Column: David Bown - We are keen to place Harrogate Theatre at the heart of town

The recently revamped �6 million York Theatre Royal. The renovation made me slightly envious and the staff here quite reflective regarding our own theatre in Harrogate.
The recently revamped �6 million York Theatre Royal. The renovation made me slightly envious and the staff here quite reflective regarding our own theatre in Harrogate.

Harrogate Theatre Scenic Services (HTSS) has had yet again a very busy month.

HTSS is the set building arm of our organisation based in Starbeck and managed by head of production, Richard Bielby.

Richard has grown the portfolio of clients quite considerably over the past six years and we now build sets for many organisations up and down the country including; Sheffield Theatres, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Hull Truck, English National Opera, English Touring Theatre, Newcastle Live Theatre and now the inaugural show for the spectacularly refurbished York Theatre Royal, a production of Brideshead Revisited, which opened last week.

It promises to be quite a show. The play has been adapted by Bryony Lavery who is responsible for some tough and edgy pieces like Beautiful Burnout, which was a hit at the Edinburgh Fringe a few years ago. It will be interesting to see what she does with the script.

The cast has some bright young stars such as Rosie Hilal and Christopher Simpson as well as theatre stalwart Paul Shelley – I remember seeing him in King Lear at The Orange Tree back in 1982 – his brother was Francis Matthews – remember the TV series Paul Temple in the 70s? I digress. Anyway, it all promises to be quite a grand affair and we feel very privileged to be playing a significant part of this exciting event.

The show is a co-production with English Touring Theatre and it will hit the road once it has played York.

You may have read about York’s refurbishment as the discovery of medieval remains under the stalls delayed the project. The theatre was due to reopen in December but the date was put back, which meant their pantomime was performed in The Railway Museum.

The emerging pictures of the new theatre do look magnificent. The £6m project was funded by the Arts Council England, City of York Council and York Conservation Trust with other grants and donations coming from corporate and individual supporters.

A public fundraising campaign also raised around £215,000 towards the costs of the redevelopment.

The York Conservation Trust, which owns the Grade ll listed theatre says, ‘The scheme has meant improved access and flexibility. The main stage has been reconstructed in a modular form, allowing it to be adapted or removed entirely, which means the venue is now more suitable for touring productions and dance companies’.

It has made me slightly envious and the staff here quite reflective regarding our own theatre in Harrogate.

With such a growing tourism and visitor trade at the heart of our economy, I do feel it is time we start to think about a theatre of our own that is fit for the 21st century, whilst retaining the heritage of this cherished building.

I get many comments about some of the cramped and aging facilities here, but most of all access over this five storey building is very poor indeed and prohibitive to growing our audiences.

Also, we are one of the few remaining ‘hemp houses’ in the country, which means the flying of scenery is still manual. This of course restricts the size and types of shows that we can programme.

We had a partial refurbishment nine years ago, which saw a decorative overhaul of the main auditorium, but we are really keen to take a long look at what the theatre needs to be at the heart of the town’s cultural offer and plan for the future.

It’s not easy as there are many stakeholders, from Harrogate Borough Council who own the building to our many community groups that utilise it and of course you the paying public.

Also the types of companies that we now engage with as part of our ‘Associate Scheme’ has seen Harrogate Theatre become one of the leading development theatres in the country for new and emerging work.

Much of this is performed in our studio, which hasn’t had any significant improvement since it was created from office space back in the 1970s. If Harrogate wishes to remain relevant to the industry and our community we feel it is time to start these discussions and map out a long term sustainable plan, against a backdrop of what has to be described as a very difficult arts funding landscape.

Turning to the artistic programme and speaking of our associate companies, we have some very interesting small scale work coming up this summer; Rove from J Fergus Evans, The Maids and Roseacre from Square Peg and The Dance Divine presented by Kala Sangam. Also, in August, look out for our annual small but perfectly formed 2’s Company Festival, a collection of performances in unusual non-theatre spaces. The main house will host a return of The Mousetrap and our co-production with Oldham Coliseum of an adaptation of the famous film The Lady Killers.