A new temporary £1.5 million purpose-built theatre has opened its doors ahead of its first show tomorrow – the panto Beauty and the Beast.
KentOnline was one of the first to get a sneak peek inside the state-of-the-art Orchard West, in Hythe Street, Dartford.
The structure, just a stone’s throw from The Orchard Theatre, has been hastily constructed in just six weeks.
Speaking about the quick turnaround of the project, theatre director Tal Rosen said: “It’s been an absolutely incredible turnaround, but I always knew we would make it.
“When you work in theatre you make anything happen. You have to ensure the show goes on and make sure it happens on the night.”
As to what theatre-goers can expect from the facilities he is hoping they will not see any difference to a typical brick building.
“We’ve tried to achieve a like for like experience as much as possible. For the panto it will be a magical, warm, family-friendly experience.
“Orchard West is everything you will expect from a theatre.”
The seating arrangement includes front-row, flat floor seats and a raised platform, offering excellent views of the stage.
It also provides comfortable seating for all theatregoers and facilities for those with disability and accessibility requirements.
It also has state of the art lighting and sound equipment.
Construction began at the beginning of November as a replacement for The Orchard, in Home Gardens, after it was forced to shut in September following the discovery of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) in its roof.
Caroline Hicks, director of growth and community at Dartford Borough Council, said the news The Orchard was being forced to close “left everyone in a bit of a tailspin” but said there was no question of not finding an alternative venue to ensure the show could go on.
“The Orchard is really at the heart of the community. It is our main entertainment venue. The local economy feeds off of it.
It was going to impact such a huge number of businesses and local people and those who come and visit that it was really important for us to keep that cultural life and ensure our community wasn't impacted yet again after Covid.”
She said the six weeks had seen “a lot of blood, sweat and tears” but she had no doubt it would be completed on time.
“I always had hope it would work,” she said.
When The Orchard was first closed performances were initially suspended for a month but were later extended to the end of October, with hopes it would be open in time for this month’s panto season.
However, it was soon revealed the building required major works costing £7m meaning the theatre would be closed for a year.
In October, Dartford council announced the show could go on and it would be constructing a new facility in time for the Christmas performances.
Whilst other councils are struggling to make budget cuts Caroline said Dartford Borough Council was in a healthy position to fund alternative provision when the crisis occurred.
"We are fortunate that we are a well run council. We do have reserves and we are in a healthy financial position. This kind of issue is what reserves are for.”
While most of the shows in the season lineup have transferred to the new venue, the lack of fly towers means those with sets that "fly" have had to either adapt their scenery or wait until The Orchard is open again, including Shrek and The Full Monty.
Caroline said: "The shows that were not able to be performed at Orchard West will be front and centre of the programme when we get back into The Orchard."
Others which will feature on the programme for the next eight months include comedians Al Murray and Jimmy Carr, Swan Lake ballet, The Take That Experience and even a circus, Cirque The Greatest Show.
The doors to The Orchard are hoping to be open again in September ready for a new season of shows, with hopefully some new audience members.
Caroline said: “The slightly different venue might attract slightly different people. Hopefully we can develop that audience and turn them into a loyal theatre audience moving forward.”
As well as repairs to the roof, the building will also be undergoing some redecoration and improved accessibility.
As for the future of Orchard West, Caroline said: "It will be deconstructed and taken off somewhere else to be a temporary venue for someone else."
Those who had tickets for Beauty and the Beast, starring EastEnders’ Shona McGarty, had them automatically transferred to comparable seats at Orchard West.
Beauty and the Beast opens tomorrow and runs until December 31.