As Perth Theatre prepares to reopen its doors for the first time in three years, following an impressive restoration project, Caroline Lindsay goes behind the scenes to find out more.
Lions and elephants kept below the stage, actors sleeping in the dress circle and a tobacconist’s in the theatre wall – these are just a few of the intriguing glimpses into Perth Theatre’s rich history since it first opened in 1900.
With a B listed auditorium once described as “the finest in Scotland”, the Edwardian theatre is one of the country’s oldest and best-loved playhouses. Since its very first production on September 6 1900 – Maritana, an opera by Irish composer William Vincent Wallace – it has been at the heart of cultural life in Perth for over a century and many famous actors, including Rikki Fulton, Roy Kinnear, Donald Sutherland and Kevin Whately, have trod its boards.
But, inevitably, time has taken its toll and by 2014 the theatre was in desperate need of repair – the fire and rescue service reputedly referred to it as “the most dangerous building in Perth”.
Gwilym Gibbons, CEO of Horsecross Arts, the creative organisation behind Perth Theatre and its sister venue Perth Concert Hall, explains: “It would have cost a huge amount to patch up so the alternative was to secure funding to do the job properly and create a vibrant 21st Century building.”
And so, when family panto Cinderella finished its run in January 2014, the theatre shut its doors for what was to be the last time for three years. Once archaeological investigations and site preparations were finished, the actual construction process began in March 2016.
Fast forward to 2017 and, thanks to funding provided by the Heritage Lottery, Perth & Kinross Council and many other generous bodies, work has been completed on time and on budget, to the tune of £16.6million.
The 500-seat auditorium, with its sumptuous gold and deep red decor, has been restored to its original grandeur and all the surrounding areas either refurbished or completely replaced, while the building is designed to be fully accessible with two entrances: the original High Street entrance, and the new Mill Street entrance. There will also be a new studio space for smaller audiences and dedicated community rooms for the youth theatre.
Newly installed technology will also lend itself to audio described performances for those with impaired vision, as well as British Sign Language interpreted performances and more relaxed shows for audiences with sensory sensitivity.
Standing in the brand new foyer – a stunning light-filled modern industrial space – Lu Kemp, the theatre’s artistic director, reveals some of her favourite elements of the restoration.
“The beautiful brick wall, which was the original exterior of the auditorium, and is now a feature of the foyer,” she smiles. “And whereas the old theatre was quite dark, now light streams down the walls of the foyer, while the Staircase to Heaven, which takes you to the Gods (reopened for the first time since the late 1960s), the rehearsal rooms, community rooms, and wardrobe are all flooded with natural light.
“In a place like Perth where the light is so beautiful, but the days can be grey, this feels like a real coup.”
“Watching the gilders at work in the auditorium was possibly my favourite element of the transformation,” says Lu. “I climbed up the scaffolding to get a close look at the gilding – a painstaking process using real gold leaf – on the dress circle and up on the ceiling. Tommy, one of the gilders, turned to me and said: ‘That’ll last another 100 years, eh?’, and it will.”
Earlier this year the Earl of Wessex reburied a time-capsule in one of the pillars of the original foyer. Originally buried in 1899, then updated during the box office refurbishment in 2001, it was uncovered once again and is full of photographs, programmes, newspapers and other interesting documents pertaining to the theatre’s history.
And of course, like any self-respecting theatre, the playhouse has its resident ghosts. From strange noises, footsteps, white apparitions and grey hazes to smashing glasses, cigar-smoking guests in the auditorium and spectral actors on stage, Perth Theatre has them all.
One particular phantom is known as the Grey Lady. One theory is that she was a barmaid who hung herself in the upper circle bar. She has been seen sitting in one of the gallery boxes and walking around the gallery circle.
“She’s been OK with us though, serving us drinks!” jokes a contractor as he puts the finishing touches to the foyer ahead of Monday’s doors open day.
“We hope to take the theatre’s history forward with us in the newly reopened building,” Lu continues. “We’re creating a sound-tour with our volunteer group The Memory Collective at the moment, which will reveal key moments from the past to an audience as they travel around the theatre. We know, for example, there have been a lot of live animals in the theatre as well as sold-out performances where people gathered down Cutlog Vennel to listen through the theatre walls.”
Gwilym, Lu and the team hope to see lots of people coming in to enjoy the new spaces – there’s a Doors Open Day on Monday to see the new bar, cafe and box office, and an Open House event on Saturday November 18 to tie in with the Christmas lights switch-on.
“People can come in from the cold, get a cup of tea, explore the theatre and enjoy the events we have on offer,” says Lu.
She hopes that public response to the new building will be overwhelmingly positive.
“It’s stunning as a building, but it’s also just very usable,” she reflects. “I hope, and this is something we will be working very hard to ensure, that people will use the building – that it will be a space that people gravitate to and want to hang out in. I’d love it if, when folk have visitors, or a few hours spare of a morning, the first thing they think to do is look to see what might be on at the theatre, or come down for a coffee or lunch, just because it’s a lovely place to be.”
So does Lu believe that the future of the theatre is safe?
“Its future will be secure if we manage the building well and if audiences use it and are fully engaged,” she stresses. “But in the current climate, funding is very tight and that challenges are great. We want and need the theatre to be a central part of the life of this city – it’s not just about culture, it should be a meeting place for all sort of organisations, and a place that feels really comfortable for everyone to come and hang out in.”
As the owners of the theatre building, Perth & Kinross Council have project partnered the redevelopment, and councillor Ian Campbell believes the rebirth of the theatre can be seen as an analogy for Perth as a whole.
“The theatre has always been iconic, and the renovation is a wonderful, forward-looking mix of old and new. And we hope that’s what P&K Council is bringing to the city,” he says.
With 2018’s programme already in place, Lu is delighted that the new theatre’s first show will be Aladdin, opening on December 8 and starring Perth’s own Barrie Hunter as the Dame. “Aladdin will be a joyous, silly, audience inclusive party with a great storyline. Pantomime literally cannot happen without the audience and it’s always a volunteer from the audience who saves the day and allows the narrative to come to its conclusion,” she smiles. “All good theatre needs its audience as much as it needs the storytellers on stage.
“We have a brilliant cast and a gorgeous, sumptuous design. We want to make you get up and dance, and it’ll be Christmassy – that’s for sure. Come on your own, or come with a family – we’ll make you feel welcome.”
Gwilym has the last word: “The journey towards a transformed Perth Theatre started a good many years ago, before my time and before the time of many of the people working for the organisation now. I would like to thank everyone involved in the project, at any stage, at any level, for the vision, and the work that they have all put in to realise the vision.
“Most of all, I would like to thank the people of Perth for their support, both in donating and in sharing the excitement of the project. The theatre belongs to Perth. We have played our part in its transformation – now it is down to the people of Perth to make the best use out of this fantastic building and, in turn, hand it on to future generations.”
www.horsecross.co.uk or call 01738 621031.
Doors Open at Perth Theatre (theatre cafe, bar and box office) is on November 13, 9am to 7pm. Box Office hours are 10am-6pm.
Open House at Perth Theatre takes place on November 18, 9am-11pm, with events between 12noon and 5pm.
Aladdin runs from December 9-January 6 2018.
Horsecross Arts gratefully acknowledge funding from Perth & Kinross Council, Creative Scotland, The Gannochy Trust, the Heritage Lottery Fund, other trusts and foundations, individual donations and other supporters and funding bodies.