Dictionary of Sydney

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Royal Standard Theatre

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Royal Standard Theatre

This hall, designed by the architects Ellis and Slater, was built for the Ancient Order of Foresters, a lodge and friendly society, on the western side of Castlereagh Street, south of Bathurst Street. It was a three-storey building, surmounted by what was claimed to be the largest carved stone pediment in Sydney, which displayed the rich foliage and arms of the Foresters' Lodge.

The main building was designed for use as a theatre. Its interior was 99 feet long and 36.5 feet wide (30.1 by 11.1 metres), with a ceiling height of 32 feet (9.75 metres). The floor was divided into stalls and a pit, with a dress circle above, giving an official seating capacity of 906 people. The stage was 36 feet wide and 25 feet deep (10.9 by 7.6 metres) with a slight slope built into the floor with a canvas and wood proscenium arch, 20 feet (6.1 metres) wide, in front of it. The building was gaslit, with a central chandelier in the auditorium containing 40 light jets. There was a lodge room above the dress circle and more rooms over the auditorium.

The hall opened on 29 April 1886. The building was named the Royal Standard on 8 May 1886, only nine days after its opening, and was leased to vaudeville entrepreneur Frank Smith. For its use as a theatre, Smith had 308 iron tip-up chairs, upholstered in crimson velvet, put into the front stalls and 220 in the dress circle. The rear stalls had 442 hard tip-up seats.

Throughout its 30-year life as a theatre, the Royal Standard underwent many design and decorative conversions. While it was regarded as one of Sydney's 'lesser theatres' it was used for melodrama, vaudeville and repertory productions. The first production in the new theatre was Alfred Dampier's The Phantom Ship, a spectacular based on the legend of the Flying Dutchman, a moderately successful work probably written by Dampier's wife, Katharine Russell. Dampier's association with the theatre contained with the premiere of his adaptation with Thomas Somers of Marcus Clarke's For the Term of his Natural Life on 5 June, 1886.

The theatre was leased in 1901 to the Fuller brothers from New Zealand on their first foray into Australia. They renovated the building and it reopened as the Empire Theatre on 16 March 1901 with their Empire Minstrel and Variety Company. With their motto 'Hilarity without Vulgarity' they presented a weekly change programme of vaudeville. Orchestra stalls cost two shillings, and sixpence bought a ticket to the uncomfortable gallery. The company played there for nearly a year, but then the Fullers returned to New Zealand to regroup and expand. In November 1906 it was renamed the Standard Theatre and occupied by Harry Clay's Vaudeville Company, on one of their rare city seasons.

The building experienced various vicissitudes in the next decade. It was used as a boxing booth, accused of being a site of a two-up school, and hosted spiritualist séances, concerts and dances. At last in 1913 it was taken over by English performers Hugh C Buckler and his wife Violet Paget.

Much renovated and redecorated, the former Royal Standard reopened on 23 March 1913 as the Little Theatre – 'the Home of High-class Comedy'. The Little Theatre was decorated in a colour scheme of mauve and buff with 'old English panelling and soft shades lights, pot rails with antique pottery and brackets with palms…' New wicker chairs with mauve coverings provided comfortable seating. Other embellishments included an 'unobtrusive' soda fountain, while the pit was extended under the stage to turn it into a tea and coffee lounge. This was the scene of post-matinee afternoon teas in which cast and audience members who had occupied the expensive seats mingled. This activity generated press criticism that such encounters destroyed the theatregoers' illusions. [1]

The Little Theatre was a professional company, led by Buckler who, after a London career, had managed the National Theatre in Cape Town before touring to Australia with his wife in 1910. There was a semi-permanent company, including Reynolds Denniston, Kenneth Brampton, Lillian Lloyd and Reginald Wykeham. The name came from that given to an amateur movement which began in the USA around 1910 as a reaction to the dominance of Broadway in theatre presentation.

The theatre's first production, opening on 22 March 1913 was the farce The Man on the Box by Grace Livingston Furniss. It was followed into 1914 by Shaw's satire Fanny's First Play, the comedy Bobby Burnit, Arnold Bennett's The Great Adventure, Sheridan's She Stoops to Conquer and School for Scandal, Pinero's His House in Order and Tom Robertson's well-loved David Garrick. Other endeavours included a successful matinee for the Women's Hospital at Crown Street which, with additional government subsidy, raised over £3,000. A locally written play set in southern Africa called Master of Angerstroom, coupled with a short comedy by WM Jacobs called The Grey Parrot, also received flattering reviews in the Sydney Morning Herald. [2]

Buckler was the much admired 'matinee idol' lead in these productions. His wife was, apparently, less popular, with reviews inferring that her style was more mannered than audiences desired in contemporary plays. From 1913–15 the company toured to Melbourne, New Zealand and Brisbane, but when Buckler enlisted in the armed forces while in Brisbane, the company returned to Sydney. There was a temporary manager and attempts to keep the theatre going, but the initiative driving the project was gone. The Little Theatre was effectively finished by the effect of World War I. Its last production was probably Tom Robertson's Caste in late 1915. They closed in 1916.

The lease on the theatre passed to Sydney James, who again renovated and reopened as The Playhouse on 29 September 1917 with The New Sin. a play 'that will live in the memory' by Basil MacDonald Hastings, described by the Herald as a 'journalist/dramatist'. [3] The production, starring Harry R Roberts, received a complimentary review in the Herald which commented on the quality of the writing. [4] Management of the theatre, however, soon changed again. Control of the Playhouse passed to J and N Tait and it ended its days as a theatre on 15 January 1921 with a short lived mixed variety show titled the Aussie Smart Set Diggers – a show, according to the Herald advertising, 'unlike anything else in Sydney.' [5] The building was demolished c1923.


Eric Irvin, Dictionary of the Australian Theatre, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, 1985, p 286

'K.M.A.S: Souvenir. The Little Theatre Anniversary 1913-14', Sydney 1914, State Library of NSW, Mitchell Library collection

Harold Love, (ed), The Australian Stage: a documentary history, University of New South Wales Press, Kensington NSW, 1984

Philip Parsons (gen ed) with Victoria Chance, Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press in association with Cambridge University Press, Paddington NSW, 1995, pp 180, 238


[1] 'K.M.A.S: Souvenir. The Little Theatre Anniversary 1913-14', Sydney, 1914, State Library of NSW, Mitchell Library collection

[2] 'K.M.A.S: Souvenir. The Little Theatre Anniversary 1913-14' Sydney 1914, State Library of NSW, Mitchell Library collection

[3] Sydney Morning Herald, 29 September 1917, p 2

[4] Sydney Morning Herald, 1 October 1917, p 3

[5] Sydney Morning Herald, 10 January 1921, p 7