The Challenge of Change: New Palace Theatre of Varieties Plymouth Restoration

By Heather Hunter, Chief Executive of GO!

The challenge of change is something that the New Palace Theatre of Varieties has always seemed to embrace with a stoic determination that has kept the building alive for over 130 years. It stands as proudly and upright today in Union Street as it did in 1898 with its quirky towers, sweeping arches and majestic columns that, although faded in their magnificence, nevertheless continue to create an aura of stability and certainty of their future.

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Inside its front doors, little used over the last decade, you step into a late 1800’s hall and stairway where the splendour of ceilings, marble floors, mahogany balustrades and incredibly well preserved plasterwork friezes cannot help but impress, even in their current state of disrepair. You do not need a guide to show you further into the building as it seems the very spirit of the place draws you into the auditorium that still stands as proudly in its neglect as it did in its hey day. The concert hall dome draws every sound up into the main space of the theatre and even now the acoustics are such that there is no need for amplification for even the quietest of sounds to resonate around the theatre. The proscenium, tier fronts and boxes sport naval military emblems, ships lights, bells and cannons; their paintwork requires restoration but their presence is as regal and imposing as it was a century ago.

If you stand in the stage area, even though there are no longer chairs in place, it takes little imagination to see the stalls, grand circle and the gods once again furbished for eager audiences awaiting the next spectacular performance. It seems that the building can speak for itself, which for GO!, the Charity who have purchased a long lease on the premises, and for myself as the Chief Executive leading the work, that is a great relief especially when you have to navigate a path of city planners, preservation societies and the requirements of building regulations. It really has been quite amazing how all the various bodies write to you as the owner telling you what you must, can or should do, but then, when they come and look around the building, are quietly but firmly lead to believe, seemingly by the pervasive and persuasive spirit of the building, that the auditorium at its heart should be restored to its original purpose, a concert hall of varieties.

The Patrons' lounge
The ornate frontage of the Palace Theatre
Volunteers for the Palace Theatre

Yes I know that all sounds rather flowery and ‘arty’, but it’s true. Somehow the Palace seems to have a strength of its own that rubs off onto anyone who works inside its walls and although there is a huge amount to do the fact is we are slowly but surely getting the work done. The first wave of work was an enforced requirement due to a council order to make the outside look less neglected and to mend a huge rear wall and stop up gaping windows. This work was completed inside the three-month notice period at an overall estimated cost in excess of £100,000 in materials and time the majority of which has been donated by our partners and dedicated team of workers, and now we are embarking on the second stage. This second stage is where we agree with planners and preservationists the pathway of the development and set the goals for the final outcome. So what are we doing? Well at present it’s a fairly straightforward plan. The concert hall auditorium is to be returned to as near as its original layout as possible with raked seating, orchestra pit and a stage suitable for professional and community performances. The patrons lounge behind the grand circle to be restored once more to the public space that it once was where people have a place to meet. The beautiful hall and sweeping stairway could perhaps house a theatrical museum of old photographs and artefacts reflecting the Palace’s past and that of the surrounding area. There are several other rooms that can provide creative spaces, perhaps a music archive as well as the charity offices.

Then there is the development of the Great Western Hotel that has a rich heritage of its own and this too we will seek to be restored in a way that reflects its past. At ground level the Hotel once housed what we would now call a secondary performance space plus a family type restaurant and bar, above it there were formerly 22 bedrooms, which could once again be redeveloped as accommodation.

Why are we doing all this work? GO! is a charity that is passionate about young people and creating jobs and opportunities for them both now and in the future. This development we will use during the building process to create new opportunities, apprenticeships and skills opportunities for young people to gain real work experience.  Once the main work has been completed then there will be opportunities for employment in catering, theatre management, administration, and customer service. We work closely with other agencies and particularly seek to assist those young people who are marginalised through physical abilities, or those who are unable to gain employment through poor life choices in the past. We are not idealists, we are simply a practical organisation who believe that every young person should have the chance to learn skills that will allow him or her to gain employment throughout their lives. Seeking out a dilapidated building like the Palace allows us to practically create jobs over a significant period of time. The fact that we have the chance to restore a beautiful theatre concert hall in the process for the people of Plymouth and the South West is a fantastic added bonus.

We have many millions of pounds of work to undertake in the next few years but with everyone’s help we will achieve it. At the moment we have a crowdfunding appeal in place to raise £15,000 that will then receive match funding to make it a £30,000 pot of money to do the first installation work on general lighting for the auditorium and of course we welcome all contributions. There is little lighting in the main auditorium area but, strangely, neither is there a gloom; it seems that the building is lit by a more anticipatory darkness that, with your help, precedes a spectacular dawn.

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Telephone: 01752 426 203