When it comes to historical performing arts venues it is difficult to look beyond the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, the world’s oldest theatre site still in continual use.
The current Grade I listed building first opened in 1812. As well as being the first in the world to witness the singing of the “new” British National Anthem, (God Save the King back in 1745!), it is the only venue in the world to have two Royal Boxes; a feature dating back to the time of King George III who was not on good terms with his son. To avoid confrontation each had their own entrance, own side of the theatre (King’s Side and Prince’s Side), and own Royal Box.
As part of the £60 million Theatre Royal Drury Lane renovation the auditorium was entirely re-modelled. Award-winning architect Steve Tompkins led the project to make the venue fit for modern day audiences that preserves the wealth of history, and ready to premiere one of the most ambitious 21st Century shows, Frozen: The Musical.
Working closely with LW Theatres, architects and theatre consultants, Kirwin & Simpson were able to help keep capacity close to the original 2,200 chairs. Feeling that the original theatre was too big, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber made a conscious decision to reduce capacity. This allowed K&S to maximise space and build in extra comfort for patrons, including wider seats with more legroom and better sight lines. Still, 1,950 custom-made seats were installed, keeping Theatre Royal Drury Lane one of the largest theatres on the West End.
To achieve this, 169 different chair types were required. Variations included 4 chair widths, sprung and gravity tipping seats, varying tall and standard back heights, 12°, 14°, 16° back angles, two different seat angles, and removable, demountable and transfer arm units with wooden arm or leather arms. Custom units for were made with framed and plywood backs, special sockets for end of row lights, and some units were cut-down to fit over structural beams. Kirwin & Simpson also manufactured embroidered Box Chairs.
Keeping with the heritage, the theatre was split down the middle once more for King and Prince, duplicating bespoke embroidery on every chair. This wasn’t like usual embroidery processes as the designs had to receive approval from the Royal Household and be meticulously re-produced to pass inspection.
The old auditorium seats were still in good condition so rather than let them go to landfill they were carefully removed, packaged, and delivered to three regional volunteer-run venues across the UK.