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Exclusive: 'We could have The Epstein Theatre open by October'

As the council renews its bid for an 'impresario' to take the ex-Neptune off its hands, the Royal Court is circling

Written by . Published on July 27th 2011.


Exclusive: 'We could have The Epstein Theatre open by October'

ONCE bitten twice shy doesn't apply in Liverpool. Certainly not for Royal Court boss Kevin Fearon. 

His theatre outfit made no secret of its dream to take over the newly named Epstein Theatre when the council were on the lookout for a new operator earlier this year, after a vast refurbishment. 

The idea of running a swanky new venue on Hanover Street was appealing to more than a few people. 

But the council was left holding the keys when all the amateur groups and wannabe impresarios who they had talked to about taking over the Neptune failed to turn their words into bids on paper. 

Why? Too expensive. 



The council still holds the tenancy of the theatre which started life as Crane's Music Hall and was the first choice of am-dram performances in Liverpool for decades. 

Renamed after Brian EpsteinRenamed after Brian EpsteinOriginally it was looking for someone to take over the whole thing, all the costs, including the £23k rent and £40k service charge. 

Pricey for Liverpool, Fearon believes. And he wasn't the only one. The authority received just one expression of interest. Believed to be from an organisation from outside Liverpool the bid fell through because of financial reasons. The Royal Court was one of those who had been interested but hadn't put a bid in because they felt it was just too much money. 

Disappointing, thought the council. But now its back with what it hopes is a better offer. And even better, it is putting its hand in its pocket. 

What's on the table at this Friday's cabinet meeting is a programme of tapered financial support. 

The council will retain the tenancy of the theatre. It will be liable for the rent and service charge to the landlord for the next four years. It will pay the full fees for the first year, dropping to 75 per cent in the second year, 50 per cent in the third year, 25 per cent in the fourth year before the operator takes over. I t would also have to cover staffing, marketing and programming. 

Looking at it on paper and talking to Kevin Fearon, you can't help picturing him as an eager schoolboy with his hand in the air desperate for the teacher to spot him. Sir, Mr Joe Sir, please, I've got the answer right here.



He reveals that the Royal Court, latterly the home of scouse comedies like Brick Up The Mersey Tunnels, has already been talking to smaller organisations and venues across Liverpool, finding out what sort of support there would be for them to work as operator and provide a stage for those smaller theatre and performance groups.

Royal CourtRoyal CourtRunning a venue is a big jump from running a production, particularly in the current financial climate. Extra staff to run it, a dedicated marketing team, technical support, a knowledge of health and safety. All this the Royal Court already does, he says. 

“What the theatre needs is someone who understand the city,” says Fearon. “You want to honour its history. The smaller organisations or amateur organisations, they know us, they know our name, they know how we run things. 

“The council said Christmas. We could have something on the stage by October.” 

It almost sounds too good to be true. But the Royal Court isn't the only theatre in town.

Yet publicly funded arts venues in the city have had a turbulent year already. Even a big, well known name like the Everyman and Playhouse sounded unconvinced by the idea of taking on the Epstein while the Everyman is closed.

'A smaller organisation would need
five to 10 years' support, rather than
the four the council are offering'



“We had discussions about it a few years ago,” Communications Manager Pippa Taylor told Liverpool Confidential, “but it's tricky. You have to build up a new audience in the city and then move it over to a new venue. We have direct experience of that. Gemma (Bodinetz, Artistic Director) had the same situation at Hampstead when the theatre closed for refurbishment. They found the audience wouldn't go back to the new theatre.” 

No one has approached the Everyman and Playhouse about taking over at the Epstein but it admits that financially it would be a bit tight. In some ways it is lucky the Everyman has closed for now as it has reduced costs while the storm is still crashing around the city's ears. And while more people are coming to the theatres, it's proving difficult to develop the one-off visit into a habit. 

What of the smaller fringe groups? If the Everyman has had a tricky year, then Liverpool theatre company Fuse's has been diabolical. Currently embroiled in an ongoing row with the Arts Council after its funding was removed this spring, boss Michael Quirke believes the pressure of filling a 500+ capacity venue night after night would be too much for a small company alone. 

“It's a shame the building has been left empty and it would be good to see it come back into use. But a smaller organisation would need five to 10 years' support, rather than the four the council are offering. We might have a show every two, three or five years that would really sell out in that venue, but nothing regularly enough”. 

A consortium, or the chance to showcase the work of the smaller theatre groups with a financial backer, exactly what the Royal Court says it is ready to do, is what Quirke believes is the best option. 

“If you had a mixture from across the city, shows from schools say. It's what the theatre was always for.” 

Kevin FearonKevin FearonAcross the city centre at Blundell Street, the Lantern Company is musing over its own new owners, who will be unveiled next week. The current operators are selling up and there have been over 30 expressions of interest. 

"I think there is real potential for the (Epstein) theatre,” says Events Manager Anna Hudson. “We had so much interest in here from touring companies. They're really looking for a new base and a new venue where they can start making some money.” 

But can the Neptune/Epstein really be a money spinner? The theatre operated at a loss when it was run by the local authority. Each year the black hole increased by a staggering £250,000. There are few organisations who could absorb that kind of debt year in year out. 

That isn't going to put off The Royal Court who say they are ready to throw their hat back in the ring and renew their offer to the council. 

“If we operate it. They know us. They trust us. We know what audiences want”.

 

*Follow Laura Brown @finny23 on twitter

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AnonymousJuly 29th 2011.

"If we operate it. They know us. They trust us. We know what audiences want”.
Is that so? So we want crass "Scouse" so-called funny productions as is the Royal Court's staple?.. Don't we all just love their stereotypical Scouse humoured productions? Brick up the Mersey - Brick up the misery more like!

Iain ChristieJuly 29th 2011.

But that is what the audience want. If the majority of the theatre going audience in Liverpool wanted what you may prefer to call "traditional" theatre shows then the Royal Court would be funded and the other venues wouldn't be.

If you are going to be snobbish about it then direct your complaints to the funding bodies and up your tax payments accordingly. Otherwise, accept that there is a wide range of shows on offer to suit a wide range of people in Liverpool.

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