By Ge­orge!

The splen­did St Ge­orge’s The­atre in Great Yar­mouth is the tri­umphant val­i­da­tion of a de­ter­mined com­mu­nity vi­sion, as RICHARD BAT­SON re­veals

EDP Norfolk - - Inside -

A for­mer chapel’s new life as a the­atre

IT IS A land­mark build­ing in the heart of a busy sea­side town whose ‘con­gre­ga­tion’ has changed from wor­ship­pers to the­atre­go­ers. Un­der the or­nate bell tower of St Ge­orge’s Chapel in Great Yar­mouth, re­li­gious hymns and pray­ers have fallen silent and have been re­placed by the sec­u­lar sights and sounds of mu­sic, movies, com­edy and drama.

The res­ur­rec­tion of the stun­ning re­dun­dant church has been an act of faith, driven by com­mu­nity vol­un­teers whose vi­sion was to re­cy­cle it into an arts cen­tre. Al­though the build­ing looks like a solid cor­ner­stone of the town’s fab­ric – sit­ting on a busy junc­tion at King Street but a stone’s throw away from the green quiet­ness of St Ge­orge’s park – its his­tory has been as dra­matic as some of the per­for­mances it now hosts.

It opened in 1721, was de­con­se­crated in 1959, de­clared re­dun­dant in 1971, con­verted to a the­atre in 1973, and closed from 2006 to 2012 for £7.5m worth of ma­jor struc­tural re­pairs in­clud­ing deal­ing with an un­sta­ble tower. Mak­ing it into a vi­able venue for the arts was the dream of the Mas­quers am­a­teur drama group, in­clud­ing em­i­nent ac­tor and di­rec­tor Henry Burke, backed by other arts and her­itage sup­port­ers in the 1970s.

Chair­man of the trus­tees Barry Cole­man says: “There was a real risk of St Ge­orge’s be­ing de­mol­ished at one stage, but the com­mu­nity was keen to save a land­mark build­ing which is close to its heart. St Ge­orge’s has been through many ups and downs over the past 300 years, but a lot of hard work has gone into turn­ing it into an arts and com­mu­nity venue.

“We have had Arts Coun­cil fund­ing to draw up a strat­egy for the fu­ture and we are now head­ing in the right di­rec­tion to­wards be­com­ing as self-suf­fi­cient as we can – but we need the com­mu­nity’s sup­port to get there,” says Barry.

Five years on, St Ge­orge’s is look­ing to move up an­other gear by ex­pand­ing its range of events, in­clud­ing re­viv­ing am­a­teur drama groups, adding more live mu­sic and start­ing a com­mu­nity choir.

The aim is to dou­ble the at­ten­dance fig­ures from 15,000 to 30,000 a year over the next five years. It is hoped to im­prove sig­nage to make more peo­ple aware of the land­mark’s new role and to pro­vide a strong link be­tween the main 300-seat the­atre and the new pavil­ion café next door.

The venue is also keen to use its at­mo­spheric ar­chi­tec­ture, in­clud­ing im­pres­sive beams and bal­conies, as a back­drop to host more wed­dings, cor­po­rate events and con­fer­ences.

Co­me­dian, ac­tor and writer Joe Pasquale has added his celebrity back­ing by agree­ing to be the venue’s new pa­tron.

The­atre di­rec­tor Deb­bie Thomp­son says: “St Ge­orge’s is a hid­den en­ter­tain­ment gem in the heart of Great Yar­mouth that seems to live in the shadow of the bright lights en­ter­tain­ment along the seafront. But we have some­thing dif­fer­ent to of­fer with a range of events in a unique set­ting. We are keen to re­mind peo­ple we are here and en­list their sup­port to carry on the work of the de­ter­mined peo­ple who res­cued St Ge­orge’s in the past”

The the­atre is keen to hear from any­one who can help grow its work through a va­ri­ety of roles and con­tri­bu­tions: spon­sor­ship; do­na­tions; fundrais­ing, vol­un­teer­ing or join­ing its new am­a­teur groups (adult and youth) and com­mu­nity choir.

St Ge­orge’s The­atre, Great Yar­mouth

Deb­bie Thomp­son

The au­di­to­rium to­day

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