The foyer of the New Theatre Royal Portsmouth  is bright and welcoming, busy selling tickets for the grand musical event celebrating both its 160th anniversary and reopening after a £4.5 million renovation.
It officially reopened this month after a six-month soft launch, following a protracted 30-month closure from February 2013 to September 2015. The ornate, pale blue plaster work on the ceiling, the polished granite panels and decorative windows seem as pristine as they would have been when the theatre was designed and refurbished by CJ Phipps in 1884 and Frank Matcham in 1900. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the venue has now fully emerged from the fire of 1972 that destroyed its 62ft stage, fly tower and technical block.
The theatre was bought in 1975 by the New Theatre Royal Trust. Determined to restore the building to its original glory, it had a temporary thrust stage built over the orchestra pit, Portakabin dressing rooms put up behind the burnt-out stage and the bars reopened. Over the years, the trust ran a programme of occasional work and organised a number of major fundraising and publicising events. In 2008, it felt the time was right to appoint an artistic director to raise funds and oversee the restoration and the design of new spaces.
“I had no idea of the scale of what I was taking on,” admits Caroline Sharman, the artistic director appointed in 2008. “But there was tremendous support, especially from Portsmouth City Council, who saw the project as of real value to the city.”
With Sharman on board, the occasional programme of work continued between 2008 and 2013, while Sharman and her team focused on fundraising for the refurbishment.
A professional fundraiser was also appointed and Fiona Wilson organised events that raised both money and awareness of what NTR was doing. As well as grants from Arts Council England, Heritage Lottery Fund and Portsmouth’s council, local businesses were persuaded to give generously, including Portsmouth Football Club and the Southern Co-operative. Together, they built up the necessary £4.5 million.
Wilson says there is no “best way” of fundraising for such a project. “You just have to find the strengths and weaknesses of your business and tell people: ‘This is what we’re doing and this is what we want to do.’”
The New Theatre Royal’s creative learning team also played a vital part in maintaining awareness of the theatre, and worked full-time after the closure in February 2013. “It was very important for us to carry the banner of NTR outside into the community, to let people know that, while the building was closed, the heart and spirit of NTR was very much alive,” says Bernie C Byrnes, who job-shares the position of creative learning manager with Nicola Williams.
Now the venue is open again, the emphasis is on attracting and keeping audiences. The projection for annual attendance is 106,000, and 8,000 newsletters are emailed out fortnightly to existing customers.
The theatre’s forthcoming programme includes a wide range of shows, including one-nighters and circus, but also ballet, Shakespeare and even a touring production of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party.
“The acoustics are designed by Matcham and are very good,” technical manager Luc Batory explains. “But young actors don’t always project very well, and so often need mics.” Batory has previous experience working at the National Theatre and he observes that there are still things to be done from a technical point of view. “For example the traps are not usable yet, but the new fly tower is in full working order.”
For smaller productions, classes, rehearsals, dance and children’s theatre is a new 90-seat space with flexible staging named after Anthony Minghella, who lived nearby on the Isle of Wight.
“It’s a very popular space and getting very booked up,” Williams says. “In the day, the sun pours in through long, two-storey windows, or the long drapes can black out the space. The floor is sprung, and there’s full sound and light, operated from a box above.”
While the whole grade II-listed building has now been faithfully restored, a new section of the building houses part of the University of Portsmouth’s performing arts department. NTR owns the freehold of the land and leases it to the university. The idea is that, with the department based on-site at a theatre, students can gain practical experience, and skills and support can be exchanged.
For the first time in four decades, the New Theatre Royal is now fully operational and receives regular annual funding of £97,000 from Arts Council England and £77,000 from Portsmouth City Council. Sharman says that there are even plans for the theatre to start producing its own work.
“I am always looking around and listening to ideas,” she says. “At the moment we are a receiving house, and now the stage is 10 metres deep, the orchestra pit is restored and we have the new fly tower and seating capacity of 700, we can easily take large-scale productions, but we would like to also be a producing theatre, and we’re already talking about a collaboration.”
The New Theatre Royal team
Artistic director and chief executive: Caroline Sharman
Operations director: Sheena Hulme
Marketing manager: Andy Sheppard
Director of development and fundraising: Fiona Wilson
Creative producer for the creative lab: Laura Doye
Technical manager: Luc Batory
Creative learning managers: Bernie C Byrnes and Nicola Williams
Finance manager: Sharon Newland
Programme coordinator: Lexi Rich