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Astrologer Russell Grant backs calls to save the Hazlitt Theatre in Maidstone

Theatre veteran, astrologer and TV personality Russell Grant is the latest celebrity to join the fight to save the Hazlitt Theatre, a venue he has fond memories of.

Mr Grant who has been in the arts for almost 60 years says closing the Hazlitt in Maidstone will be devastating for the town, its economy and the livelihoods of people who work there.

Russell Grant played the Teen Angel in Grease at The Orchard. Picture: Hannah Clapham
Russell Grant played the Teen Angel in Grease at The Orchard. Picture: Hannah Clapham

It comes after Maidstone Borough Council (MBC) announced plans to take back control of the venue to save money, thanks to the toll coronavirus has taken on its finances.

The council plans to terminate its contract with company Parkwood Theatres, who it pays a £243,000 subsidy to for running the theatre, which has been closed to audiences since March, but many people fear such a move puts the theatre in jeopardy and are worried it may never fully re-open.

In 2017, Mr Grant visited the Earl Street theatre to see close friends Rustie Lee and Stefan Booth perform in the Christmas pantomime Cinderella.

The venue had a lasting impact on Mr Grant who is now urging people to lobby councillors and MPs to stop it from closing.

He said: "When I came to Maidstone it was chock-a-block.

Russell Grant rehearsing with Arlene Phillips for his role as Teen Angel in Grease in 2012. Picture: Tristram Kenton
Russell Grant rehearsing with Arlene Phillips for his role as Teen Angel in Grease in 2012. Picture: Tristram Kenton

"It was your typical British theatre, full to the brim with kids and families interacting, shouting and screaming 'He's behind you'.

"They were joining in with the songs and the finale, it was great and the kind of atmosphere you get all over the country which is sadly going to be missing if it closes.

"Rustie and I crossed over the road and had a pre-show dinner at one of the pubs so they are all going to be affected too.

"Without a theatre, that's one less reason to visit the high street when this is all over."

Mr Grant who has performed in 'Oh, What a Lovely War!' at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury and as the Teen Angel in Grease at The Orchard in Dartford, says the only way to save the theatre is by urging those in power to 'think beyond the virus'.

He added: "If the Hazlitt isn't there, there will be a huge gap that needs to be filled.

"People should contact the councillors and tell them how much the theatre means to them because those with the power do have to think beyond the virus because my worry is, if the Hazlitt closes its doors now, it may never open again.

"People really love the theatre and want it to be there when this is all over and that's all we can really do to save it."

Long before Mr Grant became an astrologer, he trained as an actor and made his first debut on stage in 1969.

He also used to write the stars in the Kent Evening Post and visited the Maidstone Studios countless times when it was run by TVS.

But more recently when the pandemic hit, like others who work in the arts, all of his theatre work was cancelled and the last time he performed on stage was in December.

He said it is devastating to see thespians out of work, especially at a time of year they should be thriving.

He added: "It's not just those on stage the pandemic has caused problems for, it's also the people employed by the theatre in the box office, the ushers, the stage management, costume designers, producers, directors and choreographers. I could go on.

"They are an integral part of the theatrical population and without them there is no show. So many people are involved and none of them will be working in Maidstone if the Hazlitt closes."

Documents show the theatre contributes more than £5m into the local economy each year.

The decision to terminate the contract will be reviewed by MBC's policy and resources committee on Wednesday, November 25, after a group of councillors called it in.

There has been an enormous public outcry with residents fearing the theatre's days were ending.

A Just Giving page set up two months ago has raised £1,340, and the theatre has launched its own donation page.

Other famous names such as Kate Robbins, Stefan Booth and Russell Kane have shown their support for the venue.

To fill the performance void Mr Grant has started a YouTube channel reading the stars to keep him busy from his home in Wales.

He films videos once a week but can't wait to be back on the stage in front of a live audience.

Read more: All the latest news from Maidstone

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