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Victorian Ghosts in the Machine

Robert Thorne takes a look at the reconstruction of the New Tyne Theatre after a recent fire.

Last year hardly a week seemed to go by without a report of an appalling disaster – an earthquake, an air crash, or a calamity at a football ground. Where historic buildings are concerned, catastrophe bided its time until the year had almost ended. Then on Christmas Day, the one day in the year when public life comes to a halt and everyone goes home, fire broke out in a back room at the New Tyne Theatre, Newcastle-upon- Tyne. By the time the alarm was sounded it had spread into the dressing-rooms, and from them to the stage and the roof. The stage curtain did its job in protecting the auditorium but behind it the whole of the stage area, including its unique example of working Victorian stage machinery, was burnt out. Three weeks later the few fragments that remained were crushed when part of the rear stagewall, vulnerable once the roof had gone, blew down in a January gale.

The New Tyne Theatre was built in 1867 to provide, as its first manager put it, 'a manly and generous rival' to the well-known Theatre Royal. Its location, slightly away from the city centre in the now down-at-heel Westgate Road, was no disadvantage in its early years. On its opening night, when the performance was a play by Dion Boucicault, about 3,000 people crammed into the pit and the three tiers of balconies and boxes above. Although the show was under-rehearsed it went well enough to demonstrate all the merits of the building, including the admirable acoustics of the wood-panelled auditorium.

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