What is happening at Ipswich's Regent?

WITH the future of Ipswich's Regent Theatre in the melting pot, I look at its origins, what it offers now, and what pressures it is under. A second feature looks at the options for the theatre in the future.

TODAY the Regent is an important feature on East Anglia's entertainment map, attracting audiences from across the region.

It's bringing in acts that are quickly selling out – and its live shows are more popular than ever before.

But it's still closed more days than it's open.

It's a listed building – but parts of the interior are undeniably tatty.

And its exact future is by no means certain as its owner, Ipswich Council, prepares an in-depth review of both the Regent and the Corn Exchange.

Since the council took it over a decade ago, the Regent has swallowed up millions of pounds in subsidies. It will certainly remain a venue for live shows – but what kind of shows?

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Will it remain a concert hall with the ability to stage shows with minimal scenery or will it become a modern theatre able to handle West End shows – after a multi-million revamp?

To understand the problems facing the theatre in the future, it is necessary to look at its past and present.

Built in 1929, The Regent was never designed as a theatre. It was a cinema – with a small stage – and was never conceived as anything else.

During the 1960s it became increasingly popular as a live venue for pop and rock groups touring the country, and this concert use increased steadily during the 1970s and the first half of the 1980s.

From then, however, films became more important for the building. It was owned by the Rank Organisation which had converted the town's former Odeon cinema – in Lloyds Avenue – into a bingo hall.

The Gaumont, as it was then called, became the Odeon. Films were its bread and butter, and for a few years in the mid-80s Ipswich had just three cinema screens (now there are 18 in the town).

Then Rank announced The Odeon would be converted into a multi-screen cinema.

At this point the borough council stepped in.

The council, led by Jamie Cann, set up a complex land-swap deal to protect the future of the building as a live venue.

The borough owned the Cox Lane car park behind the Co-op. NCP owned the land at Major's Corner, and the Rank Organisation owned the cinema.

The council "swapped" its land at Cox Lane for the NCP land at Major's Corner.

It built the shell of what is now the Odeon cinema and swapped this for the existing cinema, which regained its original name – The Regent.

This deal saved live entertainment for the town – and the number of live shows at the theatre is now greater than at any time in the past.

However The Regent doesn't make money – it is subsidised heavily by the council – because on the days when it is not hosting a live show, it is closed and earning nothing.

According to official council figures, the Regent has eaten up £3.2 million in subsidies from council tax payers since it was taken over 12 years ago – that means every council tax payer in town is paying £5.17 a year in subsidy for it whether they go there or not.

The Regent may now be a theatre with the largest auditorium in East Anglia – but behind the scenes it has few of the facilities a modern theatre needs.

It does not have a large technical area to move scenery. It does not have large, comfortable dressing rooms. It does not have the facilities to stage large West End productions.

To build such facilities at the Regent would be phenomenally expensive – figures ranging from £4 million to £9 million have been quoted.

In October 2000 the theatre became a listed building – a move which safeguards its interior but also could prove a headache for the future.

The listing means that the interior of the theatre cannot be changed. The seats cannot be replaced – although there is a programme of recovering them – and while it can be redecorated and recarpeted, the appearance cannot be changed.

Over the last 10 years the council has carried out running repairs on the building – but this summer it is to get a new roof.

"We've been patching it up as and when problems have arisen – but now it's got to the stage where the whole roof needs to be replaced," said Billy Brennan, who is responsible for the Regent and the Corn Exchange complex.

The work will cost about £250,000 – but should ensure the future of the building for some time ahead.

Over the last two years the audience numbers at the Regent have improved – and it is now hosting shows that are quickly selling out.

It is attracting artists that span the generations – from Atomic Kitten and A1 to Deep Purple and the Moody Blues. And its Daniel O'Donnell concerts are legendary!

But it remains closed for much of the year – in 2001 it was "dark" for 200 days. After the last night of Wizard of Oz on December 29, the next show at the theatre is Daniel O'Donnell's first night on February 21.

It is able to attract some big theatrical shows – this spring it is playing host to a professional production of Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and to the West End comedy Bouncers.

But these are both relatively simple productions without major technical obstacles to overcome.

"We couldn't stage something like Les Miserables, we just don't have the technical facilities," said Mr Brennan.

Finding the right act is vital for a theatre like the Regent – it isn't large enough to attract most many top-rank artists like Robbie Williams, Westlife, or Oasis.

But with 1,800 seats, it is too large for acts seeking an "intimate" venue. Also many acts prefer to play to a standing audience – and there is nothing the theatre can do about its seats.

When it does find the right act, the Regent fills with people from across the region – its problem is finding enough acts to fill the venue enough times during the year.

Major's Corner should be a major entertainment centre for the town, rivalling Cardinal Park.

The Odeon is next to the Regent, and pubs and clubs like Chicagos, Edwards, the Milestone, and the Salutation are nearby.

However the closure of Cafe Rouge showed that this is not a "people magnet" like Cardinal Park – and a key issue could be parking problems.

The land between the theatre and the cinema could be used as a car park during the evenings, but a covenant agreed with NCP during the landswap prevents this – NCP wants cinema and theatre-goers to use its park at Cox Lane.

At night, however, people – especially women – are reluctant to walk even a short distance through the town to car park.

Cardinal Park, where you can leave your car just outside the UGC, is considered a safer option – fights outside nightclubs usually don't start until the early hours of the morning, long after people have left the cinema!