When a trip to the theatre could end with a race to the exit

A trip to the theatre nowadays is usually a treat. Today when passing through the glass doors of our beautiful theatres in the south-west and seeing the lush surroundings, the deep red carpet, the swish doors of the auditorium, and passing through those doors, the rows of comfortable velvet clad seats, all numbered. One of those seats is yours for the evening, where you will witness a live play, or a musical or even a pantomime. But whatever you will see, you will be enthralled, transported to a different world of the theatre with live performers – just for you … for a few hours.

But just about a century ago a trip to the theatre was an entirely different experience. Without many of the forms of electrical entertainment we now take for granted, a trip to theatre was usually to witness a performance of variety, such as singing, dancing, jokes and even a bit of magic. The auditorium was very varied in its accommodation, with sprung seats for the well-heeled, and benches, or standing on straw, for everyone else in the heights of the gallery. The wealthy seats didn’t have it all good though, as when it got riotous, beer and other objects would rain down from the heights from the over-excited crowd onto the seats below.

Lighting was a challenge in Victorian theatre. Live fire on the stage was not unusual, and fire escapes were non-existent. Oil lamps replaced candles, and then gas lamps followed, but all were volatile when it came to a fault. Almost every theatre in the United Kingdom suffered with one fire or another during this period, and over 26 theatres were destroyed completely by fire during this time.

In Bath the Theatre Royal was all but burnt to the ground in 1862 when a fire broke out one night, luckily it was empty. Just the façade was left standing, but plans were quickly put in place to build anew, and in 1863 it opened again to a Midsummer Night’s Dream. A fire-proof curtain on the stage, additional exits and a staircase were fitted in 1902 in order to comply with safety regulations. The Theatre Royal in Bath then enjoyed a renaissance until the 1970s when going out for entertainment had now become unfashionable. It was sold on several times and ran into debt and dilapidation, before it limped on through the 1980s.

But after the millennium and the tourist trade booming, the theatre enjoyed a new popularity. The Ustinov and the Egg auditoriums were built and the Theatre Royal itself was refurbished to a standard to suit the audience of the 21st century.

The smell of the grease paint is gone, and so are the lime lights, but a night out at the theatre remains as popular as ever. In 2018 large crowds of people in closed spaces such as auditoriums are also taken very seriously by fire safety officials. For all your fire safety needs including installation and maintenance of fire alarms, smoke alarms, extinguishers, fire blankets, fire risk assessments and fire safety training for your staff contact our own specialist people at Bath & West Fire & Safety.

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