Opera Scotland

Theatre Royal, Dundee Dundee

This was the first purpose-built theatre to be constructed in Dundee. Designed by local architect Samuel Bell, it opened in 1810. In common with many theatres of the day, it had a row of shops at street level, to generate year-round business, even when the theatre was closed.

The early managers included Henry Siddons, William Murray, and Charles Bass, all of whom were connected to theatrical enterprises in Edinburgh. They were succeeded by Corbett Ryder, who  ran the theatre in tandem with the northern circuit, which included venues as far north as Aberdeen.

As Dundee prospered, particularly with the stimulus provided by the Crimean and American Civil wars, so the theatre's fortunes benefitted. It was generally run by a series of actor managers who employed resident stock companies of actors to back up performances by the touring stars of the day.

In 1870 the theatre's final manager, William McFarland, from Southport, Lancashire, took over. He had arrived in Dundee a few years earlier as manager of a diorama show, and in 1866 took over direction of a circus building in Dock Street, which he ran as a successful music hall. When this building was found to be unsound, he transferred his enterprise to the Exchange, a handsome regency period building, that still stands at the bottom of Castle Street. By 1870 he had taken over management of the Theatre Royal up the road, and managed the theatre and music hall in tandem for several years, eventually adding the equivalent buildings in Aberdeen to his stable.

By 1883 the obsolescence of the Theatre Royal could no longer be ignored, and McFarland assembled a group of five prominent local businessmen. Putting up two-thirds of the capital themselves, they were quickly able to assemble the rest from the local business community. Acquiring a site a short distance away in Seagate, they had plans for a modern building drawn up.  Her Majesty's Theatre and Opera House opened in 1885, with M'Farland as manager.

After a period of renovation, the old Theatre Royal, which McFarland now actually owned, became a Variety house, with the business transferred from the Exchange. Unfortunately, there was soon a fire that caused considerable damage. Undaunted, McFarland set about repairs, but while these were in progress a second fire occurred, which seems to have finally discouraged him. He retired to Southport, and died soon after. By the end of the century, the Theatre Royal had been reconstructed as a china emporium with artists' studios in the attics. It later found a further use as office space. Its façade survives today.

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