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New Theatre Royal in Portsmouth set for bright future

PUBLISHED: 11:39 14 January 2016 | UPDATED: 11:39 14 January 2016

The theatre interior was designed by Phipps and Matcham

The theatre interior was designed by Phipps and Matcham

Archant

Portsmouth’s New Theatre Royal has endured choppy waters in the past… but thanks to a £4.5 million restoration project the stage is set for a bright future as Viv Micklefield discovered

If its walls could talk they’d speak of legendary stars such as Dame Peggy Ashcroft and Sarah Bernhardt taking a bow, of lavish operas, or, the comic genius of Laurel and Hardy and of Morecambe and Wise making audiences weep with laughter. Yet despite having once been considered among the most important playhouses in the whole of the south of England, until relatively recently, the New Theatre Royal in Portsmouth was under threat of permanent closure and possible demolition.

As the 160th anniversary of the theatre’s very first opening night in 1856 beckons, the spotlight is now on a multi-million pound transformation of the original building and the newly formed partnership with its neighbour, the University of Portsmouth.

After almost two-and-a -half years in the making, this sees both a heritage theatre reawakened, and state-of-the-art backstage facilities including a purpose built teaching space. All of which celebrates the New Theatre Royal’s true magnificence and potential.

“The journey we’ve been on so far has been quite extraordinary,” says Caroline Sharman, the theatre’s artistic director and CEO. “There was never any doubt that with the University’s performing arts students next door, it would be a fantastic synergy between restoring the theatre and them developing their department. It was a case of whether we could turn this into a reality.”

With arts funding notoriously precarious, the vision to establish the theatre’s place within the heart of the community, by not only staging exciting work but also by inspiring new creative talent, required support from many sources.

Regeneration money kick-started the project, followed by contributions from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Arts Council and Portsmouth City Council, amongst others. While an esteemed list of patrons, including the actress Sheila Hancock and the University of Portsmouth Chancellor, Sandi Toksvig, also rallied to the cause.

Underpinning everything however, have been the unrelenting efforts of a small army of volunteers, in particular the members of the Theatre Royal Society. Whether through fundraising or their own blood, sweat and tears, they have fought to bring the theatre back from the brink on more than one occasion.

“My mum and dad were both in the Portsmouth Players, that’s really how I came to be involved in helping with the emergency repairs after the Trust Company, set up by the Theatre Royal Society, managed to save it in 1974,” recalls Colin Bradey, a current trustee. “At that time, I remember we had one working light bulb in the building and there were a lot of pigeons all over the place. Five years worth of rain had been pouring on to the stage - when we dug out the orchestra pit, it was absolutely filthy.”

It’s all a far cry from the scene that awaits visitors today. Walking through the original wooden doors into the intimate foyer still lined by polished stone walls, the main staircase whisks you past sumptuous stained glass panels before revealing the historic Phipps and Matcham designed auditorium in all its glory.

With the eye drawn towards to the giddy heights of the Gods, elaborate plaster decorations (yes, that is a mermaid up there), and the double-tiered boxes restored to their rightful positions...the effect is breathtaking. Yet this is not style over practicality. Having removed the 1980’s thrust stage, the Stalls seating was recycled from the RSC’s Courtyard Theatre allowing for the clever addition of extra legroom, whilst increasing the overall capacity to 700. Which, says Colin, means there’s “nothing locally to compare to it in size.”

And long gone are the days when social class segregated audiences. According to the theatre’s own website, whether you’re here to see comedian Ed Byrne, the classic whodunit The Mousetrap, or chart-topper Joe Jackson (who all feature in 2016), no-one is turned away for sporting trainers.

“I’d seen a few shows here before the theatre was refurbished, and now it looks just how it should be,” says James Jones, the box office manager, adding: “People have been really impressed with the changes made.” And since joining the theatre’s 15 permanent staff, James is enjoying the opportunity to explore the building more closely.

“I often point visitors towards the glazed area behind the Dress Circle which enables you to get a peek into the auditorium.”

Also giving the theatre a resounding thumbs-up, is technician Matt Sims who, despite being surrounded by the latest wizardry, still applauds the 19th century design features.

“The acoustics in the auditorium are very good,” Matt observes from the fly platform’s lofty position almost 10 metres above the stage. “This means that the performers don’t always need to have microphones. It’s particularly good for live bands compared with some of the touring arenas, which have to rely on music being amplified.

“The visiting companies love it here, especially the dressing rooms, which have pagers and microphones from the stage door and prompt corners. Although I’ve heard some people say, ‘There are too many stairs’, this keeps me fit!”

While it’s tempting to linger within the Victorian splendour of the original building after glimpsing the revamped stage, a chance to see what lies beyond is irresistible. With the smell of fresh paint still filling the air, the stark white corridors are a huge contrast to the theatre’s rich interior. But the newly built Minghella Studio – named after one of Hampshire’s most famous theatre directors Anthony Minghella, is no poor relation.

Occupying a footprint that mirrors the main stage and flooded with light, it refocuses attention on where the New Theatre Royal’s board see its future.

“To have a space where you can create work is hugely important”, says Caroline. “When I first came to Portsmouth in 2008, I was thrilled at the diversity of young performers involved in the theatre - having that next generation here is vital.”

“The New Theatre Royal is all about the community,” agrees Nic Williams, who shares the role of creative learning manager with new writing projects leader Bernie C. Byrnes. Whether organising Shakespearian inspired Bake Off competitions, running events like The Lost Hour or taking live performance into schools, Nic’s convinced that the theatre can play an important role in the city.

“The arts have always been a massive part of my life and I enjoy working on community projects that reach out to people, I know that these can really can unite them, young and old, whatever their background.”

And as a University of Portsmouth alumni herself, she believes that current students will benefit hugely from being able to share the facilities that the theatre offers. In fact, the symbiotic relationship began before the doors reopened to the public last October, with the university hosting the temporary box office.

So, with the first phase of this ambitious project behind them, what’s next on the programme for the New Theatre Royal?

“As with any heritage building there’s always a next stage,” admits Caroline. “The know-how to work on the Victorian plasterwork known as scagliola is a dying art, so we’re looking at a mentoring scheme to have young people re-learn those heritage skills. And we’ll do as much additional restoration work as any new funding allows.

“It’s going to take time to build our reputation but I’m hoping that future West End shows might start in Portsmouth. The next War Horse perhaps, now wouldn’t that be lovely?”

www.newtheatreroyal.com

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