Doncaster Grand Theatre: How re-opening a Victorian gem abandoned since 1995 could bring top productions to Yorkshire

It was once one of Yorkshire's premier entertainment venues, and even hosted George Formby..

By Grace Newton
Sunday, 3rd April 2022, 6:00 am

Built in 1899, Doncaster's Grand Theatre opened during a golden age for the stage and attracted the big names of the day. From 1963, it entered a second chapter as a bingo hall, but since 1995 it has lain derelict, a victim of unsympathetic urban redevelopment around it.

For over 30 years, there seemed little hope of it ever re-opening, and it remained in limbo thanks to a Grade II listing which meant it could not be demolished. The deteriorating frontage was sandwiched with little dignity between a dual carriageway, a transport interchange and the Frenchgate Centre.

Yet suddenly a new dawn has broken for the Grand, despite it being only a few years since another major cultural project - the building of a new theatre called Cast - was completed. Doncaster Council has been allocated £25million from the government's Levelling Up Fund, a portion of which will go towards regeneration of the town centre, and the restoration of the Grand has been identified as an opportunity to bring back pride and footfall. Funding from the Theatres Trust, who added the building to their 'At Risk' register, has boosted the capital available.

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The Friends of the Grand Theatre have been active since 2004

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Arts consultant Murray Edwards' company Theatre Search has now been commissioned to run a feasibility study to gauge interest in the Grand's future - and so far the response has exceeded expectations, with 4,000 surveys completed and 350 comments left.

Many respondents were on board with plans to make the Grand a larger venue - it already has 400 more seats than Cast - capable of hosting pop concerts, touring musical productions and major events.

"It's a different level of viability to Cast - if the stalls were removed it could accommodate 1,500 people. Commercial operators find there is a 'hole' in terms of appropriate venues for major musicals. It's a prominent building that could attract people from further afield," said Mr Edwards.

The theatre's grand frontage is now 'hemmed in' by a shopping centre and transport interchange

"There was an outcry in the past when demolition was considered, and it's hung around for 30 years. But there's a move afoot to improve the town, to drive activity, business and the night-time economy. It's easy to get to."

Although the listing requires its owners, the Frenchgate Centre, to undertake basic maintenance, the Grand would need a full restoration to return it to glory.

"It needs considerable work, It's a beautiful Victorian theatre, but there are some modifications that would need to be removed."

The consultation aims to establish whethere there was a 'market' for productions that could complement the programme on offer at Cast.

The theare is Grade II-listed but has been empty since 1995

"About 90 per cent of the people who took part want it to be brought back into use. They suggested conferences, musicals, pop, comedy. It would enhance rather than replace Cast, and offer events that are not economic for Cast to hold. The Grand is likely to bring big names to Doncaster. Some of the comments also suggested uses like an art gallery, craft shows and food stalls."

Mr Edwards is also optimistic that the building's current state could be altered through remodelling of the 1960s shopping centre, as the Frenchgate's owners are supportive stakeholders.

"It doesn't have to stay hemmed in - there is support for modifying the shopping centre to create spaces for the theatre."

An active Friends group who have been campaigning for the theatre to be saved since 2004 are also involved.

In its heyday it was intrinsically connected to the rest of the town centre before the Frenchgate complex was built

"Their study had a positive response, but it was shelved due to the plans for Cast. Now it's all surfaced again. With the effect Covid has had, much of the town centre is rundown. If Doncaster is to have a future, it needs to smarten up."

Among the Friends' 160 members is Margaret Herbert, who is now in her 80s and remembers attending shows at the Grand in the 1940s, when her grandparents would display promotional bills in their shop window in return for free tickets. She even performed on its stage once herself and remembers how vast the venue was in its pomp.

"I probably know more about the Grand than anyone now! It had such a big stage; it isn't so obvious now because the bingo hall put offices across it, but its original capacity was 1,600 and you could still get over 1,000 in there now. Doncaster is going for city status and it needs a big theatre and culture.

"A lot of the London shows will only consider venues with seating for over 1,000, so that is a barrier. We want the shows that come to Leeds and Sheffield."

The Friends hope that their passion for the Grand's history would enable them to run a small museum inside the venue should it re-open, and member Ken Waight wants to still 'play our part' after campaigning for so long.

"Pre-Covid, the Grand was a bit of a distraction for the Frenchgate Centre, but with the closures of Debenhams and other stores, they're looking at other opportunities and they see it as an asset now."

They're confident that the building is structurally sound - the 6ft thick walls were built to withstand the weight of circus elephants that once performed there - and would only need cosmetic improvements, such as removing an extension dating from the bingo years that would open up the frontage area.

Mrs Herbert has fielded constant phone calls from supporters since news that the Grand may come back to life first circulated, and the group has even received a donation from Open All Hours actor David Jason.

Two retired police officers have expressed interest in operating one of the three original bar areas as a gin bar, and there are hopes another could become a coffee shop.

Mr Waight added: "People realise it can't just re-open as a theatre as if nothing has happened in the past 25 years. It needs a multitude of uses and local involvement. We've got to be optimistic after all these years of nothingness. In the last 18 months it's all suddenly been looking positive again."