It has welcomed some of the biggest names in showbusiness on to its stage, surviving economic downturns and an ever-changing entertainment industry along the way.
Big name stars from the past have all played at Fareham’s Ferneham Hall, including Bob Monkhouse, Norman Wisdom and Matt Monro.
Flame-haired Liverpudlian Cilla Black was already a prime-time performer when she starred in the venue’s first-ever production in 1982.
And as the theatre celebrates its 30th anniversary this week, it’s a chance for all involved to look back at its history.
Yet the past three decades haven’t all been about the razzle and dazzle.
In its 30-year history, the Fareham Borough Council-owned venue has never made a profit.
While it takes around £1m a year it costs £1.2m to run, which means ratepayers must make up the £200,000 shortfall via money set aside in the council’s budget.
In 2010 the council set out to reduce running costs at the theatre and head of leisure and community, Mark Bowler, says more than £100,000 has already been saved.
‘It would be nice to be able to reduce that further,’ he adds. ‘But that’s hard in the current economy and it’s a competitive industry.
‘Ferneham Hall is very popular with local residents. We need to have shows that you wouldn’t necessarily get at The Mayflower [in Southampton] or the other big theatres.
‘There are certain acts that are really popular, like the psychics, but really it’s about marketing and promoting the facility.
‘In the current market we’ve got to have someone that other people haven’t.’
Acts booked to appear so far this year include American singer Billy Ocean, entertainer Pam Ayres and The Honey Honey Show, the first Abba tribute show for children.
One of the mainstays of the theatre’s calendar is its annual pantomime. Nearly 17,000 people flocked to see Beauty and The Beast last year – a 20 per cent increase from the year before. Box office takings for the show, which starred Ian ‘H’ Watkins from Steps, totalled £200,000 – £10,000 short of an all-time record set by Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in 2009. The next production will be Cinderella, with a cast yet to be announced.
But it’s not just stage shows that bring people through the doors. Wedding exhibitions, community awards nights and flower shows are all held here.
Mark says that’s part of Ferneham Hall’s role as a community facility, dating back to a time when councils still built and managed their own leisure and pleasure venues.
‘Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s a lot of local authorities were building swimming pools and theatres up and down the country, but you don’t find that any more,’ adds Mark.
‘The thing about Ferneham Hall is that it’s very popular with local residents. We’ve got a very loyal following.’
In 2000, the venue went through a major refit, taking its seating capacity up to 750, whilst a new acoustic ceiling was fitted in 2004 and new air conditioning was installed in the past 18 months.
In 2005, the council passed the running of the town’s leisure centre on to a private operator.
But while Mark says there are no plans to do the same for Ferneham Hall at the moment, it doesn’t mean it won’t happen in the future.
For now, there are no more refurbishments planned and the council will continue to try and reduce running costs.
‘Beyond that it all depends on whether the local authority continues to run it in-house or there are opportunities to operate it from a trust or private operator which brings in new capital to refit and refurbish,’ adds Mark.
‘But that’s in the long term. In the short term it’s about raising the profile. At the end of the day, it’s a community facility.
‘It’s a difficult one when local authorities are facing cuts, but you’ve got a facility that the people love.’
While there will be some theatre-goers who have stayed true to Ferneham Hall throughout its 30 years, no-one can compete with Val Moore’s dedication.
The senior steward has been there since the very beginning, first as a volunteer and later as a paid member of staff.
When the curtain goes up, Val still takes her place in the auditorium to ensure that show-time goes smoothly.
She’s the duty manager’s eyes and ears.
Val loves Ferneham Hall so much that when she had to retire at the age of 65 she stayed on as a volunteer. And when the law was changed, allowing people to work on past the retirement age, she applied for her job back and was delighted to get it.
Now 69, Val has no intention of stopping.
‘I just love working there,’ says Val, from Fareham. ‘I adore it.’
The building was opened by the Duchess of Kent on April 23, 1982 – with Val on hand to meet the royal visitor.
‘I opened the door for her and she said “Thank you very much”,’ she adds. ‘She was lovely.’
Sprightly Val says: ‘My favourite show was Matt Monro.
‘We’ve also had Roy Castle and Frankie Vaughan but you don’t really get to watch the shows because you are working.’
The signed pictures collected by Ferneham Hall over the years show a long list of famous names have graced the theatre’s stage.
During the venue’s early years, it played host to some of the biggest names in the world of light entertainment – including Ronnie Corbett, Bob Monkhouse, Sir Norman Wisdom, Frank Carson and Little and Large.
Musical legends Bill Wyman, Rick Wakeman, Barbara Dickson and Elkie Brooks have all entertained the crowds.
Comedians Rik Mayall, Lenny Henry, Jack Dee, Jo Brand and Rob Newman and David Baddiel all started their careers with a visit to the venue and Ken Dodd, Jethro and Jim Davidson continue to play there.