History of the New Theatre
"God bless this house. May it be the
nurse, the feeder And the moulder of the Soul of Cardiff.
Speech by Mr Herbert Beerbohm Tree after the opening
performance at the theatre in December 1906.
1825 Cardiff has its first theatre, in a loft
over a stable!
1826 The Old Theatre Royal is built in
1877 The Theatre Royal burns down.
1878 The 'new' Theatre Royal opens in Wood
1898 Robert Redford takes over as manager of
the Theatre Royal.
1904 Redford commissions theatre architects
Runtz and Ford to design his New Theatre.
1906 29 March: the foundation stone of the New
Theatre is laid by Grace Redford.
10 December: the first public performance-William Shakespeare's
Twelfth Night- is performed by the company of Mr Herbert
Beerbohm Tree, followed by the New Theatre's first pantomime,
Red Riding Hood.
A contemporary description of the theatre:
The Building is of brick and Bath Stone. Seating accommodation
is for 1,570. Principal elevation is to the south-east; the lower
portion around the chief entrance is of Bath Stone…the top of this
elevation is surmounted by two towers, which are utilised for
ventilation purposes, and rise in height to nearly 50 feet above
Inside, both the corridor and staircase are richly carpeted,
and are draped at the entrance; brass handrails being fixed at the
sides. Each Portion of the House is provided with a spacious Saloon
Bar; these for the Dress Circle and Orchestra Stalls being
handsomely decorated…special mention should be made of that for the
Dress Circle, which is immediately over the Crush Room and which,
like it, is circular. The mural decorations for this, which are
cream and gold, are extremely tasteful. The Dress Circle, Orchestra
and Balcony are all furnished with tip-up seats, luxuriously
upholstered in crimson velvet…
The stage is one of the largest in the country, being no
less than 76 feet in width and 54 feet in depth, while the height
of the stage to the grid where the pulleys work is 57 feet. In only
three or four of the very finest London theatres is there a larger
stage…The 17 dressing rooms, all are fitted with hot and cold
water, electric light, gas etc…
1907 The first amateur performance at the New
is Cardiff Operatic Society's production of The Yeomen of the
1908 The divine Sarah Bernhardt visits-a single
matinee performance on 17 June.
1912 Members of the Russian Imperial Ballet
dance at the New, including the celebrated Anna Pavlova. They enjoy
the experience so much they make a return visit the following
1913 Horses, camels and a cast of 100 take to
the stage in the Drury Lane production of Ben Hur.
1917 The New shows its first film, D W
Griffiths' blockbuster Birth of a Nation-silent of course,
but with a full live orchestra.
1923 Jelly Roll Morton, legendary jazz pianist,
appears at the New.
1929 The arrival of 'talking pictures'
introduces new competition for audiences.
1930 Robert Redford retires from active
management of the theatre.
1931 Structural alterations are made to allow
the New to show films and, until 1935, the theatre is leased
variously as a picture house, music hall and theatre.
1935 Prince Littler leases the premises and,
with his manager William Henry Rousseau Youngman, brings prosperity
back to the theatre with his policy of twice-nightly variety and
the occasional spectacle show.
He reinstates the pantomime tradition, beginning with
Aladdin in 1935, allegedly seen by 25,000 people, due in
no small measure to the policy of arranging coach parties to visit
1936 Death of Robert Redford.
1939-1945 During World War II, the theatre has
its own team of firewatchers who are paid 2s 6d (12p) a night. The
New Theatre never closes and plays host to entertainment legends
Vera Lynn and Tommy Handley (from the enormously popular radio show
ITMA = It's That Man Again!)
Prince Littler is appointed Chairman and Managing Director of
the Stoll Theatre Corporation.
Comedian Benny Hill is arrested during a run of Send Him
Victorious in November 1942. Benny's call up papers had
failed to reach him as he travelled the country in the show.
He is held for 4 nights in Cardiff Police Station before being sent
to Lincoln Barracks to begin his service.
1949: Hollywood star Peter Lorre makes his
British stage debut at the New Theatre reading Edgar Allen Poe's
The Tell-Tale Heart as part of a variety bill in July.
