New Theatre Oxford
New Theatre Oxford Overview
Every year, thousands of people flock through the doors of the New Theatre Oxford to see the best names from the world of theatre, music, opera, dance, comedy and more. Some of the star names who have graced the stage include Sir Lawrence Olivier, Queen, Dame Barbara Windsor, Ricky Gervais, Dolly Parton, Margot Fonteyn, Morecombe and Wise and Michael Bublé.
The venue has a rich and vibrant history dating back almost 200 years. Situated on George Street, in the heart of Oxford’s bustling city centre, there has been a theatre on the site since 1836 – and the current building is the third incarnation of the venue.
The first theatre on this site was known as the Vic, but was later renamed as the Theatre Royale after the company that played there. It was forbidden to perform plays during University terms to prevent students from being distracted from their studies, so the lessee resorted to putting on concerts and music hall entertainment to attract audiences.
However, by 1880 the theatre had become run down. A company of people from both town and gown was formed in a bid to raise money for a new theatre which would be used by the University and town players, as well as professional companies.
The new venue was designed by H.G.W. Drinkwater, who was also the architect behind St Frideswide Square vicarage and The Grapes public house, amongst others. It had a 1,000 seat capacity and opened in February 1886 with a performance of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night by the Oxford University Dramatic Society.
Sadly, the building was damaged by fire in 1892. It was again altered in 1908 when the seating capacity was increased to 1,200.
In 1908, the Dorrill family took over the venue and ran it for the next 64 years. In 1933, Stanley Dorrill decided he wanted to build ‘the most luxurious and comfortable house of entertainment in England’ and commissioned a new building from the well-known theatre architects William and T.R. Milburn of Sunderland.
The third, and current, New Theatre opened in 1934 to much fanfare. It included a revolving stage (the mechanism of which can still be seen sub-stage as part of our theatre tours) and an increased capacity of 2,000 (1,710 seated).
This luxurious new venue attracted all of the great dramatic actors, popular and operatic singers, musicians, music hall entertainers and matinee idols of the time to Oxford. The renowned annual pantomimes - with Vera Legge’s famous Oxford Babes during the war years - became an Oxford family ritual.
As the years went by, the musicals and plays performed on the New Theatre stage were joined by pop and rock concerts – a programming trend which continues to this day.
In 1972, the Dorrill family were bought out by the provincial theatre chain Howard and Wyndham and in 1977 Apollo Leisure took over the lease of the theatre renaming it The Apollo – a name which many still fondly remember.
In 1999, Apollo Leisure were bought out by SFX, who sold to Clear Channel Entertainment in 2001 (whose theatre division became Live Nation in 2005). It was in 2003, following a refurbishment, that the theatre reverted back to being called the New Theatre.
The venue is now run by the Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG), a global leader in live entertainment with nearly 50 venues around the world. The seating capacity is 1,785 and the building is not listed.
Visitors can take a backstage tour of the theatre, and take a look behind the scenes and also walk out on to the stage where so many famous faces have gone before. For more information on when the next backstage tour takes place click here or call the box office on 0844 871 3020 (calls cost up to 7p per minute plus your phone company’s access charge).