The exterior of the Theatre Royal Stratford East
|Owner||Pioneer Theatres Limited|
|Designation||Grade II* listed|
|Type||Non-profit producing theatre|
|Capacity||460 on three levels|
|Current use||Touring and own productions|
|Opened||17 December 1884|
|Architect||James George Buckle|
The Theatre Royal Stratford East is a large theatre in Stratford in the London Borough of Newham. Since 1953, it has been the home of the Theatre Workshop company, famously associated with Joan Littlewood.
The theatre was designed by architect James George Buckle, who was commissioned by the actor-manager Charles Dillon in 1884. It is the architect's only surviving work, built on the site of a wheelwright's shop on Salway Road, close to the junction with Angel Lane. It opened on 17 December 1884 with a revival of Richelieu by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Two years later, Dillon sold it to Albert O'Leary Fredericks, his sister's brother-in-law and one of the original backers of the scheme.
In 1887 the theatre was renamed Theatre Royal and Palace of Varieties and side extensions were added in 1887. The stage was enlarged in 1891, by the original architect. In 1902, Frank Matcham undertook minor improvements to the entrance and foyer. The Theatre reverted to its Theatre Royal Stratford East ('TRSE') name in 1914. A fire on the stage on August Bank Holiday Monday of 1921 did considerable damage to the rear of the theatre. Thankfully the fire happened at midnight, with the safety curtain lowered, saving the auditorium which retains many of its original features to this day. The theatre was closed until January 1922.
The Fredericks family continued to manage the theatre until 1932, although after the World War I, the theatre fell into financial difficulties, opening only irregularly after 1926. The proscenium is surmounted by the letters "FF", commemorating the association with the Fredericks – possibly Frederick Fredericks, the husband of Dillon's sister, and a successful actor in his own right. Theatre superstition has it that should the letters ever be removed, the theatre will crumble.
TRSE closed in 1938 and remained closed until 1943. Revues were then briefly tried, but failed, and again the theatre was closed until October 1946. Taken over by David Horne, it briefly became a successful playhouse including the legendary premiere of Patrick Hamilton's Gaslight, with Sybil Thorndike and Derek Bond – which ran for six months and was the theatre's first transfer to the West End. The theatre closed again in December 1949.
In late 1950, a touring company presented the Christmas pantomime, Alice in Wonderland. Highly experimental, its success was by no means guaranteed or uniform throughout the tour. "They'll lynch us", recalls Sven Stahl. "I still have nightmares about Alice in Wonderland at Barnsley and the miners throwing pennies at John Blanshard." The company were to return, as the Theatre Workshop in 1953, with artistic director Joan Littlewood and take over the theatre.
The theatre came under threat with the construction of the Stratford shopping centre in the 1970s, but was saved by a public campaign and protected in June 1972 by English Heritage with a Grade II* listing. Money remained short, and the manager, Gerry Raffles, only managed redecoration and replacements as cash became available. In 2001, following a successful Heritage Lottery Fund bid, all of the theatre's front of house and backstage areas were refurbished as part of the Olympiad's Stratford Cultural Quarter project.
In 1990, TRSE scored a massive hit with the premiere of Five Guys Named Moe, which immediately transferred to the West End and won the Olivier Award for Best Entertainment. The show has been produced all over the word, including Broadway, and continues to be revived regularly. In 2004, TRSE made history by having the first British Black musical, The Big Life, transfer to London's West End, where it played at the Apollo Theatre. In 2005, the theatre produced a musical version of the cult Jamaican film The Harder They Come – famous for its reggae soundtrack, which also transferred to the West End. This production was written by the film director Perry Henzel and was one of the most successful productions in the theatre's history.
Between 2016 and 2018, Stratford East hosted three productions of UCOpera, a semi-professional opera company where the orchestra, chorus, and some soloist roles are performed entirely by students.
