The 1800s was a very exciting time for the theatre in Dumfries, attracting many famous faces of the era and seeing lots of changes to the building.
The first of these changes occurred in the early 1830s when the theatre received a change of name. It is presumed that the theatre received a letter of patent as the theatre soon became known as the Theatre Royal Dumfries. At the time, only theatre’s carrying a special licence (or patent) could perform serious, or ‘legitimate’, drama. Otherwise, the theatre was restricted to comedy, melodrama and other less serious shows. With the royal patent came not only a change in name but a change in the variety and quality of shows that could be performed.
Throughout the 19th Century, the theatre also saw several famous faces tread its boards. Edmund Kean, whose turbulent personal life made him every bit as famous as his radical acting style, was easily one of the most recognisable figures to perform during this period. The theatre also played host to William Henry West Betty, a child prodigy from Ireland who appeared on our stage aged only 12. The theatre also saw a performance from Gustavus Vaughan Brooke, widely regarded as Kean’s equal and so well received that Dumfries named a street after him next to the theatre.
Another historic figure to visit the theatre was J. M. Barrie, playwright and author famous for creating Peter Pan. While studying at Dumfries Academy, Barrie and his friends regularly visited the local theatre to take in the shows. Barrie was enamoured with theatre and always tried to sit in the front row as far to the side as he could. This let him peek off-stage and watch all the backstage magic as well.
Celebrated theatre architect Charles J. Phipps was tasked with renovating the Theatre Royal Dumfries in 1876. This was a challenge he was more than capable of as his other credits included the Theatre Royals in Bath and Brighton, as well as the Gaiety Theatres in London and Dublin to name but a few.
The largest change Phipps made to the Theatre Royal Dumfries was the expansion of its interior. Phipps lowered the stalls and stage into the basement, installing boxes in a horseshoe shape at street level with a balcony above them. This increased the theatre’s capacity to a maximum of 1000 people.
Phipps also modified the exterior walls, covering up the portico pillars and building a new façade several feet in front of them. This exterior façade is still the one that can be seen from the street outside the theatre today.