Roz Laws takes a look back at the glorious history of The Rep.
Laurence Olivier made his debut here. Albert Finney, Michael Gambon, Peter O’Toole, Edith Evans, Derek Jacobi and Paul Scofield all trod its boards.
It’s survived bomb attacks, a move to a new home and violent protests over a controversial play.
And now the Birmingham Rep has reached its 100th birthday, with its centenary celebrations starting tomorrow.
Sir Barry Jackson was the visionary director in charge of building the Rep in Station Street in the city. That’s where, in the building now known as the Old Rep, the theatre’s birthday season kicks off with the premiere of Philip Pullman’s I Was A Rat!
The building, housing 464 seats, was the first purpose-built British repertory theatre.
Sir Barry, who later went on to work at the Malvern Theatre and Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, opened its doors on February 15, 1913 with a production of Twelfth Night.
More than 3,000 productions have been staged there over the centenary. There were world premieres, including George Bernard Shaw’s Back to Methuselah in 1923 and Ayub Khan-Din’s East Is East in 1996, which went on to become an award-winning film.
John Drinkwater’s play Abraham Lincoln was the first Rep production to be staged in London, in 1919. Dudley’s James Whale played the assassin John Wilkes Booth, before heading to Hollywood to direct such classics as 1931’s Frankenstein.
There were ground-breaking Shakespearean productions in modern dress in the 1920s, with Cymbeline the world’s first in 1923.
Three years later, Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson made their professional stage debuts at the Rep.
A young Albert Finney played Henry V in 1957 and Macbeth to June Brown’s Lady Macbeth in 1958. June later found TV fame as Dot Cotton in EastEnders.
Derek Jacobi went straight from university to three years at the Rep, where Olivier spotted him playing Henry VIII and recruited him to the new National Theatre.
Other actors to appear include Noel Coward, Julie Christie, Patricia Routledge, Peggy Ashcroft, Timothy Dalton and Brian Cox.
Richard Chamberlain was Hamlet here in 1969. Damien Lewis was Romeo in 1994, while Alan Rickman was Sherlock Holmes to David Suchet’s Moriarty in a 1976 production.
For all its worthy work, the Rep is certainly not all highbrow. In 1998 it celebrated The Rocky Horror Show’s 25th anniversary with a new production, starring Jason Donovan as Frank n Furter.
The stage production of The Snowman, featuring Walking In the Air, started out at the Rep in 1993 directed by Bill Alexander before being performed around the world.
There have been moments of crisis. The theatre’s wardrobe building, based in Hinkley Street, was destroyed during the 1940 Blitz and decades of sets and costumes went up in flames.
In 2004, the theatre was forced to close after violence broke out among rioters protesting at the controversial play Behzti. Written by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, a controversial scene in a Sikh temple included scenes of rape and murder, which some said they found deeply offensive.
More than 700 arts figures, including Prunella Scales, Samuel West and Willy Russell, signed a letter in support of the playwright and the right of the Rep to stage the play without intimidation.
In 1971 the company moved to a newly-built theatre in Broad Street, with a huge stage and a democratic auditorium of 901 seats with no boxes or dress circle. The idea was that everyone should share the same space and get a good view.
In 2011 it closed again for two years as part of a £188 million redevelopment which will see it linked to the new Birmingham Library. Productions have continued in venues across the city, from the Old Rep to four caravans. In September the Rep moves back to its revamped home, appropriately in Centenary Square.