Colchester's Mercury Theatre begins ambitious redevelopment project
PUBLISHED: 17:06 04 March 2019
As Colchester's Mercury Theatre embarks on a major redevelopment, Petra Hornsby talks to the venue's executive producer about their exciting plans for 2019, 2020 and then well beyond
There are many things that contribute to the wealth and health of a community, and although the arts might not be the first thing on the list in the minds of many, having good facilities for performance and art in any town can be a real advantage.
Colchester’s Mercury Theatre has certainly proved its worth over the years, bringing entertainment to the town, providing employment and remaining financially viable to boot. The venue is now poised to start work on a major redevelopment that will mean a great deal to those who perform at the theatre, work there and for all those who visit.
Theatre and performance have, of course, been a central part of life in the town for thousands of years, from Roman entertainments to Mystery plays and beyond, but Colchester’s landmark theatrical event can be traced back to 1937, when the Colchester Repertory Company would put on weekly performances at the Albert Hall, situated in the town’s High Street, which is now the Co-op Bank.
By 1968, the task of searching for a permanent home was given to the Colchester New Theatre Trust and the site they chose was Balkerne Gate. Designed by Norman Downie, the Mercury Theatre was opened in 1972 following a successful fundraising campaign and a large grant given by the Borough Council.
However, the years have taken its toll on the venue and the need to renew and expand has been noticeable for a while.
Tracey Childs has worked as a producer at the venue for four years and, in August 2018, Tracey was appointed executive producer. She explains how the theatre approached the issue of funding for redevelopment.
‘Our creative director, Steve Mannix, took the job on and submitted large capital applications, through which we were awarded a sizeable funding commitment from the Arts Council, enough to allow us to continue exploring the project and to research additional funding from other sources.’
Tracey continues: ‘The whole project is set to cost around £9million with, among others, extra donations coming from the Local Enterprise Partnership and Essex County Council. We are currently £500,000 away from our target and, because we are so close to that target, we have been given the green flag to proceed. Despite productions still taking place, demolition work has begun.’
Due to Colchester’s historical importance, demolition is usually preceded by archaeological excavation and Tracey and all the staff at the theatre must have been holding their collective breath, apprehensive and excited about what might be found.
Recent building work on the old army barracks unearthed the remains of a Roman Circus, now an important feature of the town. Of course, anything of great importance might well have halted the development’s progress.
‘The dig has revealed remains of two Roman houses — including fragments of brightly coloured plaster — and a stone and tile hearth with burnt remains thought to be from a mediaeval forge. A lead musket ball believed to have been used during the English Civil war at the siege of Colchester has also been unearthed. As important as these finds are, they are not expected to delay the project,’ explains Tracey.
Previously used as offices and as the wardrobe department, the Old Vicarage behind The Mercury and the restaurant on the corner of the existing building were the first two areas targeted by the wrecking ball. These will be rebuilt as a shiny new production block including two rehearsal rooms, one with a fully sprung floor.
This section will also accommodate a new wardrobe and store for costumes, with dressing rooms and shower facilities, new office space and much more.
‘Community and working in education are important to us at The Mercury and our new facilities will provide a regular dedicated learning space for young visitors. We want the whole building to be accessible to everyone, a place where you feel comfortable enough to come and sit on a sofa and access wi-fi and enjoy your surroundings.
‘The whole of the foyer and ground floor will be opened up to be as warm and as welcoming as our wonderful front-of-house staff. Here people can buy tickets and enjoy the all-day café featuring an open glass front that will run right along the Roman wall to the Arts Centre.’
Above the foyer will be a creative learning and talent studio, fully-equipped to train people from across the community to develop their theatre skills and encourage them to become the next stars of British theatre. The existing main auditorium will increase by 40 seats.
Tracey explains how the redevelopment will imapct 2019.
‘The construction work is being carried out by Phelan and they have shown great respect when they know a performance is taking place. We will de-camp around May and allow the builders full access then. Our venue for the next few months will be temporary and will be a pop-up venue in the true sense of the word – a tent.
‘The precise location hasn’t been confirmed yet, but we will host a programme of entertainment throughout the year, working in collaboration with Colchester Operatics. We will, of course, be staging a pantomime, which is always the most popular production on our calendar, attracting great demand.
‘So much so that we keep extending its run each year. We hope people will come and visit our tent and that it will encourage new audiences to give us a try.’
To help meet the potential financial shortfall, people who love The Mercury or who just love theatre are being invited to buy a brick or sponsor a seat in the new building. Full details on how to take part in fundraising can be found via mercurytheatre.co.uk
Tracey expects there will be a soft opening in 2020 (the date is yet to be confirmed) when the new build is revealed so the local community can come and see the important changes for themselves. There will also be a grand opening which affords the opportunity to mark the successful completion of the project and to look to the future in style.
‘We are fully invested in all the changes that will future-proof our theatre for many, many years to come. Two-thirds of the money has been sourced from outside the borough, meaning we haven’t deprived others of funding.
‘We believe the work we do within the community brings great value to many and providing the entertainment we do is a huge asset for the town and for Essex as a whole.’