Proposal to expand Theatre Royal facilities and create ‘performing arts hub’ with Cliftonville Cultural Space

Theatre Royal Photo Sheradon Dublin

Plans for the future of Margate’s Theatre Royal include marketing it with neighbouring 19 Hawley Square so facilities for food and drink can be created and joining up with the Cliftonville Cultural Space project at the former synagogue building to form a ‘performing arts hub,’ for the town.

The proposals, which are part of the £22.2 million Margate Town Deal, are being discussed by Thanet council Cabinet members later this month.

Both the Theatre Royal and Margate Winter Gardens are shut while the future for the venues is examined. The Theatre Royal closed its doors on April 28 and the Winter Gardens followed suit last month.

The historic Theatre Royal has been allocated £2million from the Margate Town Deal fund to help with renovation works.

Theatre Royal Photo Sheradon Dublin

A report to Cabinet members says a costed condition survey by Lee Evans Partnership carried out in 2021 reveals the theatre requires £2 million of necessary improvements to bring it up to modern standards, with £370,000 of this identified as urgent.

The Margate Town Deal commitment of £2million will mean the work can be completed but will also be used as the match-funding requirement for a bid to the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

The report says: “This is seen as a five year project where the Town Fund and council’s commitment of 19 Hawley Square forms the foundation of activity, which will ultimately see us secure a long-term, commercially viable future for quality theatrical production in Margate.”

The Theatre was bought by Thanet council as ‘owner of last resort’ in 2007. The building was shut for a six month refurb programme and all staff were made redundant. It was then leased back to the Margate Theatre Royal Trust on a peppercorn rent until 2012 when the Trust went into administration.

Your Leisure took the site on in what was supposed to be an interim measure but had been running it up until the closure last month. All staff were made redundant and they have formed Phoenix Community Events. The group had proposed keeping the theatre open while the project was being prepared but Thanet council said this was not viable or possible.

Thanet council bought 19 Hawley Square from Orbit Housing in 2011 with a view to expanding the Theatre’s facilities.

Theatre Royal Photo Sheradon Dublin

In 2014 Thanet council offered a long lease or freehold interest in the theatre, and buildings at 16a and 19 Hawley Square and there was an expression of interest from Soho Theatres.

Soho Theatres developed a bid to the National Lottery Heritage Fund to deliver an improved theatre alongside community, food and beverage and hotel space at 19 Hawley Square. However, this bid fell through due to being at the end of the funding period although there was sufficient support for the idea.

Now Thanet council aims to revive some of this proposal in a bid to make the theatre commercially viable.

The report says: “The Theatre Royal is underperforming commercially, the lack of food and beverage, rehearsal and green room facilities, and seating capacity are significant barriers to the ongoing operation of the space.

“It is the second oldest working theatre in the country and has been identified as being of significant historical and heritage value. With 465 seats, it is a mid-scale presenting theatre. It has a strong local base audience and there is a strong affinity for the building and productions that take place there. “The building is currently on the Theatres at Risk Register, and the improvements identified will be fundamental to the safeguarding of its long term operation and allowing it to stay in use.”

It adds: “Margate needs to focus on a theatrical hub for performance and production rather than just a better performing theatre

“There is a need to provide extended facilities in order to support the financial sustainability of the Theatre Royal, and this is the basis on which the Margate Town Deal project and Business Case was put together, which has been submitted to central government.”

An architect design for the Cliftonville Cultural Space project

Thanet council says an expression of interest has been submitted to Arts Council England with the Cliftonville Cultural Space.

The aim is for Theatre Royal to act as the foundation for a more significant theatre production cluster.

The funding bid would help  to make sure food and drink could be offered at 19 Hawley Square, which would provide income.

It would also help with  the provision of rehearsal space at the former Cliftonville synagogue to enable development of productions locally as well as longer runs from touring companies.

Inside the Cliftonville synagogue

There would also be studio space at the Cliftonville Cultural Space. The funding would help provide improved green room and changing rooms; residences for artists and performers and increased community engagement with theatre and performance from Margate’s most deprived communities.

If the Expression of Interest is successful the full application stage runs from 19 September until 18 November.

A bid will also be made to the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

The Theatre Royal project will be carried out in phases.

The first stage, includes the use of the Margate Town Deal Funds to complete the urgent works costing £370,000 for minor roof repairs, removal of the asbestos stage curtain, and fire protection measures and the provision of a proper ventilation system.

Once the urgent works have been completed, the next step will be to complete other structure works including; window repairs and decorations, plastering in lime plaster where plaster has failed, and ceiling repairs to the value of £400,000.

A Creative Director will be hired, using external funding, to oversee the project.

The Theatre Royal and 19 Hawley Square will be marketed as a package to find an operator/commercial partner.

Thanet council Cabinet members are expected to agree to the plans at a meeting on September 22.