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Colchester’s £8.7m Mercury Theatre project could start in Spring 2018

PUBLISHED: 23:14 22 December 2017 | UPDATED: 06:31 23 December 2017

Artist's impression of how the new-look Mercury Theatre may appear. Picture: MERCURY THEATRE

Artist's impression of how the new-look Mercury Theatre may appear. Picture: MERCURY THEATRE

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Colchester’s Mercury Theatre has gained approval from The Arts Council for its £8.7 m redevelopment project which could start work next spring. Arts editor Andrew Clarke takes a look at the project

More funding secured for the Mercury Theatre's Mercury Rising project. From left: Steve Mannix, executive director, Mercury Theatre; Cllr Tim Young, Colchester borough councillor for culture; and Daniel Buckroyd Mercury Theatre artistic director, celebrate the news with theatre staff, in the costume making department which will be replaced with a state-of-the-art purpose-built facility in the new extension. Picture: MERCURY THEATREMore funding secured for the Mercury Theatre's Mercury Rising project. From left: Steve Mannix, executive director, Mercury Theatre; Cllr Tim Young, Colchester borough councillor for culture; and Daniel Buckroyd Mercury Theatre artistic director, celebrate the news with theatre staff, in the costume making department which will be replaced with a state-of-the-art purpose-built facility in the new extension. Picture: MERCURY THEATRE

Colchester could soon be getting a new state-of-the-art theatre which will equip it to deal with the rapidly changing challenges of live performance in the 21st century. The Mercury Theatre’s £8.7 million redevelopment plan has now been been okayed by the Arts Council and has been given planning approval by Colchester Borough Council.

Launched in September 2016, The Mercury Theatre’s Mercury Rising campaign will see the building regenerate and grow, allowing it to become a home for both professional and community theatre as well as extending its education and outreach work.

For the first time, the Mercury can confirm it plans to add an additional 40 seats to the Main Theatre auditorium as part of the development, without reducing the size or comfort of the current seating.

Director Daniel Buckroyd in rehearsal. New onsite rehearsal facilities will help Made in Colchester productions at The Mercury.Director Daniel Buckroyd in rehearsal. New onsite rehearsal facilities will help Made in Colchester productions at The Mercury.

Speaking at the launch, artistic director Daniel Buckroyd said: “The Mercury was built in 1972 and, apart from some reconstruction work to the auditorium and backstage areas following a fire 20 years ago and our work last summer on improving the studio theatre, very little has been changed or upgraded over the years. The fabric of the building has really not had an awful lot done to it.

“In the meantime the world has moved on, we have got busier, more ambitious and we need more room. We are making the public and production spaces in the theatre fit for purpose in the 21st Century.”

The Arts Council has now formally agreed to continue to back the project and has admitted it to Stage 2 of its Large Capital Programme which has released a total of £4m in funding which is added to the theatre’s own £1.7m Mercury Rising fund-raising campaign.

Antony Stuart Hicks, Dale Superville, Emily Stanghan, Samuel Knight, Junior Chorus - Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs  Colchester Mercury. New education and rehearsal facilities will allow the Mercury Theatre to expand their community work provide new opportunities for young performers.  Photo: Robert WorkmanAntony Stuart Hicks, Dale Superville, Emily Stanghan, Samuel Knight, Junior Chorus - Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Colchester Mercury. New education and rehearsal facilities will allow the Mercury Theatre to expand their community work provide new opportunities for young performers. Photo: Robert Workman

Arts Council backing also unlocks a further £1m from the South East Local Enterprise Partnership’s (SELEP) Local Growth Fund, and £200,000 from major national funder the Garfield Weston Foundation. Colchester Borough Council and Essex County Council are each investing £1m in the project, which is jointly managed by Mercury Theatre and Colchester Borough Council. This investment by both councils has been a critical factor in attracting major funding from national sources.

All eyes are now on the Mercury’s Board to grant final approval for the project to proceed, in mid-January.

The Mercury Rising project will transform the theatre’s foyer, extending the ground floor to include a new ticket sales and retail area, all-day café bar, foyer entertainments and improved audience facilities. Above the foyer, a newly constructed and specially-equipped creative learning and talent studio will give people of all ages and backgrounds opportunities to get involved in theatre making, and will be used to train the next generation of theatre artists.

Next generation artists and the Mercury’s Made in Colchester productions will also benefit from a new production block constructed at the rear of the building, incorporating two large rehearsal rooms, expanded and updated costume making facilities, and open-plan office space for resident theatre companies and other creative micro-businesses.

The project is on track to start on schedule. Subject to a successful tender exercise in early 2018, demolition will begin at the rear of the theatre – without affecting audiences – in the spring, followed by the construction of the production block.

Artistic Director Daniel Buckroyd said: “This project is about securing a theatre, accessible to all, for this and future generations. We’ll be able to throw open our doors like never before. I’m particularly excited about the opportunities for future theatre makers – we have been investing heavily in this area as we know that theatre helps to bring communities together, and can have an extremely positive economic impact too.” The Mercury will close for a year from February 2019 when work takes place on the foyer, and will deliver an exciting programme offsite in a temporary theatre structure. The Mercury has entered early exploratory discussions with St. Thomas More School, Colchester Borough Council, and Firstsite to lease part of Berryfield Lawn, an area of land between the Firstsite gallery and the Culture Quarter development on Queen Street, for this purpose. More details of this will be announced in the spring.

Hedley Swain, Area Director, South East, Arts Council England, said: “We’re delighted to award Mercury Theatre Stage 2 funding for its exciting capital development. The project has galvanised support from a wide range of local stakeholders and we are particularly pleased to see support from the South East England Local Enterprise Partnership (SELEP), which is testament to the important role that arts and cultural organisations have in local economic growth. Mercury Rising will not only extend Mercury Theatre’s offer to its audiences through improved facilities, but also create a wonderful platform for talented theatre makers to develop their craft.”

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