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The Orange Tree Theatre is a 172-seat theatre at 1 Clarence Street, Richmond upon Thamesmarker in south west London, built specifically as a theatre in the round.

Exclusively presenting its own productions (and occasional co-productions with the Stephen Joseph Theatremarker in Scarboroughmarker), it specialises in staging new plays and neglected classics. It also operates an educational programme called Shakespeare for Schools, part of the Primary Shakespeare Project first devised by Sarah Gordon and Christopher Geelan in 1989. which tours fully-costumed adaptations, given by professional actors, in school halls around south west London and Surrey.

Since 1986 the theatre has run a Trainee Director scheme, each year appointing two young assistant-directors, who direct and present a showcase production at the end of their term. Graduates of this arrangement have included Rachel Kavanaugh, Timothy Sheader, Sean Hol, Dominic Hill and Anthony Clark.

The first Orange Tree Theatre

As a company the Orange Tree Theatre, then known as the Richmond Fringe, was founded on 31 December 1971 by its present artistic director, Sam Walters, and his actress wife Auriol Smith, in a small room above the Orange Tree pub, close to the Richmond railway station.

Six former church pews, arranged around the performing area, were used to seat an audience of up to 80 in number.

Initially productions were staged in daylight and at lunchtimes. But when theatre lighting and window-blinds were installed, matinee and evening performances of full-length plays also became possible. The London critics regularly reviewed its productions and the venue gained a reputation for quality and innovation, with theatregoers queueing on the stairs, waiting to purchase tickets.

The new Orange Tree Theatre

Orange Tree Theatre
As audience numbers increased there was pressure to find a more accommodating space, both front and backstage, and on 14 February 1991, the company opened its first production across the road in the current premises, the new Orange Tree Theatre housed within a converted primary school.

Meanwhile the original theatre continued to function as a second stage for shorter runs and works in translation until 1997, renamed The Room (above the pub).

Design and conversion

The school conversion and construction design were undertaken by Iain Mackintosh as head of the Theatre Projects Consultants team. The design intent was to retain the same sense of intimacy as the old theatre, thus calling for an unusually small acting area.

The solution was to create, at stage level, no more than three rows of shallow raked seating on any side of the acting area, plus an irregular, timber-clad gallery above of only one row (which helps to 'paper the wall with people') under which actors could circulate on two sides to reach the stage entrances at all four corners of the playing space.Foyers and dressing rooms were sited in the rebuilt house of the former headmaster, while the theatre space itself is built where once were the assembly hall and school playground.

Any fears that the special atmosphere of the old theatre would be lost have proved totally unfounded, and close links have been formed with the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, also founded as an in-the-round theatre by Sir Alan Ayckbourn.

Costs of development

The total construction and conversion cost including shell. fitting out, fees etc, was estimated at £1,750,000. The developers County and District Properties and Grosvenor Developments provided the shell structure, worth £1,000,000, as a "planning gain" for a development which also includes the European headquarters of Pepsi-Cola International. This left £750,00 to be raised by a Theatre Appeal, launched in 1988 by Richmond residents Sir Richard and Lady Attenborough.

2003 Extension

In 2003 the former Royal Bank of Scotland building next door to the new theatre was modified and re-opened as a dedicated space for rehearsals, set-building and costume storage, significantly expanding and improving its operation.


As well as producing the first six plays by Martin Crimp, plays by Susan Glaspell and developing a reputation for theatrical 'rediscoveries', the Orange Tree repertory has also included many special seasons for the work of James Saunders, Michel Vinaver, Rodney Ackland, Václav Havel, Harley Granville Barker and Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries, including John Galsworthy.

For the core repertory, see separate articles on the Artistic Director Sam Walters and Associate Director Auriol Smith. But many other directors have made notable contributions, including:

Chris Monks has twice brought his particular vision of Gilbert & Sullivan, The Mikado (2005) and The Pirates of Penzance (2006), which break away from the Savoyard tradition.

In September 2008 the Orange Tree presented the English language premiere of Leaving by Václav Havel, which had its Czech premiere in Prague in May 2008. This is the first play Havel has written since the events of 1989 propelled him into political office. The play, which has echoes of King Lear and The Cherry Orchard, concerns the leaving of office of Chancellor Rieger and his eviction from the state villa which has been his home. Although the theme may appear to have an autobiographical element, Havel began writing it in the late 1980s with no idea that he would soon be his country's leader.


  • Making Space for Theatre by Ronnie Mulryne and Margaret Shewring, Mulryne & Shewring Ltd, Stratford (1995) ISBN 1900065002
  • Theatre Record and its annual Indexes
  1. Visit Richmond London Borough of Richmond upon Thames
  2. Making Space for Theatre by Ronnie Mulryne and Margaret Shewring, Mulryne & Shewring Ltd, Stratford (1995) ISBN 1900065002
  3. Orange Tree Theatre, brochure edited by Marsha Hanlon, published by the Orange Tree Theatre, February 1991

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