The tourists drifting past in boats on the river Stour didn’t realise it, but the music they could just hear in the distance was the very first performance in Canterbury’s brand new £25.6m Marlowe theatre. Appropriately (for a building in which the first year’s programming finds space for Peppa Pig, the 84-strong Philharmonia Orchestra, Peter Pan on Ice and Glyndebourne touring opera), mezzo soprano Rosie Aldridge sang arias from Bizet, Saint Saëns and Gilbert and Sullivan.
The archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has been in for an approving look – the uncompromisingly modern theatre, surrounded by medieval listed buildings, is clearly visible from the tower of the cathedral, and the view of the cathedral spectacularly fills an entire window in the theatre – but very few of the townspeople have had a chance to see what their taxes were spent on.
At a time when every local authority in the country is slashing culture and other budgets to the bone, the council raised most of the money for the new theatre, and will also own and operate it – and predicts firmly that it will generate more money spent in the area in the first year than they have invested, along with hundreds of direct and indirect jobs.
“We did intend to have a fortnight of just inviting people in for a look, but we ran out of time,” Janice McGuinness, head of culture at Canterbury council, said – shouting to make herself heard over the din of drilling and hammering. The stage lighting was still being rigged, and it was impossible to get Aldridge’s grand piano into the auditorium, and so the foyer became an impromptu recital space.
The theatre will be opened by Prince Edward (once famously a theatre-company tea boy) on 4 October 2011, and has just announced the first year’s programme. Theatre director Mark Everett is bursting with pride over the Philharmonia residency – the first in Kent by a major symphony orchestra; their first concerts are already sold out – and Glyndebourne adding Canterbury to its tour in 2012, but also promises that Cinderella, the first pantomime, will be properly spectacular: “I’m allowed to have a lot to do with that, it’s my treat of the year,” he said.
There will also be a new show from the Canadian aerial circus company Éloize, Northern Ballet’s Nutcracker and the Rambert dance company, Henry V and The Winter’s Tale from Propeller, Edward Hall’s acclaimed Shakespeare company, big touring musicals including Grease, and the premiere of a new production of Top Hat.
The new theatre, designed by Keith Williams, is actually smaller in volume than the old Marlowe, a 1930s converted Odeon, but has 1,200 bright orange leather-covered seats, 250 more than the old building, and a big enough orchestra pit, backstage space and fly tower to take in major touring musicals, opera and ballet. There is also a 150-seat studio space, where the choreographer Richard Alston will be working with the cathedral choir to create a new piece, A Ceremony of Carols.
For Everett, the moment of highest drama was the night in 2009 when the council finally voted to go for it, not only to flatten the old building but buy the car showroom next door so the site could spill on to the river bank. Everett first came to the Marlowe in 1994. The new theatre takes its eclectic programming from the tatty but much-loved old building, but in the barn-like space the cheapest seats were so far from the stage they might as well have been in the next county.
“Nothing that has happened since has been as scary as that moment,” Everett recalled. “The old building was falling to pieces around us, and up to the last minute it was by no means certain which way the vote would go. We’d have made the old building work somehow – the one thing all theatres have is unlimited supplies of gaffer tape and black emulsion. But this is a dream come true.”
Guardian 28th Sep 2011