Westlife in Durham? Fans' scepticism leaves theatre in crisis

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The Independent Online

The Pop group Westlife are more accustomed to wowing packed houses at Earl's Court than starring on a soggy winter's night in Durham. But when asked to be the debut act at a new £14m lottery-funded theatre there in January they cheerfully obliged.

The Pop group Westlife are more accustomed to wowing packed houses at Earl's Court than starring on a soggy winter's night in Durham. But when asked to be the debut act at a new £14m lottery-funded theatre there in January they cheerfully obliged.

If only the locals had believed the billing. Instead, they considered the prospect of the Irish boy band materialising to be so far fetched that they stayed away in droves, concluding that an imitation band must be on offer.

It was a catastrophic piece of scepticism. The gig, for which giant screens and a marquee were laid on, flopped and saddled the theatre's management with debts of £70,000. Just two weeks after the Queen opened the Gala Theatre, the firm went into receivership, in what must be the fastest financial calamity to beset a lottery-funded venue.

Durham City Council has now taken over from Entertainment Team, the London firm into whose hands it placed the running of the theatre, and at a creditors meeting the council's chief executive, Colin Shearsmith, voiced his shock over the Westlife flop. "The only suggestion I can see is that people did not believe Westlife were actually appearing on a Sunday night in Durham," he said. "Their management were absolutely stunned. The majority of people just didn't believe it – they thought we had a tribute band. We were shocked too. I've never ever experienced anything like the lack of interest in that event."

More than 160 creditors have still to be paid, including the council itself, which is owed £209,000.

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