New landmark theatre in Canterbury: explore the Marlowe Theatre with Kent Life

PUBLISHED: 01:16 28 September 2011 | UPDATED: 20:03 20 February 2013

New landmark theatre in Canterbury: explore the Marlowe Theatre with Kent Life

New landmark theatre in Canterbury: explore the Marlowe Theatre with Kent Life

This month the curtain rises on a spectacular new landmark theatre for Canterbury and the south east. Step inside the new Marlowe Theatre with Kent Life and take a seat...

This month the curtain rises on a spectacular new landmark theatre for Canterbury and the south east. Step inside the new Marlowe Theatre with Kent Life and take a seat

Four weeks before the official opening of the new Marlowe Theatre, Kent Life was privileged to take a behind-the-scenes look at the stuuning building that has been emerging from its wraps over the last two years in the heart of this great heritage city.

Work was still underway, but nothing could detract from the impact of award-winning architect Keith Williams bold design, which Janice McGuinness, Head of Culture and Enterprise at Canterbury City Council says was quite simply the runaway winner from the outset.

She adds: The challenge wasnt easy we wanted a striking, modern, vibrant new theatre and a dramatic destination that would be a modern icon but also relate to the nearby Cathedral.

Keith was head and shoulders above the rest and it was the one design that not only acknowledged the Cathedral, but actually embraced its existence.

But this is not just the story of an extraordinary new piece of architecture, its also one of bravery, vision and an exemplary public-private partnership

In 2009 the district council committed around 17m to the project, which Janice says was a leap of faith because there was a sizeable funding gap. Enter The New Marlowe Theatre Development Trust, which has raised 4.25m during one of the most difficult economic climates to help build Canterburys new theatre. KCC put in 2m and SEEDA a further 1.95m.

I spoke to Chairman of trustees, Peter Williams MBE, who is also President of The Canterbury Festival.

He was full of praise for the Trusts very hands-on patrons, headed up by HRH The Earl of Wessex and including Canterburys Hollywood son, Orlando Bloom, for the donors and particularly the Fundraising Campaign Board of14 high-level Kent volunteers who, Peter says, have worked their socks off. We had a complete confidence in this theatre and were involved right from the beginning some of us from as long ago as 10 years and more, he adds.

The project originally started as a refurbishment of the old theatre, a 1930s cinema more akin to a struggling seaside town than this most ancient premier city. But it became really clear early on that spending upwards of 10m on refurbishing the old theatre wouldnt bring a huge amount of value or return on our investment, explains Janice.

Given that culture was at the heart of the councils plan for regeneration of this part of the city, it made absolute sense to invest in the new Marlowe.

She adds: Cross-party support was unwavering from start to finish and unanimous, led by the chief executive Colin Carmichael it was never made a political football. Its an amazing story of unity and recognition that the 17m of investment will justify itself in the first year in terms of the estimated 22.6m each year to the local economy and the provision of nearly 300 jobs.

So what of the theatre itself? Well, its already hard to believe that there used to be a second-hand car lot and an oldtea room next door, which not only denied views of its close neighbour the Cathedral but also blocked access to the River Stour. Now a new Victoria Walkway runs by the river and goes past the ancient Dominican Priory and into Sollys Orchard, so the project has helped reinstate the public realm, too.

The 4,850sqm building is a complex pavilion and your first view is the dramatic colonnaded loggia in white-cast Dolomite stone, which forms the entrance to the multi-level glazed foyer which in turn connects all the major internal spaces to the riverside terraces and pathways. New views of the city rooftops and its Cathedral open up from the main stairs and upper levels and one particularly stunning new view has already been immortalised in watercolour by the artist John Doyle.

The flytower of the old theatre was the second tallest structure in the city after Bell Harry, the Cathedrals principal tower. The new version is 9m taller than its predecessor, allowing it to be sculpted to create a pinnacle form facing toward the Cathedral, adding accent and silhouette to the citys skyline.

Its clad in a stainless steel mesh skin held 600mm off a weathering skin of silver anodised aluminium panels, causing its surfaces to shimmer and sheen and reflect the changing skies. Internally, the double-height foyer and feature staircase lead to a stunningmain auditorium set over three levels with seating for an audience of 1,200, a 26 per cent increase in seat numbers over the old theatre. No seat will be further than 25m from stage, a great improvement over the 35m distance in the former, cinema-style auditorium.

I tell Keith that Ive never seen such a beautiful theatre, and it literally does take your breath away from the Italian-made leather seats in a bespoke red-orange that Keith describes as introducing some joy among the quite muted colours elsewhere in the building, to the dramatic timber battens in American Black Walnut on the walls.

A second smaller performance space, The Marlowe Studio (seating 150) will be able to accommodate alternative, community and educational projects and produce and present new work.

Well let Keith Williams have the final word: The Marlowe is that very rare thing a major new contemporary theatre building within a magnificent historic cathedral city. Its architecture is clearly contemporary yet it has been conceived to fit comfortably within its historic surroundings. I am confident that it will have a transformative effect on arts and culture in the south east.

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