Ready for curtain up! How the New Theatre Royal in Portsmouth has been transformed

Caroline Sharman, centre, with some of the other members of the New Theatre Royal Team.
Caroline Sharman, centre, with some of the other members of the New Theatre Royal Team.
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With just under three weeks to go until their opening night, the team at the New Theatre Royal in the heart of Portsmouth are justifiably nervous.

After closing in February 2013 for a major refurbishment and rebuild project, the scheme has been dogged with delays, which has seen the first night pushed back more than once.

However, the £4.5m it cost has been well spent – among the changes is a huge new fly tower which has been built to replace the one burnt down in 1972, the main auditorium is expanding from 500 to 700 seats and there is an entirely new performance space, The Minghella Studio, named after the late Oscar-winning director Anthony Minghella, who came from the Isle of Wight.

And this time there will be no further delays. The first show in the revamped Guildhall Walk theatre, The Great Gatsby, will open on October 15, and you can guarantee there will be a few sighs of relief behind the scenes.

Contractors ISG finally handed the building back to the team almost exactly a month before this crucial first night, and it’s now all systems go.

Artistic director and chief executive Caroline Sharman says: ‘We know we’re up against it, but we’re going to get there.

‘There are a few tweaks – that curtain didn’t quite work and that didn’t quite fit, that sort of thing.’

But despite the nerves now re-opening is so close, the excitement bubbling underneath is infectious.

‘Isn’t it fabulous though? What a great stage,’ adds Caroline, as more of a statement than question.

‘We’re going to be feeling our way through it as we open, that’s inevitable. The bars and the cafes will be there, but there’ll still be all these little things that need doing when we open,’

And she adds, only half joking: ‘You may be handed a paint brush as you sit down – but we’re not waiting any longer now, that’s what it’s all about.

‘It will be done. We’re in great shape, and we’ve got some good shows. We’re now finalising our programme up until March, we really want to shout about all that.’

And Caroline admits there have been problems: ‘We always intended it to be a two-year project, so we have overrun, but it’s the nature of the beast.

‘There are always issues in large building projects, however much you feel you’ve got your i’s dotted and your t’s crossed, there are always challenges that come up, particularly in heritage sites.

‘There have been so many different little things – it’s about getting it right.’

The scheme has also seen the theatre working closely with the University of Portsmouth – its performing arts students will now be taught there on site. The university facilities are housed in a new build section at the back of the theatre.

‘Its’s all about connecting the old and new,’ explains Caroline.

‘It’s about that through-flow, it’s all one site, fundamentally. When the whole concept was set up five or six years ago we could see that there was this potential. And for performing arts students and media students you can see how it would be advantageous to have this special theatre next door. We will gradually merge and see how it goes.’

The main feature of the new build section is the state-of-the-art Minghella Studio, which can seat up to 90, and will be used to put on smaller shows and functions – not just for the university.

Caroline says: ‘I think the big thing is about making work here, and that’s what the new Minghella space is all about – there’ll be workshops and development and new people coming in, emerging artists masterclasses, that kind of thing.

‘It’s something the city hasn’t got, and that’s what’s exciting there.’

While everything is focused on the opening, the team will not be resting on their laurels afterwards.

‘We would love more money to do more heritage work on it, but at this point I want to open it, put on some great shows and remind people what a fab place it is.

‘It’s getting a facelift, but these heritage buildings can always use more facelifts.

‘We’re doing carpets and transforming the bars – they’re going to be beautiful. We’ve been employing lots of local people to do the work where we can. Some of them are specialists, like the people doing the boxes, so they come from further afield, but it’s a real mix.’

Over the past two years, the biggest challenge has been keeping the name of the NTR alive.

‘Our challenge has been to keep our visibility and we think we’ve managed that.

‘It was about keeping ourselves in the ecology, developing new work, demonstrating our brand’s change with our creative labs and creative learning and widening participation in terms of our programme.

‘That’s what we were trying to demonstrate in this period, and now we won’t only be in the building, we’ll still be doing all of these things out in the community and that will always be part of what we offer.’

Of course none of this could have happened without a major fundraising drive – with Caroline leading the public fundraising and director of fundraising and development Fiona Wilson targeting trusts, foundations and businesses.

A £1m grant was approved by the Heritage Lottery Fund in October 2011 and a £0.75m capital grant was awarded by Arts Council England late in 2012. Other cash has come from the Partnership for Urban South Hampshire (PUSH), Portsmouth City Council, University of Portsmouth, and Parity Trust.

‘It’s been a long journey – never again,’ laughs Caroline.

‘It’s been kind of a pincer movement, and Fiona’s been brilliant at leveraging money out of the trusts and foundations. It’s just been a constant thing – we still have to keep going, as with these kinds of buildings there’s always more that needs doing.’

And how does Caroline think they’ll feel after that first night?

‘I just think we’ll all be a bit amazed. I kind of can’t think about that yet – we’ve got to get there, and when we do, I can tell you then how I feel!

‘This is about creating a legacy for future generations – we want to make sure the theatre will be here for them as well.’

*The NTR is always on the lookout for new volunteers, whether it’s helping out at the front of house, or using your DIY skills. E-mail sheena.hulme@newtheatreroyal.com

Upcoming shows

The New Theatre Royal already has a packed schedule through to the end of the year and beyond. Here are some of the highlights from the next couple of months.

* Conversations with Judith Smyth, October 13, 6pm, in the Minghella Studio: Judith Smyth, the chairwoman of the board at NTR, welcomes the public to a sneak preview of the newly renovated theatre and takes the opportunity to find out what you want from your New Theatre Royal and hear your thoughts on its future.

