DURING the 1760s, the Drury Lane Theatre in Saddler Street experienced a boom period under the influence of a company of actors managed by a Mr Bates.

In the third quarter of the 18th Century, Bates opened theatres across the region at Scarborough, Whitby, Stockton, Darlington, Sunderland and North Shields, and with Durham they formed a circuit for performing plays.

Durham's Drury Lane theatre did not belong to Bates.

The theatre's lease had been in the hands of John Richardson since 1754, and in 1771 Richardson closed the theatre to build a venue in Drury Lane.

The new theatre opened with a production of a play called the West Indian, along with other entertainment in front of a genteel audience who "expressed the greatest satisfaction at the elegance of the house and of the performance in general".

Contemporary plans suggest the theatre stood behind the shop now occupied by Oxfam, adjacent to the lane.

The stage was situated down the bank at the river end of the lane, with the dressing room located below the stage.

The raked auditorium followed the slope of the lane.

In 1782, a young relative of Bates, James Cawdell, became a partner in his company and took full control after Bates's retirement in 1787.

The Durham Theatre remained part of Cawdell's circuit, but it was in Richardson's possession until his death in 1785.

Unfortunately, the new owner, Richardson's daughter, Sarah, refused to renew the theatre's lease. The loss of the Durham Theatre was a great blow for Cawdell and a bitter dispute with Miss Nicholson ensued, but it was to no avail.

All was not lost for Cawdell, however, as he took great heart from the popular support for a theatre that existed in the city at the time.

With public backing, he set about building a theatre of his own. It opened in March 1792 and was located on the opposite side of Saddler Street, a little to the south of the earlier venue behind the Lord Nelson Inn.

This inn was later renamed the Shakespeare Tavern because of its theatrical connections, and still exists today.

As with the Drury Lane venue, access to the new theatre was along a narrow alley called Playhouse Passage, but the new theatre was a much bigger building.

It would become Durham's Theatre Royal, and its opening productions included a comedy, The Wild Oats, and a farce, The Spoiled Child.

Comedies were always popular with the Durham audiences.

Cawdell was so impressed by Durham's charms that he set up home in the city, residing in the South Bailey until his death in 1800.

During the 19th century, Durham's new theatre experienced increasing popularity under the influence of a new manager, Stephen Kemble.

He was a larger than life actor, famous for performing the part of Falstaff without padding.

Kemble had regularly appeared at London's Drury Lane Theatre and was a member of a famous acting and theatre-owning family.

He had become manager of a theatre in Newcastle in the 1790s, and when Cawdell died, Kemble took the opportunity to purchase the Durham theatre.

Kemble brought actors of a higher calibre to the region and a number of esteemed London performers appeared on the Durham stage. Kemble, like Cawdell, came to live in the city, and became a popular member of Durham society.

He was a close friend of another famous Durham resident, the 3ft 3in tall Polish dwarf, Joseph Boruwlaski.

When these two little and large friends strolled along the wooded paths of the city, they must have provided great comic entertainment for the people of Durham.

In later life, Kemble concentrated on theatre management, making only occasional appearances on the stage.

His last performance at Durham was in May 1822, a fortnight before his death.

He was fondly remembered by the natives of Durham, and was honoured with a burial in the cathedral.

The heyday of Durham theatre came to an end with Kemble's death, but the theatre continued to operate until 1869, when it was almost completely destroyed by a fire.

Unlike the 1780s, when a new theatre was built with strong public support, enthusiasm for a new venue would not materialise.

For the next 15 years, Durham was without a proper theatre. Some slight rebuilding of the burnt-out theatre was undertaken, but it fell into decline.

It had already lost its popularity with the Durham gentry, who kept clear of its dingy alley, and even before 1869 it had become a struggling music hall venue.

Over time, it would come to serve as a soup kitchen, Bible warehouse, exhibition hall, art school, piano salesroom and auctioneers.

The last surviving remnant of the theatre was part of its dressing room, demolished in 1974 to make way for student accommodation.

Today, the only reminder of the theatre is in the name of the Shakespeare Tavern, recalling one of the most popular playwrights whose work was performed at the venue.

In next week's Past Times, we will continue our journey of Durham's theatre history and examine the gradual transition from theatre to cinema.