Refurb Act II Nearly Complete at Liverpool Royal Court

Posted on 28 January 2016
By Chris High
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Walking up and down Roe Street through Queens Square Bus Terminal in Liverpool city centre, you may have noticed a big job’s broken out at The Liverpool Theatre. Marketing manager Iain Christie tells Chris High what’s happening.

What was the Royal Court like as a building in which to work when you began here?

The Court was and is a lovely old venue but when we first started here it needed a lot of work. We refitted the stalls and added kitchens so that we could give people the option to dine on the night which gave the auditorium a lift but outside of that it had got a bit tatty. I don’t think that there had been any significant investment in the fabric of the building since it was built in 1938!

These latest developments and improvements have not happened over night. How long has the process taken so far, what have been the biggest challenges and how has the RC overcome the obstacles it has faced?

The Trust was established in 2008 with a plan to raise money to refurbish the venue and make the most of what is a beautiful building. They appointed the architects AHMM (who won the Stirling Prize last year) in 2009 and got their first major bit of funding a year later. The auditorium got a full refurb in 2012 thanks to Heritage Lottery money and this second part of work was part funded by the European Regional Development Fund and a loan from Liverpool City Council. I think that the biggest challenge initially was proving to the Council that we were serious about making this work. Once we had shown that we were in it for the long haul they granted us a long lease which made applying for funding a possibility. The Trust have done a brilliant job not just in raising the money but also in reassuring all interested parties that we want this to be a great building for a long time after we are dead and gone.

So, where are we at once this stage of the redevelopment is complete and what will the audiences notice?

Not just the audience but anybody walking past! This phase (Act 2) has cost £2.8m and has seen us completely remodel the front of the building. We have built a small extension at the front which has given us more space inside so we can look after the audience better. We have got a great new video screen outside which means we can get rid of the banners that covered up the front of the building and a lovely new Box Office. Another key thing is the installation of a lift so now all floors are fully accessible. A lot of people used to be surprised how good the auditorium looks after walking in through the dingy foyer and forbidding doors. Now the place looks great on the outside too.

Whilst this has been going on, The Royal Court has also been staging shows. This must have been a tricky operation it itself?

Yes, it seemed like such a good idea at the time. The plan was that the builders, MellWood Construction, would hand over to us at 4.30pm each day and we could let the audience in. It has made their job a lot harder (the site foreman has aged about ten years in the last six months) but they have done an amazing job. We needed to keep on producing shows because, although the building work is being funded, the theatre is not. If we had closed for the refurb then we might not have been in a position to re-open the business. As it turned out 2015 was one of our most successful years ever so we did well to get all of those people through the building site and into the show!

Looking at the plans, this redevelopment of the theatre will be making the building a “state-of-the-art” complex, designed with the future in mind. It must be exciting for you on a personal level to have been involved from day one?

The Royal Court has always been an exciting place to work. The boss never likes sitting still and since we took over in 2005 we have all worked hard to create something new for Liverpool. Dining before shows, home produced theatre and a new type of Christmas show were all good ideas that shouldn’t have worked but did. I’m a fan of local history and I like the idea that in years to come people will be looking back at this period as a boom time for The Court. The redevelopment will make that possible.

The Royal Court was once synonymous with live music, before becoming well known today more for its comedy shows. How is the diversity of plays and shows going to evolve in line with the evolution of the “new” Royal Court?

I think that we are going to keep doing what we do best. Comic plays, musicals and the like. We produce around 8 plays a year, each one running for four to six weeks and each year we like to take a risk on one or two that will be something new for our audience and introduce a new audience to the building. At the moment we live and die by ticket sales so the crowd pleasers will always be there but we like to think that we are not a one trick pony. The next phase of the refurb will be important as that will (hopefully) give us a new, smaller venue within the Court to try new things.

The warmth and the close proximity of the actors to the audience is always spoken highly of, as well as the high quality of the productions. How will the redevelopments enhance these aspects?

The link between the cast and the audience is really important. All of the actors are made up with the way things have been going with the building. It’s like getting their house done up! Backstage not much has changed in this phase but the Technical Director has put his shopping list in so they’ll have some nice new things to play with after Act 3.
When does the next phase begin and how long will that take?
We have recently been put through to the next stage of an Arts Council England grant application. This puts us in a really strong position to get access to a pot of around £2m. If the grant application comes off then we could be starting Act 3 in the next 18 months to two years and I guess it will be another 9 months or so of work but that will depend on the architect’s ideas. There are a lot of ifs, buts and maybes in a huge project like this so we’ll keep our fingers crossed and see how it goes.

What are you looking forward to most about the future of The Royal Court, Liverpool?

Seeing it packed out and being able to look after the audiences well. The building is already looking great but the final phase of the redevelopment will involve building a restaurant on the roof. It will be nice to go and get lunch there and look out over the city, knowing that we’ve made The Court a big part of Liverpool’s landscape again.