King's Theatre, Glasgow

King's Theatre, Glasgow

The King's Theatre is located in Glasgow, Scotland. It was designed by English theatre architect Frank Matcham and opened in 1904. The theatre is primarily a receiving house for touring musicals, dance, comedy and circus-type performances. The theatre also provides a prominent stage for local amateur productions. The King's Theatre also stages an annual pantomime, produced by First Family Entertainment

The theatre is currently run by the Ambassador Theatre Group, although Glasgow City Council own the building.


The theatre occupies the corner of Bath Street and Elmbank Street, in the Charing Cross area of the city. The longer Bath Street elevation houses both the main entrance, the scenery dock and stage door. The equally decorative but shorter Elmbank Street elevation has various fire exits and the entrance to the Gallery.


The King's Theatre was commissioned by the Edinburgh-based theatre company Howard & Wyndham at a cost of over £50,000. Even though the theatre industry was booming at the time, some residents of the Charing Cross area, which had a large number of churches, objected to the construction of such a place of entertainment.Fact|date=February 2007 Despite this opposition, construction went ahead and the theatre opened on September 12th 1904.

Like many city theatres, it had been policy to close during the summer while many city residents headed to the coast for their holidays, but this all changed in 1933 when the then managing director of Howard & Wyndham, A. Stewart Cruikshank, decided to experiment with a seaside-style summer show. The show started at 8.30pm and was shorter and thus cheaper than the average show. The first such show was on the 5th June 1933, and was imaginatively titled the "Half Past Eight Show". This summer tradition continued until 1954, when Howard and Wyndham also acquired the Alhambra Theatre a short walk away in Waterloo Street. This was much larger than the King's and the summer variety shows were transferred there.

The King's, however, retained its traditional Christmas pantomime. These lavish shows were produced by Charles and Ilona Ross and featured such exotica as ballet dancers, real horses pulling Cinderella's carriage, elaborate sets and costumes, smoke effects, trap doors and music. The Christmas pantomime is still an annual feature at the King's, making use of local comedians and actors such as Gerard Kelly and Elaine C. Smith. There is always a healthy rivalry with other Scottish theatres to put on the biggest and best Christmas pantomimes, with the main competition to the King's in Glasgow being the Pavilion Theatre in Renfield Street.

Over the years many actors and actresses have graced the stage of The King's. These included Sir Lawrence Olivier, Sarah Bernhardt, John Gielgud, Katharine Hepburn and Tyrone Power. A young Michael Jackson even featured there as part of a Jackson Five appearance at a Royal Variety Performance in the late 1970s.

In 1967, Howard and Wyndham sold the King's Theatre to the Glasgow Corporation to finance their ever more elaborate "Five Past Eight" shows at the Alhambra - the name having changed after the war when the show started earlier. This may have been an act which secured the theatre for the future, as television and other distractions had led to the closure of many theatres in Britain. The pantomime then became subsidised by the City Council, and starred Scottish variety greats such as Stanley Baxter, Jimmy Logan and Rikki Fulton. In 1990 when the City of Glasgow became the European City of Culture, the theatre was to be the venue for the opening, and so underwent a programme of refurbishment.

In 2002 the theatre's day-to-day management was transferred to the Ambassador Theatre Group, becoming their first venue in Scotland, although they have since also taken over the management of the Theatre Royal, Glasgow at the opposite end of the city centre.

In 2004, the theatre celebrated its centenary, and a one-off documentary on the theatre was broadcast on BBC1 Scotland on 31st January 2003. The programme was presented by Elaine C Smith and featured interviews with Gerard Kelly, Stanley Baxter, Paul O'Grady, Tony Roper, Nicholas Parsons and Johnny Beattie, among others.

In 2005, responsibility for production of the pantomime was transferred to the Ambassador Theatre Group subsidiary First Family Entertainment.

The Building

Frank Matcham made effective use of the prominent corner site in designing the two facades of the building. Originally, an iron canopy, made by the Saracen Foundry in Possilpark, Glasgow, wrapped around the front of the building, although this appears to have been removed as early as the First World War, possibly for munitions production. The facade on Bath Street is a mix of styles, with influences of Baroque and Art Nouveau in red Dumfriesshire sandstone. A pair of two storey pavilions stand near either end of the Bath Street elevation, one providing access to the main foyer whilst the other houses the scenery dock, and opens straight onto the stage. The pavilions are topped with ball finials. Originally a female statue stood on top of either pavilion, but these were removed during the war period,to prevent them becoming damaged, however were subsequently misplaced, and have never been rediscovered.

