes a new extended foyer, access to the upper floors and a rooftop bar and restaurant.

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