Bury St Edmunds: Worries are raised over the future of the Theatre Royal

SERIOUS concerns have been raised over the future of the only working Regency theatre in the country.

Debate has taken hold over whether the Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds would survive a merger with the Apex, which is an entertainment venue in the town owned and run by St Edmundsbury Borough Council.

Discussions are taking place about a trust running both the Theatre Royal and the Apex, but there is confusion over what the proposal actually is.

A worry is if it goes ahead, the theatre - which is run by a charity on behalf of the National Trust - could close. A number of people feel joining up the theatre - which is breaking even - with the Apex - which cost taxpayers �736,457 in 2011/12 - would put the playhouse in serious financial risk.

But when the announcement was made in the summer about the proposal for a joint trust part of the rationale for the move was significant efficiency savings.

Julia Salmon, who volunteers with the Theatre Royal, said various people - including staff, volunteers and the theatre community - felt as matters currently were there was “no doubt in their minds the theatre won’t be open as a theatre in the next year to two years”.

“They say as best it will end up as a museum because of its National Trust status. Everybody I have come across has been absolutely categorical about that. It’s more than just concern. I think people are very, very depressed and upset about it.”

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Mrs Salmon said she felt “really shocked” coming away from a public event called Open Space on October 20, where the future of the theatre was discussed with concerns raised including the level of consultation over the plans.

Mrs Salmon added: “There’s nothing else to replace it in west Suffolk. If it does go, with the times we are in, the chances of it being re-opened are virtually nil. If it’s the case this is as bad as it looks - and it does look very bad - once it goes that is it.”

Stephen Walton, who was chief executive and artistic director of the Theatre Royal in the 1980s, said a full merger would be “madness,” but he did believe there was the potential for savings to be made, for example through sharing a box office.

Referring to the Apex, he said there would a “huge financial risk” in taking the building on “and the theatre should stay well away from that”.

The Theatre Royal’s board of trustees said it was considering a proposal to take on a “management contract” to run the Apex as well as an alternative business plan for the continuing management of the theatre as an independent operation, working in informal collaboration with The Apex and the wider arts community.

It said both business plans were “being rigorously examined by the trustees at the present time,” adding a process of ‘due diligence,’ including appropriate consultation, was almost complete on the management contract proposal.

The board is set to decide in principle on Tuesday whether to go forward with the management contract proposal, with a final decision by the full board on November 26.

In a letter to the East Anglian Daily Times, Derek Blake, who was chairman of the theatre’s management board from 2007 to 2009, said: “I urge the theatre board to take their time in coming to a decision; to consult transparently about all the options they have identified; and, in completing their due diligence, to consider carefully the significant risks to the theatre’s independence, artistic integrity, financial viability and very existence the current merger proposal would pose.”

A spokeswoman for the borough council said the business case for a wider arts trust would first go to the overview and scrutiny committee on December 5, then to cabinet on December 12, with the full council making the decision for St Edmundsbury on December 18.

A spokesperson for the Arts Council said: “The Arts Council is working with both the Bury Theatre Royal and The Apex and their funding partners, St Edmundsbury Council and Suffolk County Council to explore options for an operating model that helps to sustain the theatre over the long-term, ensuring that it is both resilient and sustainable.

“In addition, this could bring together a model that provides compelling cultural leadership and effective partnerships to maximise a high quality arts offer to champion Bury locally, regionally and nationally.”

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