1950-1962: Many stars from both home and abroad
appear at the New, including Rose Murphy, Billy Daniels, Slim
Whitman, Frankie Vaughan and Cardiff's own Shirley Bassey.
1952 Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, despite both
being in their sixties, receive a wonderful reception from several
generations of fans for their unique brand of slapstick comedy.
1954 The Welsh National Opera makes the New
Theatre its home.
1956 The Redford family agrees to sell the New
Theatre to Stoll Theatres Corporation Ltd for £20,000.
The theatre hosts the first ever performance in Wales of Dylan
Thomas' 'play for voices', Under Milk Wood.
The New celebrates its Golden Jubilee year.
1961 With losses building up, Prince Littler
puts in a planning application to Cardiff City Council, proposing
to knock down the theatre and build offices instead. There is a
huge outcry, particularly from a group called 'Theatre Now', which
includes several Welsh actors.
Littler's plans are rejected but he appeals; the appeal is
turned down, but Sir Derek Walker Smith MP (on behalf of the Stoll
Corporation) suggests that the city council itself should take over
the New Theatre.
Meanwhile, the council is persuaded to put a Preservation of Use
Order on the theatre to prevent it being used for anything other
than theatrical purposes.
In September Littler accepts an offer on the theatre from Mecca
1963 Cardiff City Council negotiates the lease
of the building for seven years at an annual rent of £5,750. The
New Theatre Trust is formed, under the chairmanship of Sir James
Collins, to manage the theatre.
23 September: The New Theatre reopens with Welsh National
1963-1966 A high standard of product is
maintained, including two visits from the National Theatre,
classical seasons from the Royal and Festival Ballets, D'Oyly
Carte's repertoire of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, the world
premiere of Harold Pinter's The Homecoming, variety shows
with top of the bill Tommy Cooper, pop music concerts featuring the
likes of Tom Jones and the return of pantomime.
1965 The Cardiff New Theatre Society is formed
to 'stimulate and encourage an interest in the theatre and to
increase the number of regular patrons of all ages and from all
walks of life'.
1966 A Council of Management of the Theatre
Trust is appointed for a term of three years, including in its
membership representatives from the city council and from various
sections of Welsh cultural life.
1969 After six years of successful operation,
Cardiff City Council purchases the theatre and releases it to the
Theatre Trust. The total cost is £104,000, partly met by a grant of
£40,000 from the Arts Council on condition that £100,000 is spent
to refurbish and modernise the theatre. The Welsh Office also
provides a loan of £64,000.
24-year-old Martin Williams takes over as Theatre
1970 In July the theatre closes for renovation,
which includes the installation of a ventilation system, the
construction of a new sunken orchestra pit, new seats throughout
the auditorium, the modernisation of dressing rooms and a new
lighting system. Cardiff New Theatre is now one of the best fitted
and equipped theatres outside London.
1971 13 September: The theatre reopens with
Welsh National Opera's production of Verdi's Falstaff.
1972-3 Theatre accounts show that the
outstanding deficit has been nearly halved.
1976 Administrator Martin Williams directs
an in-house production of Toad of Toad Hall,
involving a large number of Welsh artistes, including comedy actor
Howell Evans in the title role.
In August a new stage is installed.
1977 Death of Martin Williams at the
tragically early age of 32; Peter Lea is appointed as his successor
in the role of Theatre Administrator.
1982 A sister venue to the New opens. St
David's Hall grows rapidly in stature to become one of the finest
concert halls in Europe, complementing the programme at the New and
taking over the symphony concerts and one nighters.
On the whole, however, the early 1980s mean fluctuating success
for the New, reflecting the economic conditions in the country and
the dearth of good drama available. Some of the standouts from the
period include Rattle of a Simple Man (John
Alderton and Pauline Collins), Deathtrap (Gordon
Jackson), A Coat of Varnish (Peter Barkworth and
Anthony Quayle), Quartermaine's Terms (Michael
Williams), Barefoot in the Park (Peter Davison
and Sandra Dickinson), Amadeus (Keith Michell)
and Children of a Lesser God (Elizabeth