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Government accused of blocking plans for theatre on site of Reading Gaol

Reading Gaol. Picture: Chris Forsey Reading Gaol. Picture: Chris Forsey
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Plans for a theatre on the site of the former Reading Gaol are being blocked by the government, campaigners claim.

Local organisation Theatre and Arts Reading announced last year that it planned to carry out a feasibility study to determine whether an arts venue could be built on the Reading Gaol site, where Oscar Wilde was imprisoned in 1895.

However, TAR said the Ministry of Justice had so far denied it access to the site to carry out the study, which has been part-funded by Arts Council England.

TAR chairman Melvin Benn said he was concerned that this meant the campaign group would not be able to carry out a study before the former prison was put on the market, and that this could scupper its plans to bid for it.

He told The Stage: “TAR feels very strongly that the architect representing us should be able to have access to the gaol site to undertake the feasibility study the Arts Council has given us a grant for.”

He added: “For around three years the MOJ has released dates for the site going on the market and these keep being pushed back. We do not want to be in a position where the site is suddenly put on the market and we have not done enough preparation work to then be an interested party.”

Benn added that the group wanted to “preserve an iconic site for Reading” and said he would welcome “any help to get in to the site, especially from those with influence in government”.

Arts Council England is understood to have committed to putting pressure on the MOJ to allow the group access.

A spokeswoman for ACE said: “We would love to see a long term cultural use for the Gaol, which is of such historic importance, and will be happy to brief DCMS and MoJ as needed on the possibilities.”

Wilde was imprisoned in the Victorian prison in 1895. It closed its doors as a working prison in 2013, however last year hosted readings of De Profundis written by Wilde during his time there, as part of an art project.

TAR is hoping to build a theatre on the site with a capacity of around 600 to 1,200 seats, alongside rehearsal spaces and a cafe/bar. The cost is estimated at between £18 to £25 million, excluding the price of the site itself.

However, a Prison Service spokeswoman denied access was being blocked.

“Archaeological work is currently taking place at the former Reading prison site to inform the future use and marketing of the site. The prison is not yet listed for sale and therefore no prospective bidders are able to gain access to the site,” she said.


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