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Eight extraordinary facts about the Royal Court Theatre

From dining in a former public loo to award-winning cement walls, theatre manager Rachel Dudley shares some of the things that make the Royal Court a truly unique theatre

22 February 2024

The Royal Court Theatre started life as a chapel before becoming a haven for avant-garde performances. Here, discover eight fun facts about Sloane Square’s famous venue with theatre manager Rachel Dudley… 

 

1. Bathroom break

When you visit the Royal Court, you can grab a drink or a snack in a converted public toilet.  “During the mid-’90s, the theatre wanted to expand, and as they couldn’t build upwards, they decided to dig down,” Rachel explains. The result is a subterranean bar deep beneath Sloane Square, including a small dining area called The Ladies Room – so-called because it used to be the public ladies’ toilets in Sloane Square. “The gents’ toilets are still down here too – although we use them for electrical supplies,” Rachel says.  

2. Award-winning walls

Take a close look at the walls in the Royal Court bar, and you’ll notice an unusual texture. “The walls are made from huge chunks of concrete,” Rachel explains, “but the architect didn’t want it to look like a car park. So, while the concrete was setting, wood was laid against it so that the wood grain patterns would create a fossilised look. The effect was so successful that these walls have actually won a concrete award!”

3. All the world’s a stage

“It’s important to the Royal Court that theatre should be able to happen anywhere,” says Rachel. “For that reason, we have lighting rigs everywhere, including in the bar, so that anywhere in the building can become a theatre venue at a moment’s notice. Shows don’t just happen on stage here: we’ve held readings in our offices, performances in our cloakrooms, and one-person shows in our box office.”

4. Access all areas

“We want the theatre to be accessible for people who are blind or partially sighted,” Rachel says. “Our handrails are either wooden, metal or covered in leather to create different temperatures and textures, and there are raised nodules that allow you to feel which level you’re on by touch alone. The voices in the lift, which tell you what floor you are on, were recorded by famous actors, including Ray Winstone.”

5. Symbolic art

A bright red wall can be spotted on all three levels of the Royal Court. “The Vermilion Wall was created by an artist called Antoni Malinowski,” explains Rachel. “It can be quite controversial – some people think it’s just a wall painted red. But for us, it represents the separation between our lives when we arrive at the theatre and the ‘other world’ of the stage. The theatre is a protected space; We don’t sell programmes or ice creams there as there may be soundscapes or immersive theatre experiences.”

6. A new theatre to avoid censorship

The Jerwood Theatre Upstairs was created in the Royal Court’s attic space to evade censorship. Rachel says: “There used to be censorship laws which meant that the Lord Chamberlain’s office would tell us what we could or could not perform. That completely went against our ethos as a writers’ theatre.

“To get around censorship, a deal was reached – this upstairs theatre was turned into a private members’ club, where we could perform what we liked. For that reason, this theatre has always been home to more controversial or boundary-pushing works – like The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The plays here are experimental – sometimes they feature real animals – and can be challenging, occasionally requiring trigger warnings.”

7. Inventive staging

The Royal Court is known for its inventive staging – including a recent production, when a curtain of couscous fell down onto the stage. Rachel says: “Bags and bags of couscous were suspended above the stage and fell down to form a curtain. The challenge was to make the drop rate consistent across the stage so that all the couscous didn’t just fall down at once. In the next scene, all the fallen couscous became a beach!” If you’d like to stage your own spectacle in the Royal Court, the theatre is also available for weddings. 

8. Seating designed to look like old Ford car seats

“All the seats in the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs are designed to look like the old Ford car seats,” Rachel notes. “At the time they put the leather seats in, it was quite controversial because leather is expensive. But [former artistic director] Stephen Daldry said that these will last and that people should be comfortably seated because it is all about the work on stage. 

“Cooling grates under the seats allow us to send smells up into the theatre for full immersion. There are also standing positions in the theatre, which are sold one hour before the show for just 10p.”

 

To learn more about the Royal Court, you can join a behind-the-scenes tour, which will end with a glass of bubbly or a cream tea. royalcourttheatre.com
Royal Court, Sloane Square, Chelsea, London SW1W 8AS

 

This story originally appeared in the July/August 2023 issue of Sloane Square magazine.

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