The Second World War Years
Things went quite well for the Theatre Royal during the war years. Apart from a three-week break in September when hostilities commenced, the theatre remained open throughout. In the early days, when the air raid sirens were sounded, the lights went up and the manager came on stage to tell the audience. Later, signs placed on each side of the stage lit up when the sirens sounded. The warnings gave those in the audience who wanted to time to seek shelter in the nearby Chapelfield bomb shelter. There were no enemy action casualties at the theatre, although Gladwin did have a narrow miss at a cinema near his Sussex home. He was watching a film when the theatre took a direct hit and killed some of the audience. He survived with a shrapnel injury to a finger.
Many buildings in the Norwich city centre were destroyed by bombs during the war, but the Theatre Royal managed to escape—though not without some close shaves. The theatre management employed two or three men to stay in the building through the night on fire watch. Maurice King, a stagehand at the time, recalled how, when they were on watch, they used the under-stage space as their bomb shelter. He remembered snatching some sleep on the grand piano covered by a couple of drapes. One night, he was on duty with Frank Crane and Stanley Fuller (who later became the theatre’s long-serving house manager). He had gone to make himself a cup of tea when he heard Fuller shouting:
‘Quick the theatre’s on fire.’
We rushed out into the auditorium and it was full of white smoke. We then started to search the building to find out where the fire was. We all kept together. We went up the steps to the balcony and there on the stone steps, through the smoke, we saw two fire bombs. One at the top and one near the bottom. They were not much more than a foot long. They were still smoking but the flames had gone. We went down to the auditorium again and saw a brown patch on the ceiling. One of the bombs had got in the false roof. We took a panel off the air duct near the ceiling and Frank and I crawled through it to another panel. We took that off and squeezed through into the false roof where there was a light. There was the fire bomb. It had come through the roof and had landed on the wire netting upper layer of the plaster ceiling. By then, like the other two, it had burned out and there was no damage caused other than a big scorched patch on the ceiling. If it had gone through the ceiling and landed in the auditorium, it would have burned the theatre down and I might not be here to tell the tale now.
In 1940, the theatre survived a much bigger bomb that fell in Theatre Street but failed to explode.