Chester’s long awaited new theatre and arts centre is scheduled to open at the end of the year. We were treated to a tour of the site by development manager Julie Platt. After putting on our hard hats and high vis jackets, the tour began with a look around the old retail units facing Northgate street which will house the children’s library.
Looking towards the end of this part of the development is the old ice cream cafe which was previously part of the Odeon. The existing library service will be moving in its entirety into the Storyhouse and will continue to run by the council. The idea of integrating the library into the centre will make sure that there are many ways that people can use the building. Late night opening will enable people to use the library in the evening or after work.
Moving through the Odeon with a great sense of nostalgia for the much loved Cinema, it struck me that with all the derelict and unused buildings across Chester, the shot tower or Dee House, this is a total contrast to that trend. Storyhouse is building a future by integrating with the city’s past and making this building come to life again.
The foyer where cinema goers once purchased tickets or popcorn will serve as the main entrance. It will be a “flexible space” where people can come and sit, read or use the wi- fi. All of the old relics from my last visit, including the ticket machine and dusty signage are gone, with the area looking empty, but ready for rebirth.
Upstairs, in the area which was previously the foyer, old memories are stirred of waiting expectedly for films to begin. This area will also be housing the library.
Next we saw the 100 seat cinema. The cinema will be housed within an intimate glazed cube and will offer a mixture of art house and contemporary films. “We will look at the programme as and when Northgate happens” says Julie. The Northgate development which goes before planning later this year after years of delay is expected to include a multi screen cinema offering , which will hopefully complement the Storyhouse.
Also of note is a roll down screen which will be viewable from the mezzanine and in the downstairs cafe area. The aim is to show ad hoc informal screenings on here, from Wimbledon to national events or celebrations. Downstairs in the vast former main Odeon screen, lots of the features have been retained. This area will be the main bar and cafe space. Using this space is going to further stir nostalgia as we remember watching films in here. I once fell asleep watching the awful “Van Helsing”, but I saw “Gladiator” several times here.
The new build will house the theatre, which will be the main attraction for many. The glass clad building will, for half a year be an 800 seat theatre offering touring productions. For the rest of the year it will be a 550 “thrust” theatre with a stage that comes out into the audience. This will offer home produced work by Storyhouse, similar to their work on the theatre in the park. The theatre stands on the site of the unpopular Commerce House, and the benefit of being an entirely new build , says Julie, is that , rather than being shoehorned into an existing build it can be built to exact specifications.
Storyhouse haven’t revealed any details of their programme yet. However circus, acrobatics and opera have been mentioned. “We’re working on building relationships, we have theatre companies keen to come to Chester” said Julie. “We’ll be looking at getting some of the things that Chester has missed out on previously. We want to get it right for the audience and put on the right programming”. Storyhouse have been working on a number of outreach schemes to generate interest in theatre and to generate a buzz about the opening. The popular Moonlight Flicks has toured various locations, and work has been done in schools.
Upstairs there will also be a smaller, studio space, which again will be flexible use. This will have a 150 seat capacity. We were also shown the backstage areas which will offer modern dressing rooms for the performers and also a great view towards the Welsh hills. A rooftop bar area will also offer views of the Town Hall and market and the soon to be defunct bus station. This area is surely going to be hit with theatre goers with its great vantage point over Chester. If everything goes to plan and the Northgate development happens, the view will change over time, and by 2019 we could/should be overlooking a new market square.
Storyhouse will be opening at the end of the year and promises to be an exciting addition to Chester life. The “all under one roof” approach will hopefully mean the centre offers something for everyone, and can serve as a hub for the city’s strong growing cultural offering.