Curtain rises on new Theatre Royal

In the space of just 226 days, Norwich Theatre Royal has undergone a complete transformation. In the first of a series celebrating the beginning of a new chapter in the history of one of the region's best-loved venues, EMMA LEE takes a look at what's been going on behind the scenes during its closure - and gives it a standing ovation.

In the space of just 226 days, Norwich Theatre Royal has undergone a complete transformation. In the first of a series celebrating the beginning of a new chapter in the history of one of the region's best-loved venues, EMMA LEE takes a look at what's been going on behind the scenes during its closure - and gives it a standing ovation.

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“I can remember coming to see cinderella here when I was a little girl,” says 77-year-old Norwich Theatre Royal voluntary steward Sylvia Aldis.

“My father would usually take us to the Hippodrome theatre. But sometimes if father had done some extra gardening work and had a bit more money we would come to the Theatre Royal - that was a bit more upmarket. We really thought we were the cat's whiskers when we came to the Theatre Royal,” she laughs.


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And when the curtain rises on the first production to be staged at the new-look theatre tomorrow night, it's likely the audience will feel like they're the cat's whiskers too.

The facelift has cost £10m, and the venue has emerged from behind the cocoon of wooden hoarding which has kept it hidden from view for the past few months as a beautiful butterfly.

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Modern and spacious, it's a theatre that Norwich - and the region - can really be proud of.

As front-of-house manager Matthew Piper puts it: “I think we've gone from being one of the least attractive theatres to being one of the most attractive.”

It's amazing what's been achieved in such a short time - the theatre is barely recognisable.

Front of house, the cramped “sardine can” foyer is gone. Now, thanks to the purchase of the adjacent Dencora House, it's a light and airy building with plenty of breathing space.

The restaurant has been moved to its own dedicated part of the building, so diners can enjoy a pre-theatre supper without having to mingle with theatre-goers trying to find their seats.

There are plenty of areas to enjoy an interval drink - and the new glass frontage, including three balconies which will come into their own in the warmer months, gives fabulous views of some of the city's most famous landmarks, including St Peter Mancroft Church and the Forum.

The theatre has been made much more wheelchair-friendly - wheelchair users will now be able to access the circle.

Plus, the number of toilets has been doubled, meaning that lengthy interval queues should be a thing of the past.

And the auditorium, which can hold 1,300, has been given a total overhaul. The old seats have been ripped out and replaced with new comfier seating with increased legroom; a state-of-the-art PA system means better acoustics which will give CD-quality sound, and the air conditioning has also been improved.

Such is the painstaking attention to detail that specialist boat builders were brought in to use their expertise to create the sloping floor in the stalls.

Treating the EDP to a sneak preview tour of the building, which opens fully to the public today ahead of tomorrow night's show, the theatre's chief executive, Peter Wilson, is bursting with pride at what's been achieved - with good reason.

“I think it's the best theatre of its kind in East Anglia and among the top five in the country,” he says. “Only the National and the Barbican can beat it. I think it feels like it's been designed as a new theatre.”

The concept of modernising the theatre was first mooted in 2002, after the theatre received a sizeable VAT rebate. It was decided that the money should be spent on improving facilities for the audiences.

As Matthew Piper explains, patrons were asked for their views.

“They have supplied the wish list we used for the modernisation project,” he says. “They didn't like having to walk through the theatre-goers to dine, so we made the restaurant a distinct part of the theatre. And it's a much easier venue to visit now, regardless of your level of mobility and movement.”

Early in 2003 Tim Foster Architects were appointed to conduct a feasibility study and then design three possible schemes for modernisation.

The plan took on a new dimension when Dencora House came up for sale. Its successful purchase meant that the theatre had much more room to play with.

Once the architectural plans to transform all the public areas of the theatre were completed and the vision was in place, it was a question of raising the £10m needed to turn it into a reality.

As well as the theatre's own money, local authorities, the Arts Council and trusts gave financial support to the project. With £7m already in place, in February 2006 the theatre launched a £3m public appeal to raise the rest.