The theatre provides seating on four levels - Stalls, Grand Circle, Upper Circle and Gallery. Matcham was famous for his innovative style of cantilever construction of the individual seating tiers, which virtually eliminated the need for supporting pillars, and the King's was no exception, with reasonable sightlines from most seats. Victorian and Edwardian theatres were almost always built to segregate patrons at each level, although subsequent modernisations often eradicate this. This has thus far not been the case in the King's, which still has separate entrances, some of which have traces of former pay boxes, now disused. The standard of seating and decoration is also less luxurious as you get further up the house. The Stalls and Grand Circle are accessed via the small main foyer, which still impresses with its barrel vaulted ceiling, horizontal bands of red and white marble, and decorative plasterwork on the ceilings, including caryatids. The Upper Circle is accessed via a door to a stairwell to the left of the main Bath Street entrance. The Gallery is accessed via a staircase at the back of the building with its own entrance on Elmbank Street.

The auditorium seats 1,785. The ceiling panelling fans out from a single centre ceiling rose - each panel originally contained painted scenes, although they are currently plain. The proscenium is surrounded by heavy marble and plasterwork borders. Above the proscenium an elegant design with cherubs flanking a crown and a K/T emblem provides a focal point to the theatre when the curtain is down. The red curtain has simple gilding, but often remains unseen as it is unused for many of today's productions. The seats and drapes are of a rich red material. The safety curtain features a painted design of drapes, and framed in the centre is a projection screen. At Grand Circle level two boxes on either side of the auditorium continue where the grand circle balcony finishes. A further box (now disused) is located at Upper Circle level above this, with an elaborate domed canopy. Three domed alcoves sit along either side of the upper circle. Comedian and actor Billy Connolly famously described it as 'like performing inside a wedding cake".Fact|date=February 2007

Subsequent alterations to the theatre includes the removal of the modern canopy, which ran along most of the Bath Street elevation. This dated from around the 1950s, and was removed in 2004 during a programme of external works, which also included some stone-cleaning and refurbishment. To complement the newly-revealed exterior architecture, the facades were floodlit with coloured lights. In 1986, an extension to the western side of the Bath Street elevation provided new dressing room and office accommodation, as well as a new wardrobe room and stage door.

As of recent years, the interior is now showing the effects of decades of wear and tear, neglect and repairs. The later flock wallpaper and patterned carpeting is out of place for even one of Matcham's designs, and many of the interior doors have been replaced at various stages with unsuitable modern doors and glazing. Vandalism has robbed many of the fire exits of their stained and coloured glass, and the tiles around the walls in the Stalls area have been covered by wooden panelling. The former Grand Circle bar has at some point been divided horizontally. This was originally a double-height space with a partially-glazed, barrel-vaulted ceiling, and elaborate plasterwork, which is now neglected and punctured by services in the staff area which now occupies the upper half of this space. In the auditorium and front of house spaces, exposed light bulbs, poor seating, damaged marble-work, worn carpets, peeling paint, damaged ceilings and surroundings all add to the appearance of the tired building.


In early 2008, the management of the King's Theatre announced that a full programme of interior refurbishment was planned, to restore the theatre to its former glory, in time for the Commonwealth Games that the city is to host in 2014. The first stage of this programme is the replacement of the seats in the auditorium, which is expected to take place over the dark period in the month of July.


* Book - Peter, Bruce - Scotland's Splendid Theatres - ISBN 0-7486-6261-8
* Book - Theatres Trust - Guide to British Theatres - ISBN 0-7136-5688-3

Other Areas of Interest


* King's Theatre Pantomime
* Theatre Royal, Glasgow
* Ambassador Theatre Group


"The theatre has been used for a number of recorded live performances:-"

* Francie & Josie - 1988 'King's High' - A 89 minute video. A 30 minute version was broadcast on BBC Scotland on some occasions. This is now available on DVD.
* Francie & Josie - Final 'Farewell' Performance. Available on VHS and DVD.
* Chewin' the Fat Live - Live performance of the hit BBC Scotland Sketch Show

External links

* [ Theatre's Official Website]
* [ Detailed Seating Plan]
* [ Pictures of the King's Theatre and other Glasgow Theatres]
* [ 360o Images of the interior.]
* [ Frank Matcham Society]
* [ Historic Scotland Listing Entry]

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