Viability Study is 'biggest step forward in 25 years' for campaign to re-open Doncaster Grand Theatre

Plans are being drawn up for a ‘viability study’ into re-opening Doncaster’s historic Grand Theatre.

Wednesday, 2nd June 2021, 6:15 am

The Theatres Trust has agreed to put £11,500 towards the project which would look at how the Victorian landmark could be re-opened successfully in the future.

Campaigners who have fought to restore the building believe it the biggest step forward in their battle in the 25 years since the venue was closed down.

The Theatres Trust confirmed it was giving a grant to Doncaster Council for the project, while the cabinet member in charge of culture at the local authority has told the Free Press he wantes to bring the theatre ‘back to life’

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Grand Theatre, Trafford way, Doncaster.
Grand Theatre, Trafford way, Doncaster.

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See inside Doncaster's former Grand Theatre that has stood empty for 25 years

Margaret Herbert, who chairs Friends of Doncaster Grand Theatre, said it was the biggest move forward she had seen in the campaign to bring the theatre back into being in 25 years.

The venue, which is next to the Frenchgate Centre and opposite Doncaster Railway Station, was closed in 1995, having been used as a bingo hall in its latter years. It was listed the same year.

Mrs Herbert said she believed proposals for re-opening the venue could work around it operating as a multi-use venue, potentially holding any activities from boxing and wrestling to choir concerts, as well as theatre productions.

Director of the Theatres trust Peter Longman visiting the Grand Theatre in Doncaster in 2000

It could also potentially serve as a conference venue, as well as a cafe in the daytime and a bar in the evening, she added, and said she saw it as a way of increasing the arts and culture offering of Doncaster.

She said Dr David Wilmore, an expert specialising in the restoration of historic theatres, had said the capacity of the Grand was originally 1,600, but if it was re-opened in modern times it would be less because of poor Victorian sightlines and disabled access.

"The Grand would seat 900 to 1,000 people,” she said.

“We understand that the building itself is in reasonable condition. But it is a mess inside and needs extensive restoration work.

"But we’ve been told that there are no structural problems with the building.

"It was originally a circus hall and the base of the walls were 6ft thick, strong enough to take the weight of elephants.

"I think this is the biggest step forward we have seen so far as far as re-opening The Grand is concerned.”

She said she was now optimistic about the chances of it being brought back into use, and it had good access from public transport.

The Grand opened on March 27, 1899 with the opening show being La Poupee which had previously been on stage in London, and the venue survived bomb damage during World War Two.

Many well known names performed on its stage, including George Formby, Morecambe and Wise, Arthur Askey, Wilfred Pickles, Winifred Atwell and Max Miller. Julie Andrews has also performed in the theatre, as did both of her parents who were in the panto in 1938, with baby Julie in the dressing room as they performed.

But it stopped showing stage productions in 1961, when it was converted into a bingo hall. It was finally close altogether in 1995.

A spokesman for the Theatres Trust said: “An ornate Grade Two listed Victorian theatre with strong community support, Doncaster Grand has been on the Theatres at Risk Register since the list started in 2006. Doncaster Council has been awarded a Theatres at Risk Capacity Building grant to part-fund a viability study for the theatre.

"The study will be led by the local authority with involvement from the Friends of Doncaster Grand Theatre and the building owner, Frenchgate Limited Partnership.”

Coun Nigel Ball, the Doncaster Council cabinet member in charge of culture at the authority was delighted with the move, and hopes that the 122 year old venue can contribute to the regeneration of the town centre.

Coun Ball, cabinet member for public health, leisure, culture and Planning, said he and colleagues at the authority were delighted that their bid for funding had been successful.

He said: “The Grand Theatre is a much loved building in the heart of Doncaster town centre which we want to help bring back to life with our partners the Friends of Doncaster Grand Theatre, the Frenchgate Shopping Centre who own the building and the Theatres Trust.

“The grant will help us commission a study to identify potential viable options for its future so it can hopefully play its part in complementing the recently completed train station forecourt redevelopment nearby and the many other regeneration schemes we are undertaking to revitalise Doncaster town centre like the Danum Gallery, Library and Museum and the new Savoy Doncaster leisure complex in our Civic and Cultural Quarter.”

Karen Staniforth, the general manager at the Frenchgate Shopping Centre, added: “Although it’s early days, this is a positive step forward for the future preservation of the Grand Theatre. It will contribute to the wider plans for the Frenchgate Shopping Centre and Doncaster town centre.”

If the Grand Theatre was to re-open in the future it would add the existing theatre offer in the town centre

The borough already has the modern Cast theatre, at Sir Nigel Gresley Square, which was opened in 2013.

The 620-seat theatre was built with £20m funding from Doncaster Council and a further £2m from Arts Council England. It replaced the Doncaster Civic Theatre, which was closed earlier the same year.

And the small Doncaster Little Theatre, which runs largely amateur productions from its site on King Street, opened in 1995.

In these confusing and worrying times, local journalism is more vital than ever. Thanks to everyone who helps us ask the questions that matter by taking out a subscription or buying a paper. We stand together. Liam Hoden, editor.