Much-loved and busy theatre has a Grand story to tell
Andrew Reilly looks back on centuries old history of Lancaster city centre venue
Prior to the theatre’s construction, theatrical performances were held in barns and inns in Lancaster as early as the 1760s for example during the summer of 1777, the play The Orphan of China was performed in one of these temporary theatres.
The current theatre was built in 1781, becoming one of the first permanent theatres in Britain and was opened in June 1782, by Joseph Austin (an actor) and Charles Edward Whitlock (a dentist), who managed a circuit of theatres across the north of England.
It was known simply as “The Theatre, Lancaster”.
In that first summer, the plays Hamlet and The Belle’s Stratagem were performed there, and received good reviews.
In 1795, they took on Macbeth and playing Lady Macbeth was Sarah Siddons, who was the sister-in-law of Whitlock.
In September 1833 Italian violinist Niccolò Paganini performed.
By the end of the 1830s, the theatre was less used for performances, and increasingly used for meetings of the Temperance society and for formal lectures.
In 1843 Edmund Sharpe bought the theatre, and after an extension and alteration, he reopened it in 1849 as a music hall, as well as a museum for the local Literary and Natural History Society.
By 1860 it was owned and operated by a private company called the Lancaster Atheneum, which Sharpe founded, then it closed in 1882.
In May 1884 the theatre found a new owner, Henry Wilkinson, who had the building was altered, and it was re-opened as the Atheneum Theatre.
In 1897 it was again modified, including a new stage, by architect Frank Matcham. The work of Matcham was lost when the building was badly damaged by fire in 1908.
With the interior rebuilt in the same year (the new design by architect Albert Winstanley), it re-opened as The Grand Theatre with 457 seats 457 on two levels.
It is now owned by the Lancaster Footlights who started performing in the 1920s and bought the Grand Theatre in 1951 to save it from demolition and plays host to amateur and professional shows.
There are plans for a major building programme, New Spaces: one extension will provide new reception, foyer and bar space and another will provide rehearsal space, workshop, costume department and scenery storage space.