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What is the future for the Regent?

PUBLISHED: 09:00 12 January 2002 | UPDATED: 11:10 03 March 2010

It's more popular than ever - but it's still looking down at heel and is costing council taxpayers millions in subsidies. In the second part of our investigation into the Ipswich Regent, I look at the options for the future - and how you can take part in the debate.

IT'S make your mind up time for the people of Ipswich.

What kind of venue do you want the Regent to be?

Its owner, the borough council, is preparing to look in depth at the theatre and at the Town Hall/Corn Exchange entertainment centre.

By the end of the process it hopes to have a complete leisure strategy and to know what the future holds for live entertainment in the town.

There are several options for the theatre – but there are some that have already been ruled out.

The council has said it will remain a venue for live entertainment. What kind of live entertainment is up for discussion – but it will not close.

The fabric of the building, and its interior cannot be radically changed. It was listed in October 2000 and that prevents major changes – the seats can be re-covered but they cannot be replaced.

But they're the only fixed restrictions on the future of the theatre – anything else will be considered.

These include:

Selling the theatre.

Advantages: The council would no longer be responsible for subsidising a building that has been a "money pit" for the last decade.

New owners would want to invest in its future – making it an attractive place for people to visit.

Disadvantages: Who would want to buy a huge auditorium without proper backstage facilities?

Outside the West End of London, there are virtually no privately-owned, profit-making theatres in Britain.

What would happen if its owners went bankrupt?

Handing over the management of the theatre to a charitable trust rather than being run directly by the council.

Advantages: The theatre would be run in a more commercial way, without any direct political control by the council.

It could not be used as a political football in arguments between the parties – giving the theatre managers the opportunity to make long-term plans.

The theatre would be able to apply for lottery grants for capital improvements.

Disadvantages: The council would not have any say in who or what appeared at the theatre or when shows were put on.

Major amateur groups that currently use it regularly – like the Co-op Juniors – could find themselves sidelined.

It would probably still require some council subsidy – like the Wolsey Theatre – but there would not be the same democratic control on the money being spent.

Building a new backstage area complete with technical facilities to enable complex scenery moves.

Advantages: This would really allow the Regent to fulfil its potential.

It would allow the theatre to bring in West End productions either before or after they go to London.

The theatre would be much more flexible and would almost certainly be used more.

It would be one of the most impressive theatres outside London and should be able to attract major productions throughout the year.

Disadvantages: Cost. It would be phenomenally expensive. Estimates vary wildly, but costs of between £4 million and £12 million have been quoted.

The council doesn't have the money needed for such an ambitious capital investment – it could only be undertaken if a major lottery grant was made and for that the theatre would need to be charitable trust.

Is there the demand for such a theatre in Ipswich? The town is only an hour and a quarter from the West End of London by train – and even nearer to the Norwich Theatre Royal, which already attracts an audience from throughout the region.

What effect would such a major theatre have on Ipswich's Wolsey Theatre which is rapidly re-establishing itself as a fine venue in its own right?

Bringing in a professional pantomime over the Christmas period and moving the Co-op Juniors to the February half term.

Advantages: Theatres are notoriously quiet in January and February if they do not have long panto runs – the Regent's next show is not until February 21.

A professional panto, running for six weeks over Christmas and the New Year would bring in the crowds. Many theatres across Britain rely on panto to bankroll them for the rest of the year.

The Co-op Juniors could stage its panto during the February half-term, when there is little else for families to do and would guarantee the theatre a busy period at that time.

Disadvantages: The Co-op Juniors don't want to move their panto – it fills the theatre at Christmas and is a highlight of the season for thousands of people from across the region.

The Wolsey Theatre now stages an annual pantomime – this year's Cinderella has been wonderfully successful and a professional production at the Regent would undoubtedly dilute the market.

February half-term is a popular time for other amateur groups in the town to stage pantomimes and if the Juniors' production was then, they would cut into each others potential audience.

Minimal changes but putting more efforts into attracting more major acts to the theatre.

Advantages: The Regent is a fine concert venue, with good acoustics and a loyal customer base.

Over the last few years its existing management has managed to attract an increasing number of major acts – like Deep Purple, The Moody Blues, Steps, and Atomic Kitten.

It doesn't require major structural changes to the building – so it would not have to close while any changes were introduced.

Disadvantages: Essentially the Regent would remain what it is today – a concert venue that plays host to occasional stage shows.

There simply are not enough acts of the right size to fill it enough of the year. In 2001 – a very good year – it was still closed on more nights than it was open. As long as it remains in its current form that is certain to continue.

Even if no major structural changes were made, the theatre still needs a considerable amount spent on it – for new carpets, new decoration, new seat covers throughout the auditorium – if it is to lose its tatty appearance.

Closing the theatre.

The current political leadership at Civic Centre has ruled out this option, but it's something that some people may want to consider.

Advantages: It's the cheapest option – the council would not have to subsidise the theatre.

Disadvantages: It would deprive Ipswich of the largest theatre in East Anglia.

It's a listed building, so even if it was closed to the public, it could not be demolished or converted to another use without a major bureaucratic battle.

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