Joyce McMillan: Birth of a new look Perth

Perth's wonderful old theatre is set to become the heart of a hub for artistic creation when its renovation is complete

An artist's impression of the theatre on Perth's High Street

It first opened in 1900, a perfect little gem of a late Victorian theatre in Perth’s High Street. The Perthshire Advertiser described it as “beautiful by day, and absolutely gorgeous by night”; and for more than a century – under leaders like Marjorie Dence, the late, great Joan Knight and, more recently, the gifted director Rachel O’Riordan – Perth Theatre has been offering fine professional drama to the people of Perthshire and beyond, and helping to launch the careers of actors including Alec Guinness, Edward Woodward, Ewan McGregor and Donald Sutherland.

If you step into the theatre’s exquisite auditorium today, though, you’ll see a completely different picture. The old seats are gone, most of the gilded plasterwork is currently behind protective boarding, and a team of a dozen builders, plasterers and joiners from Robertson Construction are intensely focused on the job of giving this gorgeous space the most thorough upgrade and refurbishment in its 116 year history.

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It’s detailed, hand-crafted work, for the most part; the builders have been calling on the skills of retired craftsmen around Perth to examine and explain the old plastering, gilding and construction techniques that will be needed to restore the auditorium, and they are carefully preserving the traces of Perth theatre history they find during the work, including old 1930s lemonade bottles and tickets discarded in the stalls, and the names of painters and plasterers from before the First World War scratched into old door-frames and walls. The upper circle will be reopened, increasing the capacity of the theatre from 460 to 512, even while the seats in the stalls are replaced in a more spacious style; there will be new entrances, staircases and lifts offering easier access, including a spectacular new hanging stair with a glass wall to the historic Cutlog Vennel, on the theatre’s western side.

And all of this is only one part of the massive £16.6 million transformation now underway at Perth. Outside, the old restaurant extension, with the workshops below it, has already been demolished, and all its masonry and brickwork preserved, ground down, and used to provide the foundation for a spectacular new extension facing Mill Street at the back of the theatre, designed by Richard Murphy Architects, and set to create a gleaming modern entrance and foyer (although the canopied Victorian entrance from the High Street will also be retained), two floors of bar and restaurant space, a new 200-seat studio theatre, and a dedicated rehearsal room and base for the theatre’s youth and community companies. Some £15.1 million has been raised for the project from Creative Scotland, Perth & Kinross Council, the Gannochy Trust, the Heritage Lottery Fund, and a range of other trusts and supporters; and now, the theatre is working hard to raise the final £1.5 million.

“The theatre’s set to reopen at the end of 2017,” says Gwilym Gibbons, who arrived from Shetland 18 months ago as the new chief executive of Horsecross Arts, the company that runs both Perth Theatre and the city’s concert hall, “and we’re determined that it will become a buzzing, lively hub for artistic creation. We are passionate about generating and supporting new work, as well as offering a varied programme in the main theatre, and we hope we’ll be able to build up a range of creative partnerships that will enable us to do that, even in challenging times for arts funding.

“I believe that continued funding support to non-building-based artists and makers is vital; and that’s why I believe that large arts institutions like Horsecross, which have buildings at their disposal, have a responsibility to do all we can to raise funds through other means – whether it’s at the box office, or through our bars and restaurants, or through conferences – and free up resources for those creating new work, often through creative partnerships and collaborations. When the new entrance is complete, it will open onto a pedestrianised Mill Street that offers immediate access to the concert hall, just two minutes away; and that creates obvious scope for using the two buildings together as a venue for festivals and conferences.”

Gibbons and the Horsecross team were particularly delighted by the success of their recent collaboration with the National Theatre of Scotland on the First World War drama The 306: Dawn, staged in a barn seven miles outside the city, and both Gibbons and the NTS say they hope to pursue future partnerships. During her time at Perth, Rachel O’Riordan also developed a relationship with the Play, Pie And Pint lunchtime theatre at Oran Mor, and that, too, seems likely to continue under the theatre’s newly-appointed artist director Lu Kemp, who is set to take up her full-time appointment next year, when Perth Theatre reopens after its four-year closure. Announcing Kemp’s appointment back in March, Horsecross chair Magnus Linklater praised her brilliant record in Scottish theatre, as director of shows like the Lyceum’s 2014 version of Bondagers; and she too shares the vision of Perth Theatre as a creative hub for what’s currently one of Scotland’s fastest growing cities.

“The transformed theatre’s doors will be wide open to the local community and to artists across Scotland,” she said on her appointment. It will be a place of dialogue and debate, a place where all sectors of the local community can meet, participate in, and be entertained by brilliant, accessible and inspiring theatre, and where, in conversation with our local audiences, artists have the support to develop their art-forms in exciting and unexpected ways.”

And as Kemp prepares to continue an outstanding tradition of successful women artistic directors at Perth Theatre, the work of restoring one of Scotland’s best-loved theatre spaces continues; but now, in a context that might just give a whole new lease of life to Perth’s great theatre tradition, well into the new millennium.