It was called the 250 Appeal because next year will mark 250 years of there being a theatre on the current Theatre Royal site.

Although the theatre closed for its refurbishment in March, following the visit of Northern Ballet Theatre's the Three Musketeers, the appointed building contractors, local firm R G Carter, had started on the preparatory work at Dencora House the previous summer, making offices for staff from the theatre to move in to.

Work then began on linking the Theatre Royal building to Dencora House to make one large ground floor foyer area and to join the first floor offices in Dencora House to the main building.

But the majority of the work has been carried out during the last six months - or, as Peter Wilson points out, 226 days to be precise.

Sitting in the auditorium, beneath its new twinkly, starry ceiling, Mr Wilson says: “It now feels so intimate, it's going to feel like the show is happening in your own front room. I think performers are really going to like the auditorium too. I think wegot a £40m job for £10m,” he says, adding that everyone involved behind the scenes deserves a standing ovation for the effort they've put into the project, whether it's been the actual building work or keeping up the momentum with the fundraising campaign.

“There have been moments of exhaustion - I think most people have been exhausted at one time or another. To have done this in 226 days we really haven't taken our foot off the accelerator,” he says.

Theatre bosses hope that the new café-restaurant, which will open from 9.30am, will appeal to more than just theatre-goers.

The 60-seat eaterie, with its fashionable aubergine colour scheme and chunky dark wood furniture, feels sophisticated and welcoming.

“We've got a fantastic city centre location so people can just pop in for a coffee and cake,” says Matthew Piper. “Dinner starts at 4pm and we serve a light lunch from 12pm.”

There will be an abundance of fresh seasonal produce on the menu, created by chef Paul Handley, and one nice feature is that pre-theatre diners will be able to have their starter and main course before taking their seats for the 7.30pm show - and then pop back in the interval for their dessert and coffee.

And in keeping with the local theme, the new-look restaurant was created by Apple Interiors at Wymondham.

“We were very impressed with how they interpreted our wishes and it complements what has been achieved by Tim Foster Architects. We wanted it to appeal to a range of people - to diners, to families,” he says.

And then there's the practicalities to consider.

“It's got to be able to stand up to the wear and tear of upwards of 10,000 people a week. For example during pantomime season the theatre takes a lot of extra wear and tear,” he says.

Voluntary steward Sylvia Aldis (whose favourite shows are Joseph and Chicago) started at the theatre in 1992 when it reopened after its last refurbishment. Then aged 62 she had just retired from her career in nursing and was looking to do something completely different.

Her first 'shift' back will be when the musical Aspects of Love, starring David Essex, is staged at the theatre at the end of November.

“Well I think it's lovely,” she says of the revamp. “So beautiful and airy. I hope the audiences love it as much as I love it.”

While the theatre is on the verge of re-opening, there's still fundraising to be done. Of the £3m public appeal, there is 700k left to raise. The theatre had actually planned that it would take until 2010 to raise the money and it is ahead of all its targets. It's just launched the 250 Raffle, which has a first prize of a Peugeot 107 car, will be holding a golf day and is throwing a birthday party in July 2008.

The first performance at the new-look theatre will be Glyndebourne on Tour's production of Donizetti's opera L'elisir d'amore. Highlights up to Christmas include An Evening With Des O'Connor on November 18, Van Morrison on November 23 and 24, Aspects of Love from November 27 to December 1, the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of the Comedy of Errors from December 4-8 and the traditional family pantomime Dick Whittington opens on December 19.

Productions heading for Norwich in the new year include Disney's High School Musical, Cats, Hobson's Choice and an evening with TV psychological illusionist Derren Brown.

Now, after months of hustle and bustle front of house, Peter Wilson is looking forward to the stage being the focus of activity once again.

“I can't wait for the performances to start. At the moment it's just a pile of very elegant bricks,” he says.

For bookings contact 01603 630000 or visit www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk

See tomorrow's EDP2 for Charles Roberts' Theatre Royal memories.

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