There are several buildings in Alnwick which hold its community together and there’s one which really makes the town a truly great place to live.
To imagine where Alnwick would be without its iconic Playhouse is quite hard. Originally built in 1925, the two-storey structure was home to a 700-seat cinema which entertained the county for more than 50 years.
Its closure in 1979 was due to a change in public taste but, 36 years later, the building and the range of vibrant entertainment it produces makes it, arguably, one of the best venues in the North East.
This year marks not only nearly a century since it was built, but today marks 25 years since the Playhouse was reopened by the Northumberland Theatre Company (NTC).
The current chairman of the Playhouse Development Trust and former Duchess’s Community High School headteacher, Roy Todd, said that several people have made an important contribution to the place over the years.
“The first person to take some action which eventually resulted in the Playhouse, although he didn’t realise it at the time, was Martin Houghton, the artistic director of NTC,” said Roy.
“He persuaded the Alnwick District Council to abandon its intention to demolish the building to create space for secure housing and instead buy it for NTC.
“The council did, at a cost of £30,000 and gave it to NTC. It also gave NTC an interest-free loan in order to carry out some alterations.”
NTC did not need the entire building and it was Bill Hugonin who gathered together a small group of like-minded people to lease the upper floor of the venue for what became the Alnwick District Playhouse Trust.
Roy added: “There would be no Playhouse were it not for Bill Hugonin.
“It is his lasting legacy to the town and the town in turn owes him an enormous debt of gratitude.
“He had the vision, the drive and energy, the ability to find funding in a variety of ways and the skill to convince the Alnwick District Council and the community at large that this was a worthwhile project.
“He had some help from Fred Calvert, who becane chairman of the Friends, Norman Luke, Don Watson, Alf Groome , Alnwick District Council chief executive, several chairmen of the council Roy Smith, Albert Davidson, Hugh Philipson and then myself.”
The trust’s first theatre manager, Steve Cowton, was also a major part of the venue’s transformation.
Steve acted as an unpaid voluntary clerk of works while the dirty, derelict, auditorium was transformed into the theatre we see today, with the additional skill of the theatre architect Jon Bush.
When the Playhouse reopened on December 12, 1990, Steve became the theatre manager and for almost 17 years he ran the place almost single-handedly.
“We were not certain the project could succeed. Steve made sure it did and to him we owe the second debt of gratitude,” said Roy.
One of the biggest reasons that the venue has become such a great community venue is due to its Friends scheme, which Fred Calvert did sterling work building up.
The numbers were in excess of 1,000 by 1994.
Roy said: “Fred’s support at the box office, fund-raising and stewarding duties was invaluable.”
The two principles on which the Playhouse was based remain today.
It would be a venue for community groups to perform, as well as being a place for professional touring groups to come.
It would cover every arts genre and every sub section of each genre.
Secondly it would refrain from being elitist and accommodate every taste and interest.
As time went on, it became a cinema by acquiring the projection equipment from the Corn Exchange when the cinema there closed.
Bondgate Gallery found a new home in the Playhouse. Several community groups were spawned there, including including the Alnwick Playhouse Youth Theatre which is still going strong today.
In more recent times, the advent of digital cinema and streaming by satellite, enhanced lighting and the cafe have widened the appeal of the venue.
Roy said: “The current theatre manager Joanne Potts and her staff have ensured the Playhouse has continued to prosper and grow with record footfall, box office takings and an annual turnover in excess of £600,000.
“But none of this would have been possible without Bill Hugonin and Steve Cowton.”
The current chairman of NTC, Bryan Ellis, added: “We should celebrate 25 years of what is an incredibly important resource to the area – that people should not take the Playhouse or Northumberland Theatre Company for granted and that the community will have to continue to support it as well as they have done in the past if they want to keep it.
“The current negotiations with Northumberland County Council provide a real opportunity to secure the future of both The Playhouse and Northumberland Theatre Company and we are looking forward to another 25 years of serving Alnwick and district.”
To ensure another 25 years, or even another 90 years, of great community entertainment, people are needed to help support Alnwick Playhouse.
As a registered charity, it receives just 10 per cent of the total annual income it needs from the local authority and public funders.
Ticket sales generate 64 per cent of income and 16 per cent comes from the new café/bar and other sales – but the Playhouse has to find £50,000 each year in fund-raising just to keep going.
There are a variety of ways to help support the Playhouse.
One is through a Friends membership, which comes with benefits including a discount on cinema and selected live and streamed shows.
To find out more about how to help, contact the box office on 01665 510 785 or visit www.alnwickplayhouse.co.uk/support-us