Published: 14:00, 04 October 2016
The decision to rebuild the city’s Marlowe Theatre in the throes of a global recession has been vindicated by its success, it was claimed this week.
Council leader Simon Cook says rubberstamping the £25 million rebuild as the credit crunch hit was a “brave” move, with the venue celebrating its fifth birthday today.
More than 1.8 million people have watched shows at the new theatre since it reopened in 2011, with almost £150 million pumped into the local economy.
Scroll down for video and audio
“It shows how right the city council’s decision was to rebuild the theatre – a brave one at a time when the world was plunging into recession,” Cllr Cook said.
“It was all about making a massive gesture of confidence in the city as a destination to have fun in and enjoy glorious nights out.
VIDEO: The Marlowe Theatre has pumped millions into the economy.
“And that confidence has been mirrored in the impressive range of national and international productions and theatre companies now bringing their finest work to the city.
“By the end of this financial year, the economic benefit it will have brought to Canterbury will top £150 million.
“Shops, restaurants, bars and local suppliers have all felt the benefit of the thousands of people flocking to the city to enjoy the theatre’s shows.”
The 1,200-seat theatre has just hosted a sold-out tour of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, starring Claire Sweeney and Lee Mead.
It brought a production team of 65 people to Canterbury, who “all stayed in digs down here, went out and bought food”, said theatre director Mark Everett.
The show sold 19,000 tickets over 11 days, adding to the 400,000 snapped up last year alone.
“When I look back at when the council was deciding whether it would jump or not, it seems extraordinary,” said Mr Everett.
“We are a success, there is no question. We have made it work and people like it.
“What matters is the number of people coming to see it. We are in the business of entertaining people and 400,000 people can’t be wrong.”
The building was closed for two-and-a-half years for the redevelopment, with Mr Everett admitting there were a few “oh crikey” moments and issues when it opened with largely new staff.
But he said it soon earned the confidence of the theatre industry, adding: “In just a few, short years we have proved what we set out to achieve - a theatre for everyone that brings the best of everything to Canterbury.
“I thank everyone who has helped make our first five years such a success by seeing a show or taking part in an event.
“I would also like to acknowledge the hard work of all our wonderful staff – without them, none of this would have been possible.”
“If we had made the decision a few months later it might have been different. The economic climate changed very quickly and there was a sharp intake of breath..." - Janice McGuiness from Canterbury City Council
The theatre has become the epicentre of a mini-economy, employing 200 to 250 people a year and claiming to source 95% of its retail products from east Kent.
Mr Everett lists a range of local partners as he talks about the theatre’s economic impact, with beer bought from Faversham’s Shepherd Neame brewery and ice cream from Ashford.
“I’ve not even started talking about the restaurants and bars which are packed out when we are running and deserted when we have a non-performance night,” he said.
The rebuild happened through 2009 to 2011, in the middle of the UK recession prompted by the global credit crunch.
The previous building was a converted cinema built in 1933, with a capacity of 950, where “beyond halfway you didn’t have a great seat”, according to Canterbury City Council culture chief Janice McGuinness, who oversaw the rebuild.
The council, which owns the theatre, approved the project in August 2008, weeks before the banking crisis caused a four-year economic downturn.
Mrs McGuinness said: “The wings needed expanding and the front-of-house wasn’t a place you could spend time and enjoy the theatre.
“I don’t think things ever got dicey but there was a moment of gulping when the bottom fell out of the economy not long after the new theatre was approved.
“If we had made the decision a few months later it might have been different. The economic climate changed very quickly and there was a sharp intake of breath. But it played well because the cost of raw materials fell. The cost of steel dropped. It’s swings and roundabouts.
“Everyone involved in the project was always convinced this was the right thing to do.”
The smaller Marlowe Studio has also gone from strength to strength, and now has a highly-regarded programme of contemporary theatre, comedy and music, while also hosting community projects.
Mrs McGuinness says the theatre is predicted to generate almost £35 million next year and £36.8 million the year after.
The Marlowe will celebrate its fifth birthday with a gala event this Sunday, featuring some of its most popular shows and performers, including War Horse and Chicago, theatre tours and workshops. Click here for details.