Among various initiatives stimulated by Queen Anne's visits was a small playhouse on north Borough Walls put up by George Trim in 1705. A few years later a second playhouse, converted from a stable, stood just east of St James's Church by the Ham Gate. The existence of two theatres, modest though they were, seems excessive when the season was still short and the actors depended on plays being 'bespoken' at the whim of visitors (like Cibber's Love Makes a Man requested by Mrs Walpole, the Prime Minister's wife, in 1716). A comic afterpiece always followed the main play, and performances were often interspersed with songs and dances. The cast was coached by Robert Gay himself for the Beggar's Opera in 1728.

Under the actor-manager Horby, the performers moved in 1732 from the cramped theatre on Borough Walls to a fresh venue in the remodelled basement of Hayes' (formerly Harrison's) Assembly Rooms. With tiered benches nearly to the ceiling this could in theory accommodate over two hundred - but not necessarily in comfort, for at a play attended by the Countess of Burlington in 1734 the room was so hot and overcrowded she had to leave. Despite the Licensing Act of 1737 which theoretically outlawed provincial theatre, the playhouse struggled on for another decade, continually hampered by its restricted size and its terms of lease, through which most of the profits went to the Rooms. As the Bristol actor John Hippisley pointed out in 1747, strangers to Bath expecting to find the best English stage outside London must have been sadly disappointed. Hippisley's untimely death left his proposals for a new theatre to be developed by others, while the actors managed for a time in hired rooms.

The Orchard Street Theatre, Bath, from James Winston, The Theatric Tourist (1805)By autumn 1750 Simpson, then proprietor of the Rooms, had added on a large ballroom with a new stage and auditorium beneath. Almost simultaneously a new theatre in Orchard Street also opened, built by John Palmer, a local chandler and brewer. This heralded six years of mutually harmful competition, during which Simpson's key player, the actor-manager Henry Brown, was persuaded over to the rival theatre. Beau Nash too eventually came down on the side of Palmer, who then achieved a deal with Simpson's son, now holding the reins, to close down his theatre completely.

Once Palmer held a monopoly, the Orchard Street theatre had room to improve. Under John Arthur's domineering management (1760-8) the theatre achieved some stability, but it was the younger John Palmer, succeeding his father as proprietor, who transformed its fortunes. To secure a royal patent in 1768 was a prestigious coup which put the Bath theatre on a legal footing at last as the Theatre Royal. Palmer reorganised the company, imported fresh talent, inspiredly made the Bath actor William Keasberry his executive manager, extended and remodelled the stage and auditorium in 1775, and finally in 1779 secured the crucial lease of the Bristol theatre that enabled productions at Bath and Bristol to be profitably dovetailed.

The last three decades of the century saw the company of some thirty salaried staff at the height of its reputation. While a permanent core of stalwarts gave solidity, a regular transfusion of younger stars - Siddons, Henderson, Wallis, Incledon and others - brought freshness and excitement. Children also performed, especially as dancers, and if the theatre musicians sometimes came in for criticism (perhaps too busy elsewhere to rehearse much), they still included outstanding players in Brookes, Ashley, Cantelo, and Alexander Herschel. As for stage sets, the scene-painter Thomas French ranked among the most ingenious in the country - pantomime and the new popular genre of gothick melodrama giving him great scope for spectacle and special effects.

The Orchard Street repertoire looks catholic enough for the period. Shakespeare (in Georgian adaptation) was a perennial favourite - a score of his plays being staged 1770-1800, Hamlet almost every season and eight others in more than 20 of these 31 seasons. Moral scruples somewhat curbed productions of Restoration drama, but modern comedies of manners, sentimental pieces, ballad opera, pantomime, and in the 1790s German melodrama, were all well represented. Local playwrights such as Sophia Lee, Hannah More, and S.J.Pratt had their turn, but it was the semi-homegrown Sheridan who most delighted audiences. Nothing really satisfied them, wrote one of Garrick's correspondents from Bath, once they had seen The School for Scandal and The Duenna. He might have added The Rivals.

Of all those who trod the boards Bath theatregoers fell most fervently under the spell of Sarah Siddons during her outstanding four seasons 1778/9-1781/2, and welcomed her back ecstatically on guest reappearances from London. As late as 1799 crowds lined the streets for a mere glimpse of her, and the fortunate audiences honoured Siddons' emotional acting with 'rivetted attention whilst on the stage, and the loudest plaudits at every exit'.

It was an intimate space to act in, but that very histrionic advantage also limited audience capacity. After Palmer sold out in 1786, his fellow patentee W.W.Dimond saw through the theatre's splendid removal to Beaufort Square in 1805.

Edited with permission from Trevor Fawcett, Bath Entertain'd: amusements, recreations and gambling at the 18th-century spa (1998).