Britain's richest landowner has enraged amateur actors with plans for one of his stately homes that could spell the end for a historic theatre in its grounds.
The conflict concerns the Grade II-listed Stanford Hall, which was bought by the Duke of Westminster for an undisclosed amount in 2011. The 61-year-old aristocrat plans to turn the 360-acre estate, near Loughborough, in Leicestershire, into the UK's biggest rehabilitation centre for the treatment of wounded soldiers and civilians.
The £300m scheme, which hopes to rival the Ministry of Defence's Headley Court centre for injured personnel, includes a trail for amputees learning to use handcycles, an underwater treadmill, a neurological centre and a prosthetic workshop for artificial limbs.
But, unexpectedly, this laudable project has put the Duke, who is estimated to be worth around £7.3bn, in conflict with amateur dramatic societies from across Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire.
His redevelopment scheme doesn't include any plans to restore the theatre in the 18th-century hall, which has been used by am-dram societies in the area for almost half a century.
A petition has been launched under the umbrella of the Stanford Hall Users Group to lobby the Duke to allow the property's theatrical tradition to continue.
The chairman of the campaign, Roy Ainscough, said the fight was on to reopen the 352-seat, 1930s theatre for performances. Mr Ainscough, who is a member of the Keyworth Dramatic Society, said the petition has been signed by supporters around the world and 12 am-dram groups have put their objections in writing to the borough council, which still has to give permission to build the rehab centre.
"We have two objectives: the first is to get them to restore the entire theatre, and the second is to give access to community groups to perform there, as they have done for the last 50 years," he said. "It's a 1930s gem. I don't think there's anything else like it in the country. It has bucket seats and a Wurlitzer organ that comes out of the floor. This is not just for the amateur-dramatic groups – it's for all the people who have been attending their performances as well."
The theatre was built in 1936 by a local businessman, Sir Julien Cahn, who had bought Stanford Hall eight years earlier. Sir Julien, a part-time magician, used the venue to entertain members of Leicester Magic Circle. He installed the Wurlitzer, acquired from the Madeleine Theatre in Paris.
After Sir Julien's death in 1944, the theatre's ownership passed through a number of hands and it started to be used by amateur-dramatic groups. Over the next 50 years, names such as Prunella Scales would grace its stage.
But the theatre closed in 2004 when its then owner, the property developer Charles Rayns, died. Hopes that it would open for use again appeared to be dashed when the Duke of Westminster, a former head of the Territorial Army, donated Stanford Hall to be transformed into the Defence and National Rehabilitation Centre (DNRC).
Lawrence Holmes, from the Falcon Players, who have been performing at the theatre since 1957, said it would be a "disaster" if the theatre now closed for good.
"In Loughborough, it means a lot, because there's not much alternative. We've performed at other venues since it closed but they're never the same, so we're holding out for the theatre to reopen," he said.
A spokesman for the DNRC planning team promised that the theatre would be preserved in its present form, but said that decisions about fully restoring it so it could be opened for use by amateur dramatic groups would not be made before 2018.
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