Creating a new theatre complex is a rare event in the 21st Century. Completing the build during a pandemic, which saw theatre doors firmly closed and most building work restricted for long periods, would be an exceptional achievement.
Yet that is exactly what has happened in Prescot, Merseyside, where tickets will soon go on sale for the opening season at the Shakespeare North Playhouse.
The Playhouse was a vision which some thought would never become reality. Years of planning and fundraising by the Shakespeare North Trust, Knowsley Borough Council (of which Prescot is part) and other partners have proved the cynics wrong. It has drawn wide support from the arts world, including actor Dame Judy Dench and screenwriter Frank Cottrell-Boyce.
Substantial public funding and private donations have made it possible. This includes major investments from Knowsley Council, Liverpool City Region and the Government. Grant-making trusts and many individuals have also contributed to the scheme.
Prescot was seen as the perfect place for the development. The Elizabethan market town had the earliest known, purpose-built freestanding theatre outside London. Ironically, this theatre was built in the late 1590s when London theatres were closed due to the Plague and companies of actors went on tour.
Prescot also sits cheek by jowl with Knowsley Park, home to the Stanley family – the Earls of Derby - who were patrons of Shakespeare and had their own theatre troupes, including Lord Strange’s Men. Edward Stanley, the current Earl of Derby, is a supporter of Shakespeare North, continuing the family connection.
Main contractors Kier Construction began work on the site (a former car park) in 2019. By early 2020 the outline of the building was beginning to take shape – just as the Covid 19 pandemic emerged. Work continued on schedule through lockdowns and other restrictions.
A 58-meter-high crane became an unlikely star of the build, dominating the skyline. For 20 months it towered above the spire of the nearby Parish Church, itself once a landmark for ships sailing up the River Mersey.
It wasn’t just the bright red crane that attracted attention. An optimistic sign fixed to it showed a classic image of Shakespeare, plus a two-word slogan: ‘To Be’. The sign, which led to the crane being affectionately known locally as Toby, has been retained for display at the new theatre.
Externally, Shakespeare North Playhouse is a strikingly dramatic three-storey building. Some sections of the outer walls are angled in a brick representation of an Elizabethan ruff. Elsewhere there are full height windows and to the side a piazza which will be a public space alongside the town centre.
At the rear of the main building is an outdoor performance garden, created with the help of funding from the Sir Ken Dodd Charitable Foundation Trust. Comedian Sir Ken, from nearby Knotty Ash, was an early supporter of the development. Following his death, his widow Lady Anne Dodd, provided additional funds for the tiered stone seating. Risers on the steps are inscribed with quotes from Shakespeare and Sir Ken.
Internally, the undoubted gem is the auditorium, based on the 17th century cockpit-in-court theatres created by Inigo Jones. The solid oak structure has been designed by Peter McCurdy who constructed The Globe and Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in London.
Individual elements of the framework were created by McCurdy and his team at his workshop using historic carpentry practices, including joints to be held in place by wooden pins, rather than nails or screws. Sections were then assembled inside the new building to form a flexible auditorium able to seat between 320 and 472.
Beyond the auditorium, there will be display spaces telling the story of Elizabethan Prescot and the creation of the new theatre. A 60-seat studio theatre will be available for visiting productions and community use. A learning centre, space for exhibitions and events, shop, café and bar are also included.
While it is expected the Playhouse will attract visitors from near and far, there is also a clear intention it will be an asset for the local community. This aim is reflected in plans for the grand opening weekend described below.
Schools and community groups have already been involved in events linked to the development. Most recently, they helped to create a unique feature for the Playhouse shop: a display wall of 360 ceramic pots based on the containers once used to collect entry fees for performances. The sealed boxes kept the coins secure and the room where they were stored is thought to be the origin of the term Box Office.
Shakespeare North Playhouse opens its doors in mid-July with a weekend of free celebration activities, events and guided tours for the whole community. The opening will be the highlight of Knowsley’s year as Borough of Culture in the Liverpool City Region.
A packed programme over the following months includes productions by celebrated local theatre group Imaginarium, a Shakespeare Schools Festival and evenings of comedy and music. Two stars from the City Region – producer and screenwriter Jimmy McGovern and comedian and actor Johnny Vegas - will each host an evening of entertainment at the end of July.
In September, the three winners of the national As You Write It competition will see their scripts become the first plays to feature in the main auditorium. As You Write It, for young people aged 7 to 16, ran in partnership with BBC’s The One Show to find a new generation of dramatists. Judges praised the high standard of entries.
The first Shakespeare play to be staged will be A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a co-production with Northern Stage and Not Too Tame. It’s a fitting choice. The play is thought to have had its premiere in Greenwich in 1595 as part of the wedding celebrations for William Stanley (6th Earl of Derby) and Elizabeth De Vere.
Tickets for the first season are on sale now. For full details see https://shakespearenorthplayhouse.co.uk/