RICHMOND’S Georgian Theatre Royal – the UK’s oldest working theatre in its original form – has received £375,000 for an extensive auditorium overhaul.
The grant from the Hamish Ogston Foundation comes at an extremely opportune time in the theatre’s long and distinguished history, enabling it to embark on an ambitious capital works project that will provide more comfortable seating and improved views of the stage whilst maintaining the building’s heritage and authenticity.
Construction work is expected to start in the coming weeks with a re-commencement of shows planned for March 2021 in the newly improved auditorium.
The upcoming pantomime Beauty and the Beast will be postponed until December 2021.
Like all arts venues across the country, the theatre is currently shut due to Covid-19 restrictions with no clear indication of when it might be able to re-open its doors to the public.
To capitalise on this situation, the well-known philanthropist Hamish Ogston CBE – a long-standing supporter of The Georgian Theatre Royal and its Vice President – has come forward to fund the auditorium development project so that it can coincide with this enforced period of closure.
Clare Allen, the theatre's chief executive, said: “This exceedingly generous donation offers a wonderful opportunity for the theatre to turn what could have been a bleak and worrying time into something with a very positive outcome.
“It is likely that we would have been closed for most of the period between now and spring 2021, as indoor public spaces are predicted to be amongst the last to re-open.
"A recent survey of our regular audience members also indicated that people would prefer to leave it a while longer before they feel confident in attending shows.
Inside The Georgian Theatre Royal
“This continued ‘dark’ period can therefore be used to very constructive effect and we look forward to welcoming back audiences at a time when they feel safe to do so.
"There will also be the extra bonus of a splendidly refurbished theatre, offering an enhanced and more comfortable experience for everyone."
A feasibility study was undertaken in 2018 to determine how the seating could be made more comfortable without detracting from the ambience of the Grade 1 listed 18th century building.
The results of the study were shared with Richmond Town Council (who own the building), Friends of The Georgian Theatre Royal, volunteers and Richmond and District Civic Society.
The plans were fully endorsed by Historic England and Listed Building Consent was granted in April 2019, ahead of securing funding for the project that has now been pledged by The Hamish Ogston Foundation.
“I am delighted to be able to facilitate this aspiring and most worthwhile project through the work of my Foundation,” said Hamish Ogston. “It is essential to preserve historic buildings like this, particularly when they house some of our most enduring traditions.
"By developing and enhancing them in creative ways we can ensure that future generations will continue to enjoy them as we do.
“I hope that my contribution will also be a catalyst for other benefactors to come forward and support the Theatre; not only during this current crisis but to enable it to pursue other phases of this development to provide future strength and sustainability.” he added.
Whilst The Hamish Ogston Foundation will be covering the cost of the auditorium works as a ring-fenced project, the Theatre has received additional funding of £35,000 from Arts Council England and £20,000 from the Government, administered through Richmondshire District Council, to support the charity while its doors remain closed.
The Georgian pictured during a restoration project in 2018
The theatre also currently receives £50,000 a year from the Sylvia Crathorne Memorial Trust.
The support of its patrons, together with other charitable donations, are essential in meeting the day-to-day running costs of the theatre, which cannot survive on income generated from ticket sales and tours alone.
In recent weeks, many customers have taken the very generous decision to donate the value of their cancelled tickets or to accept a credit note, which has helped cash flow enormously.
“We are extremely grateful to all those who are supporting us during this very turbulent period of the Theatre’s 232-year-old history,” said Mac Bryant, Chair of the Board of Trustees.
“Hopefully, with this immense collective effort, we will be able to survive the current period of closure and emerge with an even better offering to our audience and visitors that will mean that the theatre can continue to contribute to the rich cultural life of our community for many years to come.”
People are also being urged to make donations to The Living Theatre Campaign – an ongoing initiative to help the theatre become more financially sustainable. Details on how to give support are on the Theatre’s website