The splendid St George’s Theatre in Great Yarmouth is the triumphant validation of a determined community vision, as RICHARD BATSON reveals
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the ornate bell tower of St George’s Chapel in Great Yarmouth, religious hymns and prayers have fallen silent and have been replaced by the secular sights and sounds of music, movies, comedy and drama.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
The auditorium today