‘It’s a beautiful and feminine theatre’

Caroline Sharman, director of the New Theatre Royal.
Caroline Sharman, director of the New Theatre Royal.
Nadia Albina and John Kelly in Reasons To Be Cheerful.  Picture by  Patrick Baldwin

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Next year will be momentous for the New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth, as it completes its journey from Victorian playhouse to one of the most modern theatre spaces in the south.

Artistic director Caroline Sharman is intending to announce her new season in March, six months ahead of the venue’s grand reopening in the autumn after months of rebuilding and redevelopment work.

Under the changes, the original main auditorium will increase its seating capacity from 525 to 700, and the venue will gain a new studio area.

The new Minghella space (named in honour of film director Antony Minghella who was educated in Portsmouth) which will hold 90.

Work on the main auditorium effectively returns it to how it was before the disastrous 1972 fire which robbed the venue of its backstage area. With no behind-the-stage area, the stage was forced to push out into the seating area when it reopened.

But the studio space will be a completely-new addition for a venue which really will boast the best of both worlds – heritage combined with modernity, all on the same site.

Caroline, who lives in Chichester, gained her first experiences in the business at the award-winning Chichester Festival Theatre.

‘My first job was in Chichester. I did my first directing in the tent [which preceded the current Minerva Theatre], and I ran the Minerva season for one year when Patrick Garland was running the theatre.’

But the current CFT rebuild and the New Theatre Royal rebuild, while largely coinciding in time, are very different things.

As Caroline says, the CFT main house closed for rebuilding works on the back of a massive high in terms of audience numbers, which was why CFT bosses came up with a temporary space for 2013.

They didn’t want to lose momentum during the rebuilding period.

‘But for us, we are coming back to something different. We are coming back to new opportunities. The stage had been thrust into the auditorium, which was a brilliant solution, but it was not a long-term solution.

‘I have had to restore it back to what (celebrated theatre architect) Frank Matcham wanted it to be. The auditorium will now work as the stage should be. We have put it back.’

And with it, the theatre will have all the backstage facilities a space of its size needs, which, plus the reclaimed extra seating, will make it much more attractive to touring companies to bring in their shows. Caroline said: ‘It will be 19th century meets 21st century.’

‘Acoustically, it is very beautiful. It is a very feminine space. The Kings is a big, serious 1,600-seater.

‘We will have 700 seats and be much more lyrical.’

The point, as Caroline says, is that the two will be complimentary – just as the Portsmouth Guildhall, the Wedgewood Rooms and The Cellars at Eastney all work together, offering different things so that together they offer the full package.

‘And by having the 90-seater studio, we can put in more emerging artists, things that would not be right for the 700-seater. We have got lots of exciting and challenging stuff happening in Portsmouth that we can bring in.’

Caroline will also be keen to welcome back all the community partnerships which flourished at the old-style New Theatre Royal.

‘We have important associate artists. I want to be as inclusive as possible, and the community groups that used to come to use it will be absolutely welcome.’

For more information go to newtheatreroyal.com or call (023) 9264 9000.