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Restoration Man

Next year The Everyman Theatre undergoes a major restoration. Michael Hasted meets the man in charge. crack

It was once said of Marcel Duchamp, the father of Dada, the precursor of Surrealism, that his work was like (and here I paraphrase a little) ‘a knife with a new handle, the blade of which has also been replaced.’

Restoration is rather like that. When starting work you are never quite sure which bits are original and which bits have been added on or changed later. The situation is exacerbated if you don’t have a lot of information to go on from the original build.

This is the dilemma facing the Everyman Theatre which is due for a major restoration next year. The theatre’s chief executive, Geoffrey Rowe, showed me round and explained the problem. “Although we are making every effort, we cannot really go back to 1891 when the theatre first opened. It’ll probably be more like 1931, that’s when they really started to pull the place apart and make major alterations. There are only very sketchy plans of the original building. The detailed plans that existed have disappeared.

“However, there is a very full description of the original theatre décor from the newspapers of the time. They listed and described everything and gave colours but that’s about all we’ve got. But then you have an issue about what they mean. When it describes a colour as ‘coral’ what exactly does that mean? There are a dozen colours that could be described as coral.”

Personally, I like old buildings to show their age; to have a rich, thick layer of patina about them. The problem is that there is a very fine line between charming and tatty; one that Geoffrey was very aware of. “I think there is a sentimental reaction by everyone who is interested in the theatre to prevent lovely old buildings like this from disintegrating. As you will know, over the years, we have seen too many fine theatres fall into disrepair.

“But apart from the slightly sentimental indulgence which prompts us to press on and raise money and make plans and so on, there is a serious commercial aspect as well. No matter how affectionate people feel towards their local theatre, a lack of comfort, a lack of style and the inevitable shabbiness will eventually start turning people off. We expect our buildings to be updated. There is a great demand on all public building for this constant updating to keep up with everybody else. I think eventually that lack of comfort would bring this theatre down and a cycle of decline could start. It was therefore important from a commercial standpoint to sustain the theatre as a building and to ensure that it continued to thrive.”

Although the front of house will get a fairly substantial make over it is the auditorium where most of the work will take place. I asked Geoffrey what that entailed. “Well, as you can see a lot of the plasterwork is chipped and those cherubs have got bits missing. The lighting in here at the moment is very harsh and doesn’t show off the décor particularly well; we’re getting that changed. Also, all the scaffolding which support the lights and speakers in an indiscriminate sort of way are all going to get hidden away.

“The two boxes either side of the stage are going to be reinstated and people will be able to sit there for the first time in at least 50 years. There are discussions about the brand new seats and how we can make them look like old fashioned seats. We have chosen upholstery which is in keeping and the end panels of the rows are being specially designed. And of course the new carpets and all that will match.

“We are making great efforts to be sympathetic with what is already here. We have got listed building consent only on the condition that we meet certain standards. There have been lots of early drawings and sketches and colour samples and all that sort of thing but there are always compromises, you can never go back to exactly as it was.”

I spoke to Geoffrey shortly after it had been confirmed that the Everyman had been awarded £500,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Of course he was overjoyed but explained, “We are still £250,000 short of our £3 million target and we are launching a public fundraising campaign and an appeal for sponsorship from local companies. One thing the public can do is have their name on a brass plaque on one of the 700 brand new seats for only £250.

“We are also creating a Circle of Friends, limited to twenty-five individuals or couples, who will each donate £1,000. There is also company sponsorship at £5,000 a time as well as lots of other schemes like that. And,” he said barely able to conceal his delight, “a few days ago I got a phone call from a firm of solicitors saying we’d been bequethed £20,000. They represented a lady who died recently and left her money to be distributed among local charities. The trustees have kindly decided to make a donation to us.”

So what is the timetable, when does the work get underway? I asked him. “The design team – the architect, the quantity surveyor, the engineers and the rest are already working away. We had to reach the so called Stage D in order to submit plans and apply for grants and so on. Well, we have successfully passed that point and are now moving on to Stages E and F. We will go out to tender at the end of the year. We’ll get those tenders back and appoint a construction company to super-vise the whole project. We’ll also give out contracts for the seats, lighting and so on. Work will start on site on 2nd May 2011.” he said confidently with not a crossed finger in sight.

Of course there will be a great deal of disruption during the work necessitating the theatre, including all the bars and cafes, to be closed for nearly four months, although the box office will remain open. All the outreach and other ongoing programmes will continue unaffected. Geoffrey seems quite confident with the time scale. “The great thing is that we are not going to be affected by the weather, so hopefully there will be no interruptions. There is very little structural work so the chances of finding something nasty when they start digging around are remote. We’ve allowed some slack at the end for all the fiddly things like putting back the fridges and sorting out the cups. But those sorts of things will not affect the re-opening.”

So, exciting times ahead. If you want to contribute in any way to the appeal then all the information is available from the theatre or online.