* The Great Gatsby, October 15-17: Get ready to immerse yourself in the decadence of America’s ‘Jazz Age’ as the NTR re-opens with the latest stage adaptation of The Great Gatsby from nationally-acclaimed Blackeyed Theatre.

* The Silver Sword, October 19: A musical adaptation based on the classic children’s book set in the aftermath of the Second World War.

* Behind the Curtain: The Found Hour, October 24: A free talk and tour on the fascinating history of the theatre from 1856 to the present day, in association with the Family Arts Festival.

* Double Bill of Halloween Horror, October 28: New Apollo Theatre Company presents an evening of two terrifying plays based on the short stories of JH Riddell and MR James.

* Dickens Abridged, November 4: A high-speed comic journey through Dickens’ Greatest Hits, including Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, David Copperfield, and Bleak House.

* Ruby Wax – Sane New World, November 24: The American comic, actor and writer’s new show is based on her critically-acclaimed book Sane New World which helps us understand why we sabotage our sanity with our own thinking.

* Show of Hands, November 25: The folk titans will become the first musical act to grace the new stage when they return.

For individual show times and ticket prices call the box office on (023) 9264 9000 or go to newtheatreroyal.com/events

CREATIVE LAB

New Theatre Royal has set up its Creative Lab programme to empower and help creative talent. It aims to use innovative laboratories, driving creativity forward, specifically for artists around Portsmouth.

Through working with and developing a diverse range of artists the NTR will offer the opportunity to explore culture and support innovative ideas, helping to build a quality cultural identity for the city and the ‘Made in Portsmouth’ brand.

One element of this is the Evolution programme, which supports upcoming artists.

FILSKIT THEATRE

Filskit Theatre was founded in 2009 by Katy Costigan, Victoria Dyson and Sarah Gee. The ensemble were brought together over a shared interest in combining physical performance with multimedia technology to create thought-provoking theatre for young audiences.

They say: ‘At the heart of our work is our interest in technology and how it can be used as a device to immerse young audiences in the world of a story. We work with projectors big and small to create a rich visual language that is engaging and accessible.

‘We feel passionately about the importance of giving each child the opportunity to experience high quality creative activity, whether it be in a theatre, school or community setting. We place our young audiences at the centre of our devising process and strive to explore themes and issues that are relevant to them.’

JOE WELLS

Joe Wells’ writing career began when his first book Touch and Go Joe about his experiences of OCD was published, since then he has made a name for himself as a stand-up comic, writer and speaker.

Joe, who won The Guide Award for Best Comedy in 2014, now focuses mainly on his unique brand of political comedy.

Last year he took his first show to the Edinburgh Fringe, Night of the Living Tories.

And he’s been gaining some very positive national attention, with The Guardian calling him ‘Astar of the future.’

Joe is currently working with NTR to produce a series of political debates between comedians and a panel of politicians or experts in their field, dubbed Think Tank.

The first event on the subject of education was held in March at The Square Tower in Old Portsmouth.

The second outing will be on health, and takes place at The Wedgewood Rooms on October 8.

BEN CLAYBON

Over the last year Ben has been working hard on many local and national projects.

Ben trained at prestigious drama school Academy Of Live and Recorded Arts, which has fostered his holistic approach to the way he creates. As a young Producer, Ben is dedicating his time to bringing quality work to the regions. He is interested in new writing and companies that are not only from Portsmouth but who also develop, grow and tour their work from here.

He is currently working on a few projects, including one that is in early development about Norman Wisdom and in August this year he took a new play with music, Unsigned, by Stephen Lloyd to the Camden Fringe.

Ben says he would love to work towards creating Portsmouth Fringe Festival next year.

The history

1856 September 29: Theatre Royal opens with the performance of Massinger’s 1621 comedy A New Way to Pay Old Debts. The Portsmouth Times reports that the theatre was ‘crowded to excess’.

1884Manager John Waters Boughton decides to build a new theatre and commissions CJ Phipps to design it. On May 19, demolition of the old structure begins.

1884 August 4: The new theatre opens with a performance of Princess Ida with principles from D’Oyly Carte Opera Company. The theatre is renamed New Theatre Royal.

1900Boughton engages Frank Matcham to redesign and enlarge the theatre. It reopens on August 6 with a performance of Magda by Sudermann.

1932 March 5: The theatre closes and reopens as a cinema the following week.

1948 September 27: The theatre reopens as a live venue with a performance by Clarkson Rose and his variety company Twinkle.

1950 February 13: Hughie Green presents Opportunity Knocks from the theatre.

1960 January 9: The theatre becomes Portsmouth Royal Arena, a wrestling and boxing venue. Some matches are televised by Granada TV as Wrestling At The Royal.

1966Owners Portsmouth Theatres Company ask the council to demolish the building. Replacement suggestions included a 10-storey block of flats or a hotel.

1970 A demolition plan for the theatre is approved by the council, which leads to the formation of the Theatre Royal Society which campaigns to save the theatre.

1971 Ken Russell films his critically-acclaimed musical film The Boy Friend at the Theatre Royal, starring Twiggy, Glenda Jackson and Barbara Windsor.

1972The theatre suffers massive fire damage, possibly caused by children setting off fireworks.

1975As the building continues to be neglected, volunteers are allowed to enter the building and attempt to prevent further damage. The Theatre Royal Society sets up a Trust Company to protect the theatre.

1986 June 4: The first live performance for 20 years is held at the theatre – a jazz concert as part of the Portsmouth Festival.

2004 January: The theatre is closed for six months for refurbishments, including increasing the audience size from 370 to 525.