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Theatre makes blockbuster comeback

THE difference is obvious on first sight of the new-look Live Theatre on Newcastle Quayside, which after a £5.5m refurbishment and extension recently re-opened with the debut of Lee Hall’s The Pitmen Painters.

It’s live and kicking again – Barbara Hodgson takes a look at the opening act of a revamped ‘new writing theatre’.

THE difference is obvious on first sight of the new-look Live Theatre on Newcastle Quayside, which after a £5.5m refurbishment and extension recently re-opened with the debut of Lee Hall’s The Pitmen Painters.

It’s far bigger, taking over five listed buildings, including the old maritime museum, with its main entrance now farther up Broad Chare. Local chef Terry Laybourne is opening a restaurant next door.

Inside is a fascinating mix of old and new, with medieval stonework and exposed beams sitting surprisingly comfortably with 21st Century features including a new studio theatre.

The area of the foyer’s new bar used to be an outside alley once used by horses and carts.

Exterior windows are now inside and decorative pebbles fill the ruts of ancient drains exposed during the lowering of the floor of an adjoining lounge – a cosy room of oranges and browns, furnished with sofas, rugs and lamps.

Because of the protected status of the buildings, it’s been painstaking work. It started in 2005 and closed the theatre for a year. A glass atrium – giving great views over the city as you climb the stairs – links the buildings, but only when the floor levels slope suddenly do you realise you have entered another building.

The second and third floors have offices, writers’ rooms and rehearsal spaces and an exhibition of work by real-life pitman painter Oliver Kilbourn temporarily occupied the room now taken over by art and craft company Designed & Made.

Anyone worried that this unique venue might have lost something of its intimate appeal will find the auditorium – now on the left inside the entrance, past the new box office – has a very similar feel to the original.

Its bar may have gone, but theatregoers can still take in their drinks from the foyer bar.

And just 10 more seats have been added – where the stairs to the balcony used to be. The balcony, like elsewhere, now has lift and wheelchair access.

Initial audience feedback has been hugely positive, says marketing and press officer Amy Mellstrom.

“It’s been brilliant. We’re so pleased people like it as much as we do. While we were
closed we kept in touch with people and now we’ve got our audience back.

“On the first night when our front of house manager announced the doors were now open, she giggled as she was so excited!

“The theatre is all about local people. It’s accessible and it’s not expensive to come here. It has changed, but I don’t think the feel of Live Theatre has changed.”

The Pitmen Painters has had its run extended, due to overwhelming public
demand.

The play, about the group of Ashington miners who took art appreciation classes between the wars and produced paintings which made the art world sit up and take notice, set a box office record, with 56% of tickets sold before opening night.

It attracted rave reviews and quickly sold out but, with an extra week of performances added from next Tuesday, it now runs until Saturday, November 3 (with one matinee on the final day).

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