Redgraves in last-ditch fight to save their theatre

By Sara Newman
Friday 29 December 2006 01:00

The Redgrave family has joined forces with the people of a small market town to save its repertory theatre from being razed to the ground to make way for a leisure complex. Corin Redgrave described the plans to demolish the Redgrave Theatre, named after his late father, Sir Michael Redgrave, as "shameless".

Opinion in the ancient river valley town of Farnham, Surrey, has been divided over plans for a £100m 750,000sq ft (67,500sq m) concrete complex comprising an eight-screen cinema, shops, affordable housing and an underground parking facility, which would displace the bowling green.

But now that the developers, Crest Nicholson, are on the verge of being granted planning permission, saving the Redgrave has attracted renewed interest.

The neighbouring Grade-II listed Brightwells House is to be refurbished but the Redgrave may be scrapped - despite being included in the listing after it was built on council land in 1974.

More than 10,000 people - one-third of the population of Farnham - have registered their objection with the council.

Abigail McKern, an actress in Rumpole of the Bailey and a resident, said: "It's the people of Farnham against the absolutely enormous developers. I don't feel like I'm living in a democratic country."

Other celebrated theatre enthusiasts such as Judi Dench, a patron, Geraldine James and Gemma Jones have joined the Redgrave family in adding their voices to the protest.

Jemma Redgrave, who recalls cutting the ribbon at the opening of the theatre when she was six, said: "My family were thrilled to be part of it. I would be very sad to see it go. Nearly half of the [£255,000] funding came from donations from local people - and yet they were not consulted when the theatre was closed."

The theatre auditorium was built to test the design used in London's renowned Barbican Theatre, where every spectator has a clear view of the stage.

The thespian couple James Bolam and Sue Jameson have been supporting the Redgrave since it closed. He said: "It's such an excellent theatre and such a wicked waste to leave it empty and then pull it down. Actors like us know a good theatre when we work in one and the Redgrave is a great theatre. Once it goes dark it's quite easy for developers to go sniffing around."

According to the Farnham Theatre Association (FTA), the theatre closed in 1998, with many blaming council management. Despite this, for the past three summers the New Farnham Repertory Actors Company (NFPAC) has performed in a marquee outside the theatre to sell-out crowds.

The FTA have requested that Ruth Kelly, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, make a "disposal order" for the Redgrave Theatre and Brightwells House to ensure that it remains in use for the purpose for which it was originally intended.

Paul Callcutt, co-director of Crest Nicholson, argues that the development brief did not include the "derelict, boarded-up Redgrave Theatre", which would be replaced with a town square, while Brightwells House would be restored as a restaurant.

He said: "You can't stem re-generation for a bunch of people who want to save their theatre. If someone came to me with the dough then I would consider providing a theatre in the scheme. I have people ripping this scheme to shreds and wrecking a whole load of social goods."

He added: "I feel quite deeply that we have a great development here. It hits every sustainable development button that you can imagine."

Gillian Ferguson, leader of Waverley Borough Council, said: "They [opponents of the scheme] are very unhappy about change in particular. But there is no doubt that that part of town needs attention. There will be a town square and we will preserve the existing green space. There will be housing in the town centre - rather than adding to the edges of the town - with 88 affordable housing units, shopping, retail and cinema."

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