York Theatre Royal extension, St. Leonard’s Place
Patrick Gwynne (1967)

Magic Mushrooms

Building featuring concrete pillars
Fig. 1: view of the extension from St Leonard’s Place. Photo: © Elain Harwood, 2021.

Patrick Gwynne (1913-2003) ran a small practice from his home in Surrey, sustained by commissions for private houses and restaurants. His largest client was Charles Forte, owner of a popular chain of restaurants that included the Serpentine Restaurant and The Dell in London’s Hyde Park, commissioned in 1964. The Serpentine, demolished in 1990, led directly to one of Gwynne’s more unusual commissions, for alterations and additions to York’s Theatre Royal. 

The Theatre Royal first opened in 1744 and since it was first rebuilt in 1765 it has been many times altered and refaced but never entirely replaced. The result is an extraordinarily rich and complex mess. Behind its spiky Gothic Revival exterior of 1877-9, the creation of an enthusiastic city engineer, George Styan, and described by Nikolaus Pevsner a resembling a town hall, there remains the bones of an eighteenth-century auditorium as recast by Frank Tugwell in 1901-2, when a vaulted arcade along the street front was glazed in and concealed by a canopy.1 There is even a twelfth-century undercroft, surviving from St Peter’s Hospital formerly on the site. 

Donald Bodley (1924-2006), the theatre’s dynamic director between 1958 and 1971, was anxious to upgrade its facilities, both for the actors and the audience, and in particular to create a single, egalitarian front-of-house in place of a rigorous hierarchy of entrances, foyers and bars that ensured a strict segregation between the stalls and dress circle, the upper circle and the ‘Gods’. Bodley had commissioned a scheme from a local architect and personal friend that somewhat resembled an office block. When in 1966 he realised that this would not do, he consulted a theatre specialist who had never built anything, but who Gwynne described as having ‘a good mind’ and who invited Bodley to lunch at the Serpentine Grill. Bodley resolved immediately that the only architect for him was Gwynne, whose secretary was put into a state of shock by the unexpected telephone call. Few public commissions come so directly, as Gwynne acknowledged; Bodley’s greatest difficulty was in having to delicately dismiss the local architect.

Building with stone archway next to concrete pillars and "Theatre Royal" sign
Fig. 2: the theatre in 1968. Photo: © Henk Snoek, 1968, RIBA Collections.

When Gwynne saw the theatre’s Victorian façades they were still black with soot. Cleaning revealed a rock-faced honey-coloured stone and a wealth of detailing that included a figure of Shakespeare within a tiny shrine perched above the main pediment. Gwynne repaired, repainted and re-seated the intimate auditorium, whose semi-circular balconies supported on columns still reflected the rebuilding of 1765, to improve legroom and the awkward sightlines. He also removed many additions on its south side, including a broad staircase, lobbies and bars, and was able to squeeze in a wing of dressing rooms once he had determined that they did not need natural light; the undercroft became the green room. The seating capacity was reduced from 1300 to 950, but the new backstage facilities were large enough to finally attract touring companies to York. On the north side there was a long narrow hut, used for scenery storage, which blocked a garden plot acquired by Bodley from the City Corporation for a new foyer. This he was anxious should be a single volume, made as light and open as possible and to be clearly seen from the street. It was not only to be visibly democratic but an advertisement for the drama within, especially when lit up at night. Gwynne described his client as having ‘an exceedingly open mind’ for architecture, but the brief was typical of that for old theatres all over the country as they tried to compete with the modern designs being built by the new repertory houses. En route to York one evening, Gwynne visited the acclaimed Nottingham Playhouse of 1961-3 by Peter Moro, which he found ‘very nice but rather institutional and I did not want to be institutional AT ALL’.2

Architectural plan of two sections of building
Fig. 3: designs for alterations and additions: sections, by Patrick Gwynne, 1967, © RIBA Collections.

Gwynne retained the plane trees and paved courtyard in the garden but removed the scenery hut. About half the available space became a wedged-shaped foyer formed by two tiers of the concrete umbrellas that he had devised for the Serpentine Restaurant; those on the lower tier he made the same hexagonal shape as before, but he elongated those on the upper floor so that he could then glaze right down the front using 20ft panels, the largest glass sheets then available. The interplay of the umbrellas gave an impression of vaulting that perfectly complemented its Gothic neighbour.3 Gwynne felt, however, that his façade needed something dramatic to compete with Styan’s work, and in return for opening up the colonnade of the old building he secured permission for one unglazed double-height umbrella that oversailed the pavement. Around it he floated a canopy and all the signage needed by a busy theatre. The concrete, which was made using local aggregate, was poured into moulds lined with melamine and after setting was grit blasted to give a precise finish but with a texture like that of stone. The fascias were again of fibreglass, with the steelwork cast into it until it rusted; he admitted that he should have used stainless steel but the cost precluded this and repairs in 1993 left the joints more exposed than he intended.

Stairs, with view of upper and lower floors
Fig. 4: the interior in 1968. Photo: © Henk Snoek, 1968, RIBA Collections.
Foyer with concrete pillars and seating
Fig. 5: view of the foyer. Photo: © Elain Harwood, 2021.

Inside, the main feature was Styan’s exposed side elevation, into which Gwynne cut doors leading into the four levels of the auditorium. By top-lighting the rear area, people moving inside the building could be seen from the outside even by day.4 Gwynne further heightened the contrasts of light and shade by lining the furthest wall in his favourite slate, with mosaic on the upper floor. This section also contained an opulent, tear-shaped staircase, whose construction had to be estimated rather than formally calculated by the consulting engineers Jenkins and Potter; it is edged in marble and has a steel handrail.

Architectural plan of building
Fig. 6: designs for alterations and additions: plan of the stalls, by Patrick Gwynne, 1967, © RIBA Collections.
Staircase leading to corridor and other staircase
Fig. 7: view of the staircase. Photo: © Elain Harwood, 2021.
View of staircase including underside view
Fig. 8: view of the staircase. Photo: © Elain Harwood, 2021.

The greatest problem was speed; the contractors got possession of the building in February 1967 and had to complete the work in time for the Christmas pantomime. Tensions between architect and client mounted, but the deadline was met since Gwynne took on three extra staff and paid two of them and their wives to stay in York (the third worked on another commission in the office at the time). He also had good contractors, but these were secured only after an initial difficulty. The chairman of the theatre board, Sir Peter Shepherd, was also the head of the leading local firm of builders, which was one of the firms invited to tender – and Gwynne was alarmed when his tender was far lower than Kenneth Monk’s estimated price. All the other builders were 1.5% higher. Gwynne worried that the tenders had been fixed and perhaps that he would have to make cuts, and instead went to builders he knew in Lincoln, Simons, who came in at the right price; they were a smaller firm but as much of the work had anyway to be sub-contracted to specialists this was less of a problem than the resultant row with the theatre board. The building duly opened on 23 December 1967 and was well received by the public. Gwynne was thrilled when, as he was taking some photographs of it from across the road, ‘a little old lady came up and declared, “I think it’s the most wonderful building I’ve ever seen”’.5

Gwynne’s repainting of the auditorium in twelve shades of green gave way in 1979 to a dull brown and cream, but the rest of his scheme survived little altered until in 2015-16 the theatre closed for further remodelling. The foyer was extended and the colonnade re-enclosed to make a new entrance. A Georgian staircase on the south side was brought back into use, a lift installed and the auditorium was again re-seated.6