‘We want a hub for the arts in the middle of the city . . .’

Caroline Sharman, director of the New Theatre Royal

Caroline Sharman, director of the New Theatre Royal

Kevin Porter

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Caroline Sharman has a dream – to turn the city’s oldest theatre into a new city centre hub for the arts. Chris Owen reports

Like a child with the ultimate Christmas present, Caroline Sharman lays out the sheaf of papers on the bar.

‘What this will do,’ she says, ‘is give the heart of Portsmouth a new, buzzy atmosphere – a hub for the arts right in the middle of the city.’

We are examining the multi-million pound plans for the renaissance of the New Theatre Royal in Guildhall Walk, Portsmouth’s oldest playhouse.

She says: ‘How lucky am I? To be in charge of a 19th century theatre which wasn’t touched in the 20th and which is now going to get a 21st century makeover.

‘It’s incredibly exciting and Portsmouth is extremely fortunate.’

If all goes according to those plans, Caroline, the theatre’s director, is determined to return the Victorian building to its former glory – and some.

The radical redevelopment plans have now been approved and the NTR will receive a £4m revamp to restore the listed theatre’s stage and back lot which were destroyed by fire in 1972.

And in a £20m joint project with the University of Portsmouth, the new-look theatre will also boast a modern accommodation block for 110 students built above it.

The building will also gain a new Creative Learning Centre dedicated to Oscar-winning director Anthony Minghella in the hope of creating a humming theatre quarter in the city.

There is a huge amount of work to be done, but there is nothing like a deadline to focus the minds.

Caroline explains: ‘We must have it open by September 2013 for the start of that academic year. There are no two ways about it.’

The approval of the plans by Portsmouth City Council planners last month was a defining moment in the history of the 127-year-old building with the facade that any city would die for.

‘It was clear,’ adds 53-year-old Caroline, ‘that we couldn’t have kept going as we are now because of the financial position. It simply isn’t sustainable.

‘This was our only window of opportunity to get this done.’

She is a relative newcomer to the NTR, having arrived in Guildhall Walk in July 2008, but her loyal, dedicated and hard-working band of volunteers have always dreamed that one day it could be restored to its rightful place as one of the leading venues for the performing arts on the south coast.

She says: ‘It has been a long-held ambition of ours to refurbish the parts of the theatre that were destroyed, and next year it will be 40 years since the fire.

‘But more than that, this is a fabulous opportunity for Portsmouth to expand its cultural identity.

‘There’s a wonderful, thriving arts scene in this city which many residents aren’t aware of.

‘With our position in the city centre and at the centre of student life, this is our big chance to become a hub for the arts and bring a different feel to Guildhall Walk.’

Not surprisingly, she is no fan of this short street in its current night-time incarnation – a mecca for boozed-up, out-of-control and off-their-heads clubbers, posses of police officers and door stewards.

Jabbing a finger towards the door, she says: ‘Everything seems to be contained in that short section of road.

‘What happens out there sends out all the wrong signals about Portsmouth. It attracts all the publicity and gives Portsmouth a bad reputation, but what we plan here will hopefully change all that.’

What those plans mean is that for the first time in more than 40 years the NTR will have a proper stage.

Caroline says: ‘At the moment we can cater for comedians and musicians, but what we can’t do is host any show which requires scenery.

‘This means we can’t attract touring productions which in turn means we don’t get the people in here in the numbers we want. These plans will mean we can do just that as well as provide a venue for amateur groups in the city.’

The NTR can currently seat 525. The capacity will increase to 700 when the new building reopens in less than two years.

But the really mouth-watering aspect of the project for Caroline is that creative learning centre.

‘It will be a space about the same size as the newly-enlarged stage and will mean we can create from scratch our own productions. I’d love to do two of these a year.

‘Apart from Chichester Festival Theatre there’s no other theatre on the south coast which has the facilities to do this. It will set us apart and be another way of breathing new life into the arts in this city.’

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