Chichester refurbishment beginning to take shape

Published: 28 June 2013
Reporter: Sheila Connor

Now rising like Phoenix from the ashes, the RENEW project is living up to its name and excitement is in the air as the Festival Theatre building begins to make sense.

A collection of theatre critics was privileged to view the progress and, hard hats firmly in place and watching out for building work hazards, we took a tour, accompanied by Artistic Director Jonathan Church and Executive Director Alan Finch, who explained on the way how everything was working out.

Although the original layout of the nucleus of the theatre is still apparent, the cleared-out auditorium and foyer spaces look huge with only the shell remaining. Fixtures and fittings have been removed and the old extensions stripped away leaving the original hexagonal building intact and with very little damage to its exterior. Basements have been dug fifteen feet into the ground and they were all delighted to find no Roman remains.

Stage and seats have been removed for refurbishment, and when returned there will be better sight lines from every angle, as well as 100 extra seats. The balcony seating (out of bounds for some time due to fire regulations) will be re-instated as will two new lifts, positioned at the end of each side, affording easy exits in an emergency.

The addition of extra ladies' toilets will also be very welcome, as will air conditioning distributed throughout the building instead of becoming a draught down the back of the neck.

For the first time, all the offices and administration will be in the same building, a great relief to staff who have been working in cramped and airless conditins to date, and improving facilities for performers include green room and dressing rooms with light and views of the park instead of the dark and airless basement.

Jonathan Church reminded us of the noise rain made when drumming on the roof, appropriately during a performance of Singin' in the Rain, and to deal with this problem a membrane and insulating material is being added to overcome acoustic and thermal problems, a delicate balance considering the weight of the roof.

Access for scenery has always been a major problem, and in the future this will improve by being all on one level.

What has been achieved so far is amazing with the Osborne construction team working wonders in spite of having to battle against the elements and needing to down tools when there was a matinée performance in the nearby Minerva Theatre.

Despite all the problems, they are even a little ahead of schedule, and the theatre, in all its new finery, is expected to open its doors again in June 2014.