With the news that Historic Environment Scotland are considering listing the Dundee Rep we have been thinking about its role in the City and the many ways it is linked to the University. Here Archive Services, which holds part of the Rep’s archive, gives us a glimpse of its history.

Dundee Repertory Theatre, known to generations of Dundonians as “the Rep” has been at the heart of Dundee life for over 80 years.

On of the Rep’s well known productions from 1986

Although Dundee has a rich theatrical tradition, by the 1930s this was under threat. Partly due to the immense popularity of cinemas in the city, live performances of drama had declined and the city did not have a permanent venue for performing plays. It was in these circumstances that the Dundee Repertory Company was formed in 1939. The driving force behind this was Robert Thornley an actor producer and director who had previously performed in Dundee and with the local Dundee Dramatic Society. Initial audience numbers were low but they soon improved and by April 1940 Thornley was writing that full houses were now the norm. The group performed in various venues in 1939 and a permanent home was found with the acquisition of the Foresters’ Hall in Nicoll Street which was adapted into a theatre ready to be used by Christmas 1939.

Nicoll Street can be seen just north-west of the Howff in this 1937 plan

Despite the problems of the War, the Rep proved remarkably successful. Early actors included Richard Todd and Patrick Cargill who would both go on to achieve international fame, and in 1944 the theatre staged the world premier of Agatha Christie’s theatrical adaptation of her successful novel Death on the Nile.

Disaster struck in June 1963 when the Theatre was destroyed by fire. Undaunted the company made use of other venues until they moved to a new home in the former Dudhope Church.  However it was clear that in the long term a new purpose built venue was needed and eventually a site was chosen on Tay Square. This backed on to land which the University was developing into what eventually became Bonar Hall and the idea that the two might form one complex was mooted, but proved impractical in terms of funding. Work started in 1979 and the new theatre opened for business in April 1982.  A striking building, it won awards for its design and has become a well-loved Dundee landmark.

The construction of the Bonar Hall in the 1970s with the site of the Rep in the background

Over the years the Rep has been home to many great actors and actresses including Jill Gascoigne, Joanna Lumley, Mary Jerrold, David Tennant and Nicol Williamson to name just a few.  Brian Cox, now an international star of stage and screen, started his career at the Rep with his first credited role being in Dover Road in 1961.

Joanna Lumley in the Cherry Orchard 1989

Robert Robertson, remembered by many for his long-running role as Dr Andrews in Taggart, played a key role in the history of the Rep serving as its artistic director from 1976 until 1992.  In the early 1960s the same role had been held by Canadian William B. Davis, who would later find fame as the primary antagonist in The X-files 

We are delighted to hold the Archives of the Rep which include a wide range of materials including posters, press-cuttings, programmes, photographs and set designs.

The Mill Lavvies poster 2012
The Mill Lavvies set model

Other photographs of many of the famous faces can be found in the Alex Coupar collection and we are also fortunate to hold programmes and other memorabilia collected by others.

Jill Gasgoine, Alex Coupar and Robert Roberston in 1981 from the Alex Coupar collection

Of course, the Rep as always been popular at Christmas with pantomimes, many taking a non-traditional format, as well as other performances.  A few years ago we were delighted to acquire this copy of a programme for Treasure Island performed by the Rep in 1947 which features the signatures of many of the cast. These include Richard Todd and Toke Townley, who would later find fame as Sam Pearson, one of the original main characters in Emmerdale Farm.


A programme for the following year covers the production of Bunty Pulls the Strings – the cast of this production included a young Ricki Fulton who would go on to become one of the greats of Scottish comedy and a festive season favourite with the annual broadcasts of Scotch and Wry on Hogmanay.

For Christmas 1983, the Rep staged their first pantomime for several years, Jack and the Beanstalk. This was written by Artistic Director Robert Robertson and was a great success. A contemporary report in The Stage claimed that some children were so excited by it they tried to get on to the stage to join in the action!

Jack and the Beanstalk 1983

One of the stars of 1993’s The Princess and the Goblin was David Tennant. The Paisley born actor was a regular at the Rep in the early 1990s as he was establishing himself in show business. After success in Doctor Who he is now an internationally well-known and this festive season will be starring in the new BBC production of Around the World in 80 Days.

David Tennant in The Princess and the Goblin 1993

More information about the consultation to make the Rep a listed building can be found here.

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