Bolton Octagon Theatre set for £10 million redevelopment

PUBLISHED: 00:00 19 December 2017

How The Octagon Theatre will look after a £10 million redevelopment

How The Octagon Theatre will look after a £10 million redevelopment

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The 50th anniversary of this unique Bolton theatre will involve the creation of a new centre for the performing arts. Angela Kelly reports

The Octagon Theatre in BoltonThe Octagon Theatre in Bolton

WHEN a university lecturer and a group of students first decided to build a theatre for the people of Bolton it’s unlikely they could have envisaged their legacy lasting 50 years.

Yet, Bolton Octagon Theatre has not only survived five decades but thrived beyond anyone’s wildest dreams to create a success story with an ongoing happy ending.

Even as the renowned theatre in the heart of Bolton town centre gears up for a fascinating anniversary year of celebrations, both onstage and off, plans have been announced for a £10 million building redevelopment to take it into the future.

Along its journey, the Octagon has honed acting and writing careers, launched iconic productions and won the hearts of thousands of theatregoers.

Princess Margaret officially opens the Octagon Theatre in 1967Princess Margaret officially opens the Octagon Theatre in 1967

The dream of Robin Pemberton-Pilling, an auditorium designer who originally conceived what many must have thought an outlandish plan, quickly captured the support of both the local council and local people. They helped raise funds, with bricks sold one at a time for a few pence, to fund a unique new design that wrapped the audience around the performance area.

Its main auditorium boasted a flexible theatre space and seating for between 300 and 390 that allowed the set to change, production by production, and the seating to change with it. The design brought actors and audience closer together, proving a winning combination that still marks out the Octagon’s lure for theatregoers.

It is one which will be retained when the current building closes its doors from the middle of 2018 to re-open in Autumn of 2019 when it will also boast two multi-purpose studio spaces and much-improved general facilities.

Roddy Gauld, the Octagon’s chief executive, and Elizabeth Newman, its artistic director, are unequivocal about the need for the development plan. ‘It will make the theatre totally accessible to all – people with disabilities, families, everyone,’ said Roddy.

Vanessa Kirby in a futuristic version of A Midsummer Nights DreamVanessa Kirby in a futuristic version of A Midsummer Nights Dream

He has been at the Octagon for five years and has seen the theatre – and the town – change in its attempts to shrug off recession. ‘The regeneration in the town centre and immediately outside it have made a big difference. There is a more confident feel to the town.’

Elizabeth sees the re-imagined Octagon building as a natural progression in its life. She arrived in Bolton eight years ago from the Shared Property Theatre Company and is proud to be ‘one of the maverick artistic directors there have always been at the Octagon.’

This has resulted in an eclectic mix of productions earning a reputation for pioneering theatre and a rich panoply of entertainment is still reflected in its programme with notable original productions such as Winter Hill, telling the story of a plan to sell picturesque moorland on Bolton’s outskirts.

The ambitious programme for the anniversary year includes transforming the Octagon into a railway station for the much-loved children’s classic The Railway Children with a cast of 100 youngsters.

Scale and sets have never daunted the creative staff. The theatre had a hit run of Singin’ in the Rain, complete with gallons of water and yellow macs to keep the front row of the audience dry.

Its Christmas productions are legendary, often with fascinating special effects to mesmerise youngsters. But, then, the Octagon has always gone the extra mile.

The very first production back in the 60s was a new play, Annie and Fanny, written by local playwright Bill Naughton. Only the year before, Naughton had his story Alfie adapted as a film hit. He also wrote wonderful Northern sagas like Spring and Port Wine and The Family Way.

This set the tradition of encouraging newer writers and introducing new plays to the public. Famous names like Sir Ian McKellen and Sue Johnston have not only appeared at the Octagon but remain among its staunchest supporters.

The Octagon has long encouraged local people and there are vibrant groups for young people of all ages, both performing and writing, including groups for youngsters with learning disabilities. There is also art.beat for over 50s to become involved in drama.

Elizabeth Newman is a great ambassador for promoting the work of the Octagon in the community. There is already a regular theatre project on the Willows estate and Elizabeth is particularly keen to take theatre into Bolton’s rolling parks and into the Urban Care and Neighbourhood centres (UCAN).

Next year, an adaptation of Cliff Richards’ feelgood hit film Summer Holiday involves the town’s new transport interchange and the recently renovated Albert Halls.

“This theatre was built for the people of Bolton,” stated Elizabeth. “And, in all its forms, it still belongs to them.

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