Guildford has a long, vibrant history of theatre dating back to the Guild Merchants’ Mysteries in the early 17th century. We hold a diverse collection of playbills from 1830 onwards.
Early plays were performed in the cockpit of the Red Lion Inn in Market Street until the prolific impresario, Henry Thornton, built the adjoining Guildford Theatre which flourished from 1789 until 1860. Two large volumes of playbills were presented to the Guildford Institute by Frank Lasham.
The playbills reveal the extent of an evening’s entertainment, which could include two major plays from light comedy to Jacobean tragedy interspersed with comic songs and recitations, extraordinary speciality acts, tableaux and conjuring, and animal acts from performing dogs to pageants with horses. Playbills usually detail the full cast, a synopsis of the main play, prices of admission and those who might benefit from the performance.
After the Guildford Theatre waned, the building was demolished and The Borough Hall in North Street became a new venue for entertainment. Our collection of 210 playbills and programmes from The Borough Theatre and The Large Hall ranges from 1880-1895; they are of varying sizes and ornamentation and contain programme notes as well as cast lists, a list of sponsors and notable patrons.
The Theatre Royal was one of the later theatres, although the Institute holds no programmes, but the Guildford Repertory Theatre, one of most innovative and successful of its kind in the country, shared the building from 1955. The Institute has an intermittent collection of their programmes from 1955-1963, when the building was burnt down.
In 1965 the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre opened, named in memory of the French comedienne and pianist who lived locally. Our collection of its programmes includes the Opening Festival, and a varied selection from the 1960s with a more comprehensive collection from 1970 onwards.