His Majesty’s Theatre in the centre of Aberdeen is a beautiful building overlooking Union Terrace Gardens, and Dark Secret has had many a pleasurable evening watching some of the excellent shows they have hosted over the last few years. Every so often, just for a few weeks a year, you can see what the visiting performers get to see, and have a tour backstage. FnS decided to take the tour.
The tour begins in the new extension – the glass structure hosting the box office, cafe (named 1906 in honour of the date the theatre opened) and restaurant. Upstairs it blends seamlessly into the old building, attaching itself to a function room and hence through to the very upper levels of the theatre itself.
Built by Frank Matcham it was, and still is, the largest theatre in NE Scotland. Costing £35,000 to build, it is made of Kemnay granite, and built using local tradesmen, with some imported marble used internally to form a picture frame around the stage area as well as for decorative pillars and walls under the boxes.
The entire auditorium is a feat of engineering – most theatres use pillars to take the weight of the building but here, there are none. Frank Matcham didn’t want
pillars to impede viewing of the stage, so the dress and upper circles were cantilevered to take the weight at the back walls.
Because there was a King (Edward) on the throne at the time the theatre opened, it was named His Majesties Theatre. There was in Aberdeen a smaller theatre called Her Majesty’s Theatre, built in 1872, however as only one royal dedicated theatre is allowed at a time, it had to change. Renamed the Tivoli it was closed for a time after HMT was built, before re-opening in 1910. After a long stint as a bingo hall and after another long closure The Tivoli has recently had a huge refurbishment and re-opened as a theatre.
Originally seating 2500, and with the foyer entrance leading directly to the dress circle, and with the stage below entrance level, HMT was a unique Theatre design at the time. The first show held in the newly opened theatre was a pantomime, Little Red Riding Hood – it ran for four hours and had three curtain calls. A triumph indeed.
With the advent of the ‘talkies’ in around 1933, there was talk of closure, due to low attendance. However, the new owner decided to move with the times, adding
neon lighting, film projectors and a revolving stage for variety shows. The inside was also revamped, with the removal of the benches and the addition of steeper
seating rows to allow people to see the entire movie screen. Now the order of the day was a movie, followed by a variety show.
It was during this period when the theatre acquired one of its’ several reputed ghosts. ‘Jake’ was a stagehand, working the lifts which were used to manually winch the heavy things from street level to the stage. The heavy things included the ponies which were lifted, a few at a time, up and down for the performances. Wanting to save some time six of the poor beasts were stuffed into the lift which, as it turns out, couldn’t take the weight. ‘Jake’ was caught on the wrong end of a winch and sadly lost his head. The original revolving stage used at this time is no longer in use, but the underside of it can still be seen in the basement.
Moving down from the top tier to the stalls, you pass the boxes, located on either side of the stage; they are not really used today as the view of the stage is not great – these seats were there for those who wanted to see, and be seen by, those seated elsewhere in the theatre.
Going backstage, and walking past the dressing rooms – including the Sir Ian McKellan – we are warned not to touch anything or take photos. The show currently on tour here is Jersey Boys and all the props and stage decorations are laid out ready for the show later. It was fascinating to see all the bits and bobs that would be used later on and there was so much photogenic material there is was heartbreaking to walk by. Still, we were allowed to photograph the view looking out from the stage front. It really is a beautiful place.
The stage was upgraded in the 70’s to add a counterweight fly system which meant that the larger touring shows could visit a big bonus for Aberdeen.
The pit area to the front of the stage can be re-sized as needed, so for a show requiring a large or full orchestra, the first several tiers of seats are removed and the pit area enlarged and for a ballet or show needing more stage space, the stage can be enlarged out into the pit.
Many of the seats have been sponsored – if you fancy a seat in your name there are still some available. Sadly, it doesn’t mean you get to use the seat whenever you want though – you will still need to buy tickets!
Taking a look at the original entrance, you can still see the original (but now unused) box office booth, with the fold out pricing boards. It’s lovely to see these original features still in place.
All in all, it was a really interesting hour or so with some very helpful and pleasant people to guide you, great value for only a fiver. Next time you get the chance, take the tour, even SB was more than entertained.
His Majesty’s Theatre website