Signs and Wonders No 3: The Old Bill

Where: Weekday Cross
What: “First-class London” suggests a railway ad, but step closer — close enough to see the faded “Theatre Royal” above. Then it becomes a promise about the quality of touring productions.
The man promising, in smaller letters, is “Managing Director: Mr Robert Taylor”. And he seems to have kept his word, at least at first.
Taylor was a middle-ranking impresario. He started out at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, and came to control theatres in Dundee, Aberdeen, Wolverhampton, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Liverpool, as well as in suburban London.
He took on the Royal around 1897, after local management failed, and got prolific theatre architect Frank Matcham, then building a music hall next door for the much bigger Moss Empires chain, to do an expansion: up to 3,000 seats, from 2,500. It’s 1,100 or so today. In his first year, Taylor booked Henry Irving and Ellen Terry, his era’s biggest stars, and Janet Achurch, producer of scandalous new plays by the likes of Bernard Shaw.
Later on, top names did still visit: 1908 brought the great French actress Sarah Bernhardt (a student called D.H. Lawrence was in the audience). But day-to-day quality seems to have slipped. In 1920, “An Old Playgoer” wrote in the Weekly Guardian: “It would entail a long search to find the date when a Shakespeare play was last staged here.” In 1924, Moss Empires took control.