The Theatre Royal became famous under the management of Gerry Raffles (1928–1975), who worked with director Joan Littlewood on such productions as A Taste of Honey and Oh, What a Lovely War!. In 1975, her collaborator and partner, Gerry Raffles died of diabetes, and in 1979, a devastated Joan Littlewood moved to France, never to direct again. Notable names to get their break at TRSE include Richard Harris, Murray Melvin, Barbara Windsor, Victor Spinetti, Brian Murphy, Avis Bunnage, Harry H Corbett, Yootha Joyce, composer/lyricist Lionel Bart, and writer Shelagh Delaney.
The playwright and director Ken Hill, a protegé of Joan Littlewood, took over as artistic director after she moved to France, prompted by the death of her partner, Gerry Raffles. After his short tenure as Artistic Director, Hill continued to work with TRSE until his death, most notably in raucous musicals. They included The Invisible Man which transferred from TRSE to the Vaudeville Theatre in the West End in 1993 and Zorro! The Musical which opened two weeks after Hill's death in 1995. Notable productions by Ken Hill at the TRSE include On Your Way, Riley! by Alan Plater, Scrape Off the Black by Tunde Ikoli, and My Girl by Barrie Keeffe.
Maxwell Shaw, another member of the original Theatre Workshop, was a character actor on both stage and film, most notably in The Oblong Box and Start The Revolution Without Me. He opened his tenure at the TRSE with his own adaptation of a Georges Feydeau farce Out of Practice.
Clare Venables was Artistic Director from 1977–1979. She went on to run the Crucible Theatre Sheffield from 1981–1992, was a founding director of the Actors’ Centre and a member of the Arts Council Drama panel. She was principal of the BRIT School of Performing Arts and Technology in Croydon from 1995–1999; and Director of Education of the Royal Shakespeare Company from 1991 until her death in 2003. Notable Venables productions included Old King Cole, The Silver Tassie, The Funniest Man in the World, and Sisters.
Philip Hedley, who had worked as an assistant to Joan Littlewood for some years, took over the artistic directorship of the theatre from Clare Venables in 1979. He provided traditional entertainment in style of old music hall variety shows on Sunday evenings while seeking to engage with new Asian and Black audiences, as the local demographic changed. The theatre continued Littlewood's agenda to portray and express the experience of local people in East London.
In 1999, he began the Musical Theatre Initiatives scheme to encourage new writing in musical theatre. In 2004, after 25 years as artistic director, he retired.
Kerry Michael joined Stratford East in 1997, as an associate director, becoming artistic director in September 2004. His manifesto is to bring London's new communities to the stage, and portray their experiences as second and third generation emigrants. His debut play as artistic director was The Battle of Green Lanes by Cosh Omar, set amongst London's Cypriot society. He directed the hit musicals The Harder They Come (at Theatre Royal Stratford East and then transferred to The Barbican and the West End's Playhouse Theatre) and also Come Dancing by Ray Davies and Paul Sirett.  In 2007, Pied Piper won the Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre, as did Cora Bissett's play Roadkill. in 2011. The theatre was nominated again in 2014 with their production of Oh! What a Lovely War!, a revival of the Joan Littlewood classic. Michael also directed the annual pantomime and was again nominated for an Olivier Award for Cinderella.
In 2012 Stratford East, 'fast becoming one of the UK's most innovative and interactive theatres', launched its Open Stage Project, enabling people to participate with everything from programming ideas to working on productions. 2014 productions at TRSE included David Baddiel's musical The Infidel, co-directed by Kerry Michael and David Baddiel. The 2016 season included Hotel Cerise, an adaptation of Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard by Bonnie Greer.
In 2016 Kerry Michael expanded TRSE across the square to Gerry's, a new cafe and an 80-seater studio. Kerry Michael stepped down as Artistic Director in 2017.
A director and playwright, Fall has worked extensively at the Royal National Theatre, directing shows including Chewing Gum Dreams, Our Country's Good and Home – which she also wrote.